One of the key principles of using best practices is that multiple organizations can use them as a reliable way to achieve the best results. Internal and external organizations can apply the same best practices and ‘hopefully’ get the same results.
Some industries, like project management, turn to external organizations, like the Project Management Institute (PMI) that define or have major influence in determining what the best practices in their areas of expertise are.
So why is this a bad idea in many cases?
The PMI determines the best practice standards by looking at the entire field of knowledge, trying to weed out ‘false paths’ and providing what is the current ‘best practice’ to follow. Current thinking is re-evaluated and standards updated as the project management field and world evolve. Following their lead in how to manage projects and project/program management offices (PMOs) allows a standardized way of doing things.
Myth 1: Allows companies to innovate with reduced risks
Many people use best practices as a defense against innovation or change. “’We can’t do it that way because it goes against our best practices.” is a familiar response to a request to do something different. This is because using best practices, especially if suggested by an external non-affiliated body like the PMI, is safe. Doing anything outside of those parameters is considered non-safe, or risky.
Using best practices this way is going against innovation, being a leader, etc. Just because company A did a project that was successful using ‘best practices’, does it really mean that if company B does the same project too using the same practices, it will be as successful? Of course not.
Myth 2: It is too risky to do something no one else has done before
A real world example of a complete departure from any best practice: Apple changing from a Motorola CPU for their PCs to one from Intel, in 2005:
According to best practice theory, this was not something that should be done. After all a major PC manufacturer had never successfully done anything like this. Since no ‘best practice’ even existed, this was a huge risk. The following chart shows the results of this ‘non-best practice’.
Source: Gartner, International Data Corporation Date: 8/24/2012
Between 2000 and 2005 Apple’s market share of PCs increased by only 0.3 percent. In five years! After the switch to Intel, in four years Apple’s share of the PC market doubled. It has continued to increase after that point. An argument could be made that this increase in sales of Apple’s PCs, along with sales of the iPod, is what helped give Apple the resources to develop the iPhone.
Apple is also the only company to successfully change CPUs. The others that tried failed. So best practice principles would dictate this should never be done. Where Apple would be today if best practices had been followed in 2005 is anyone’s guess, but it most likely would not be where they are now. This is a good example of ‘I would rather risk failure than not try to be successful’.
Myth 3: If best practice guidelines are followed then success will automatically follow
Any best practice should be used only if it makes sense for the business needs. If a best practice stifles innovation or delays speed of development, stop using it. Create something unique that will improve/enhance a company’s future. How can a business leap ahead of the competition if the business is using the same best practices as everyone else? The answer is it cannot.
This creates a lot of risk, especially in the Project Management field. If non-standard project practices are used and something goes wrong, then the Project Managers and PMO leaders risk censure and repercussions. But is not that the real ask of PMs and PMO mangers? To be leaders? To find the best way to manage a project versus being ‘safe’ by following best practices? Especially if the project would be better off by not following them?
A quote from William G. T. Shedd comes to mind that reflects the dangers of blindly using best practices, ‘A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for,’ To paraphrase, a project manager using best practices is safe, but that is not what Project Managers are for. If Project Managers are not willing to lead, then who else will?
Sponsors look at project managers to get projects done the most efficient way possible. If using best practices can do that, then by all means use them. If they cannot, then the question is do you want to stay in the harbor and be safe or brave the seas and find the rewards that are possible?