The Fatal Temptation of “Best Practices”

BY Jeff Cobb

Beware Best Practices - Figure at Mouse Trap

I find it is very common for clients and prospective clients to want visibility into the “best practices” of other organizations. It’s an understandable desire: why reinvent the wheel, or worse yet, make unnecessary mistakes when you can learn from what other organizations have already done? An understanding of best practices can save a lot of effort.

Problems almost always arise, however, when organizations are tempted to apply “best practices” in the one key area where they cannot be applied:


By their nature, best practices are about how to do things right. How to organize a Webinar, for example, or execute a new type of conference session, or select a learning management system.

Strategy, on the other hand, is about determining the right things to do. No matter how much you may be able to learn about organizing a Webinar, offering a certain type of conference session, or deploying an LMS, the fact that other organizations, no matter how similar, do these things well tells you little to nothing about whether your organization ought to do them.

Following “best practices” may make your organization very effective operationally. You may become great at delivering Webinars, or just-in-time learning experiences, or highly collaborative conference sessions, but if these don’t align with what your market actually wants and needs, you will operate yourself right into the ground.

And even if the best practices you identify do somehow represent what your market needs, as Michael Porter argued long ago, operational effectiveness is not sufficient when it comes to strategy. You must be different. Best practices, by their nature, do not make you different. They make you – do I have to say it? – the same. If your market is even the least bit competitive (and I guarantee you it is), best practices will not be enough to stand you out.

Finally, the really tricky thing about markets is that they evolve. “Best practices” typically represent a snap shot in time; it is rare that they hold their value for the long haul in our fast-paced world. Good strategy accounts for being different from your competitors now, and it is also flexible enough to adapt as the market changes.  A blind focus on best practices tends, in my experience, to stunt an organization’s strategic adaptability.

So, search out best practices. Use them where appropriate , but don’t confuse following best practices with actually having a strategy. Plunging ahead based on the idea that doing things right is the same as doing the right things can have fatal consequences.


This post was originally posted in 2013 at and was written by Jeff Cobb.

Additional Reading:

  1. Ted O'Neill says:

    It looks like the Gilfus Education Group is more interested in “sleazy practices” like scraping other people’s content. Seems they have “repurposed” your post here

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