At a Conscious Business Meeting in London a few years ago (that group is no longer operating) , a participant asked a very important question. I was sharing the 1001 tips for being a conscious business and he asked: But isn’t this all just “best practice”?
Now, best practice is a term that has been used and abused since the 1980s when I first heard that term coined.
“A best practice is a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieve with other means, and that is used as a benchmark. In addition, a “best” practice can evolve to become better as improvements are discovered. Best practice is considered by some as a business buzzword, used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things that multiple organizations can use.” (Wikipedia)
Also: ” …a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark. ” (The Business Dictionary)
In the UK, the then Department of Trade and Industry commissioned best practice studies and surveys and coach loads of managers and leaders would arrive at a best practice factory and get a tour around what excellence really looks like.
Then various quality awards also took hold of the best practice mantle, rewarding businesses with trophies for being “excellent”.
So, when I mentioned that conscious businesses are climates of openness, truthfulness, reflection and environmental sensing and proactivity, isn’t this just all another name for “best practice”?
Some conscious businesses are also “best practice” in terms of much of the rhetoric around that bit of jargon. But many so called “best practice businesses are also not very conscious? How is that so?
Because, a conscious business focuses on being conscious, as a result, success is a potential consequence not a compulsive input. Best practice sometimes also focuses on consciousness, but not always. Some “best practice” businesses become too focused on success criteria and this can create a kind of short sightedness in terms of consciousness. “Best practice” can become a bit of an obsession and then it sort of disappears up its own organisational backside. Many so called “best practice” firms from the 1980s and 1990s are now dead. They died by applying fairly superficial models of best practice. They weren’t that aware of their motives nor of the influences of their past on their present and future. Surely, they created climates of innovation and continuous improvement, but they often didn’t do that very consciously. Many claimed to be “learning organisations’ but they were really problem reaction organisations – many of the signs of conscious business were there, but implementation wasn’t deep enough. Problem solving approaches and models such as Total Quality Management didn’t reach into all needed parts of the organisation and senior managers rarely walked the talk. Where best practice did coincide with real conscious business, it tended to be what the top told the middle to do to the bottom.
Conceptually, of course conscious businesses are best practice businesses because a conscious business is practising at its best! But this isn’t what the term usually signifies when applied in the field of leadership and management. “Best practice” can become a consultancy term, a way not only of simplifying the business but also of creating a superficiality that lowers consciousness. Badges and buzzwords can hide fuzzier more real definitions of reality in the present. Best practice will change and one best practice can quickly become a worst practice! A conscious business does not focus on best practice, it focuses on being conscious. Best practice is something that might arise as a way of describing it as a kind of “side effect”.
So, when we identify “best practice” the danger is that we fix it in time and take our eye off the present. There is also a danger that “best” becomes a kind of “ideal” that unhinges the organisation from naming things realistically in the present. In performance-driven business cultures, people often talk up best practice and the real normal becomes distorted. Ironically, best practice can then become a cause of lowered business consciousness.
I suggest that businesses should not focus on realising “best practice” but should focus on manifesting conscious business behaviour. Whatever “best” then means at any time in the business’s ongoing story, will emerge.
Where it can be useful to coincide best practice with conscious business is for the business, as part of its sensing of environment, to identify what is currently “working” in its industry, what is being present through research as “excellent” practice, to collect stories of success and also stories of problems overcome. But instead of slavishly “benchmarking it” and then simply trying to follow it, it takes this information into its internal conscious dialogue and decides actively how to can learn and what it might want to incorporate into its own practices, checking this against its own timeline and biography, and regularly monitoring for changes in the relevance of that external knowledge to its own story.
A conscious business incorporates practice as a learning organisation but it is ever wary that what is “best” practice for one, or even an entire industry, may not be best for it! Conscious business are not “wowed” by best practice and also know when NOT to. Consciousness in business if often about sense-making, deeper logic, values and ethics checks, subjecting external ideas to deep scrutiny, asking questions from different points of view, checking to see whether a certain “best practice” might create toxicity or may lower or damage its ability to remain conscious. Conscious businesses are prepared to reject best practice because it isn’t best when seen in a different light or from part of a wider picture – geographically or temporally. Conscious businesses will check whether so-called best practice hides hidden agendas or has been “talked up”.
When “best practice” becomes a dogma in the organisation’s language and culture, things become fixed around the “measures”, especially if benchmarking is unhinged from real time. Pressure to achieve best practice can also create stress and also distortion as people focus on the measure rather than the process. Of course “best, best practice@ (!!!) avoids this by ensuring that best practice itself is regularly reviewed. In thirty years of working with business, this happens a lot less than it should. Goals tend to fix and, in businesses focused on high performance, can become a motivational stick to beat people with, or become sticks that people beat themselves with.
Of course, that’s all just “best practice” isn’t it? You might think so, but I’m struggling to find “best practice” studies that go that deep, that survive that kind of conscious scrutiny, and that understand let along take into account resulting internal and external toxicity arising from implementing the “best practice”.
Some of the most toxic businesses in the world are currently winning best practice awards. Isn’t that enough of a warning to be careful and conscious about the term? A conscious business makes any “best practice” its own by deciding what best practice is. It does this, not by benchmarking aloe, but by reflection, by thinking, by taking different viewpoints, and by ensuring that it remains awake in real time. Once again, best practice is an emergent property of a conscious business, not a sole input into it.