Going Rogue: Three Times to Ignore 'Best Practice'

Last Updated Nov 19, 2009 10:15 AM EST

Despite what they are called, best practices are not always so. Many managers have encountered occasions when their organization's prescribed rules would cause more harm than good.

Example. Your personnel department spells out a procedure for resolving a personal dispute between two co-workers. Great, except the process takes two meetings and four hours of administrivia, while you know from your own experience with these people that what will really work is an off-the-record airing of grievances over a couple of beers down at Duck's Tavern. (The Beer Gambit was used to famous effect by President Obama to cool a dispute between a Harvard professor and a local police officer.)

Your personnel department may not agree, but I say trust your gut and head down to Duck's and see what happens.

How can you tell when its OK not to follow the 'best' path?

Harvard Business blogger Susan Cramm offers this three-step filter.

  1. Consider the context. Best practices work for a particular organization in a particular market at a particular time. Always adapt best practices to fit your company's unique culture and situation.
  2. Assess feasibility. The "best" may be expensive and time-consuming. Determine whether being the best is worth it. Will the customer pay for it? Will you have the time or energy to achieve it?
  3. Use common sense. Sometimes best practices just don't make sense. Just because someone labeled it "best" doesn't mean it is. Think critically and strategically before using any best practice.
For more excellent insight, read Cramm's full post, How Are Your Defying "Best Practice".

If you do choose to alter, modify or ignore a best practice, I think it's important to share that information with the organization. Best practices remain best only if they are useful.

How do you employ (or not) best practices at work?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.