Sometimes the best practice is simply to be flexible and adapt your response to the situation at hand.

Are you paralysed by ‘best practice’?

Far too many of the firms I work with seem to be. People are unable to do anything without filling in the required forms, undergoing the required checks, jumping through the necessary hoops, all in the name of ITIL or W3C or PRINCE2 or some ISO standard.  

The technology industry, for all its dynamism, seems all too keen to weigh itself down with these so-called ‘best practices’.

Of course, this isn’t really best practice at all. It’s bureaucracy by another name. And it’s far from the intent of the originators of those standards. So what’s going on here?

My theory is that most organisations are struggling to handle rapid change in technology. Cloud challenges the way they manage infrastructure and applications. Big Data challenges the way they manage data. BYOD (bring your own device) challenges the way they manage devices. And mobile adds a whole new layer for them to be managing.  

It’s pretty much a perfect storm for the typical organisation. Their whole technology stack is changing.

Faced with such trends, organisations have two options. They can build and enhance their ability to change, or they can try ever harder to control change.  

The former is tough, as it requires you to accept uncertainty, to abandon skills that have served you well in the past but which no longer apply, to build new relationships, and so on. All things that challenge our self-image as confident, knowledgeable, well-connected professionals.

Controlling change, on the other hand, can seem very attractive. Most of us like to feel in control. It’s a lot more comfortable than being constantly buffeted by external forces.  

Our organisational mythologies reinforce this. We praise people who take control of a situation, denigrate those who merely react to events as they happen. In such an environment, imposing standards that reduce variability and temper the forces of change can be very tempting.

The problem is that controlling change often seems to degenerate into creating stasis. At a time when external forces are creating rapid change in the marketplace, consumer attitudes, technological capabilities and cost structures, etc, such stasis is deadly.  

Building the ability to respond rapidly to change is likely to be a much more effective strategy.

How can we build this ability? Here’s my take on where the typical change-challenged organisation should be going:

Offload commodity services

Managing commodity infrastructure and applications weighs down many organisations – it consumes a lot of time and resources without adding a lot of differentiation or value.  

Offloading this stuff to specialist service providers who can make the most of economies of scale and skills frees up internal capacity to deal with change.

Automate where appropriate

Again, automating standard administrative processes and suchlike frees up human capacity to deal with change.

The challenge here is “where appropriate”: trying to automate activities that are inherently variable (e.g. new product research and development) or benefit from the human touch (e.g. many customer service activities) is a good way to destroy value.

Deploy skills where they can be most responsive

Put multi-skilled, cross-functional teams at the frontline, where they can work together and deal with situations as they arise.  Managing central pools of “resources” can improve the efficiency of people’s utilisation, but it does this at the expense of slowing down their responses.  

In a rapidly changing world, efficient utilisation is a mirage: people end up very efficiently doing the wrong things, or doing them too late to make any real difference.

Reduce Work-in-Progress

Most organisations try to do too much. They initiate too many projects, load people with too many tasks, context switch between too many activities.  

This simply creates overheads and delays – projects deliver value later because they’re only being worked on part-time, people spend a lot time communicating status reports and suchlike, outputs become out-of-date when they’re not used immediately.  

Doing a small number of things at once lets you complete each one more rapidly.

Reduce communications overheads

Co-locate teams wherever possible.  Use collaboration tools and social media. And don’t over-constrain use of such tools – give people freedom to evolve their own toolsets from the basic building blocks.

Free up some capacity to experiment and learn

You need some spare capacity to monitor trends, to identify opportunities for automation and other improvements, to trial and learn from new approaches, and so on.  

Google gives its engineers 20% of their time to work on whatever they want not just for the new product ideas this time generates, but because it creates capacity for them to respond rapidly to new opportunities.

Sometimes the best practice is simply to be flexible and adapt your response to the situation at hand.

‘Best practices’ such as ITIL and the ISO standards have a part to play – they help you manage commodity service providers and execute common, automatable processes, for example – but they become counterproductive when they crowd out the ability to think and respond.

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