Time to drop the term “best practices”

When the term “best practices” was first used in the early 90’s, it was generally understood to mean, “These are the practices that will result in real improvements in effectiveness.” By 1998, when Arthur Andersen published the book, Best Practices, Building Your Business with Customer-Focused Solutions, the dust jacket advertised,

What makes the world’s top companies so adept at providing stellar customer service? How do they meet the needs of every customer and still turn healthy profits? And, most important, how can you adapt their practices to fit your business?

Implicit in that statement was the assumption that stellar customer service was correlated with being one of the world’s top companies. As my logic teacher would have pointed out, that is an example of a cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Nonetheless, consultants have continued to use the term, and now apply it to just about any practice or process they’d like you to adopt. What has happened over the years is that even the tenuous relationship between results and practice has been dropped, and the term is now applied fairly indiscriminately without the need to prove that the results will be realized from changing practice or process. I have seen process auditors apply the term “best practices” to what is, after all, simply their opinion that their recommendation is preferable, not that it will result in better, or measurable, outcomes.

So, perhaps the time has come to eliminate the term “best practices” from our vocabulary. As the B2B CFO® partner for companies in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Ohio, my experience is that few consultants come through the door with evidence-based recommendations. I’ve always asked consultants about the proof underlying their “best practices” recommendations, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the times that a consultant had evidence that would meet the elementary rules of logic. In other words, causation, not correlation.

In place of the depreciated term “best practices” I’d like to suggest “outcomes-based recommendations.” That’s a much higher standard of proof. A consultant should be able to show you, “if you do A, you will see B,” i.e. that the effect leads to the outcome. If they can’t, if all they can say is “leading companies do this, and we can show you how,” just be aware that they’re not promising results. As the website Despair.com puts it, “Consulting: If you’re not a part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.”

B2B CFO® partners work with the owners and entrepreneurs to take their companies to a higher level of success with our proven six-step process, the GamePlan™.

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