The Art of Practice

“Steven Humphrey, you sit right back down on that piano bench and do your scales.  Practice makes perfect, you know.”  That was my mother speaking, some terribly many years ago.  Like the piano, that aphorism has stuck with me over time.  It sounds right, doesn’t it?  But if there is any truth in it, why is there so much imperfection in the business world, especially in light of how routinely the term “best practice” gets hurled about? Vendors tell us that their products conform to and promote best practice.  We consultants advertise our services as best practice.  Governance committees establish best practices for their enterprises.  It is easy to search the Internet for lists of best practices on just about any topic. The term is ubiquitous, but what does it really mean?  And how does one recognize a best practice?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a word wonk (and I promise at least one linguistic rant here soon).  In this case, I know very well that I am playing with two shades of meaning of the word “practice.”  On the one hand, practice is a routine activity used to improve a skill, like practicing scales at the piano.  On the other, it is a standard or habitual way of doing something, as in “it is our practice to begin and end meetings on time.”  So I ask again, why the imperfection?  I submit that the fault is not just in the aphorism but also in the way we think about the words.

First, I abhor the term “best practice.” I find hubris in the term “best,” as if a practice could be best at all, let alone best in all cases.  Further, there is a subtle implication that it cannot be improved upon; it is best.  It rings like an absolute that nobody should dare challenge. It is limiting and not very useful.  I prefer the term “leading practice.”  The word “leading” brings to mind something that is out in front but not yet arrived.  It leaves open the possibility of variation and seems more welcoming to debate and difference of opinion.   It is a work in process, striving for continual improvement and…well, leading somewhere, not unlike the other meaning of practice.  For the balance of this piece, therefore, “best” will be “leading.”

A leading practice is an activity or repeated action that is considered to be more effective in delivering a desired result than other activities of its kind. This is a rather broad definition and can mean a lot of things absent an understanding of the characteristics of a leading practice.  I had the opportunity some time ago to develop a group exercise to demonstrate how to recognize a leading practice.  The concept was that each organization is a unique ecosystem and an activity that is more effective in one company may not be so in another.  But with an understanding of the characteristics to look for, an organization would know how to identify, craft, and improve their leading practices.

In the first cut of the exercise, I came up with eighteen characteristics.  I stand by all of them (and I have the data to do that), but eighteen is too many for the scope of this article.  Therefore, here are what I consider to be the top eight characteristics of a leading practice.

  1. The practice promotes or enforces consistency.  This applies to consistency of data, processes, decision-making, and much more. Consistency breeds clarity and lowers the cost of maintenance.  Consistency should be distinguished patently from uniformity.
  2. The practice reveals priorities and fosters clarity of direction and alignment.  Most activities in a company should be focused on achieving strategic objectives.  Leading practices keep the collective eye on the ball.
  3. The practice reveals discrepancies and reduces error and ambiguity.  This reduces the cost of rework and troubleshooting, and improves the quality of decision-making.  It also facilitates precision across an enterprise.
  4. The practice promotes continued relevance.  What is relevant today may not be tomorrow, and conversely.  Does the activity include a continuous or periodic check to determine if the outcome or end product is still meaningful to the business?
  5. The practice reduces risk.  Life is full of risk and not all of it can be controlled.  But an activity that addresses controllable risk on a consistent basis adds tremendous value.
  6. The practice facilitates competitiveness.  Does the activity improve competitiveness in the marketplace across one of the vectors of price, quality, and value?
  7. The practice promotes awareness and accountability for results.  These activities provide appropriate measurements for results along with a means for driving improvements.
  8. The practice promotes sustainability.  This supports the ongoing health of a program or organization, not simply short-term objectives.

Clearly, these characteristics are driven by desired behaviors and results.  The behaviors are the habits and disciplines on the human side while the results represent the business outcome of the practice or activity. Any single leading practice will not possess all of these characteristics, but must embody at least several of them in order to be considered a leading practice.  This is one reason why my original list of eighteen is realistic; it provides a breadth of behaviors and outcomes against which to match the practice within a particular organizational ecosystem. I look forward to performing my exercise with other groups of people and seeing how the list might evolve over time.

Note also that while each of these characteristics is distinctly different from the others, each also overlaps with others in subtle and complex ways.  For instance, risk reduction is really an outcome of several of these characteristics.  Relevance is a function of direction and strategic alignment.  The reduction of ambiguity leads to consistency.  And so it is across the larger collection.  The characteristics of a leading practice are more like an ecosystem themselves, balancing the desired behaviors and results across the organization.

Leading characteristics are particularly useful for a governance body that is developing or refining a program’s policies and procedures.  Being able to articulate the behaviors and outcomes that are being sought is the first step in that process.  After defining what needs to be accomplished, the how becomes easier.  It is not unlike planning your menu for the week before writing the grocery list.  Employing leading practices is a key success factor in business today. Understanding them well enough to vault past the buzzword is where the value lies.

I still practice the piano, but I no longer believe that practice makes perfect.  The word “perfect,” like “best,” has little relevance in the real world, hung out as a goal but acting as an artificial barrier.  Practice promotes continual improvement, as does the use of leading practices.  Both are paths rather than destinations.  So I have abandoned the aphorism from my childhood and replaced it with another I picked up on the road.  “Never let best get in the way of better.”  Now it’s time to get back to my scales.

**

In a subsequent post, I will provide detail on the exercise I discussed above that generates the list of leading practice characteristics. It is relatively easy, and the raw ingredients needed are available all over the Internet.

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