Last week, as I was facilitating a workshop with a great group of people in Germany, the topic of "best practice" arose. I challenged the idea that the transfer of so-called best practice between organizations was a credible way of improving performance.
Too often, seemingly successful processes, systems and procedures are sought out and then meticulously implanted ‘lock, stock and barrel’ into other organizations. The aim is to transform the performance of those on the receiving end. More often than not, though, the reality falls well short of expectations.
In the discussion that followed, I suggested that one of the main problems with this seemingly commonsense approach is that it typically ignores the critical factor of organizational context. In particular, it takes no account of the unique ‘internal’ dynamics of the particular organizational unit within which these practices are embedded and through which the observed outcomes have been realised.
One of the other participants, Stephan, then described this phenomenon beautifully in terms of the "logic" and the "magic" of organizational practice. The conventional notion of best practice transfer focuses exclusively on the logic – the formal, structured and visible aspects of what is assumed to be the source of the superior performance. This should be no surprise. It ticks all of the boxes that are supposed to be ticked, in terms of its focus on the rational aspects of organization - the tangible, the programmable, the measurable and so on.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) it’s the magic that makes the difference. It’s the magic that brings the presumed logic to life. The idealised designs, that others studiously copy, are only made real through the ways that people enact them via their local interactions. And it is from these (largely hidden, messy and informal) dynamics of everyday organizational life that the outcomes viewed as "best practice" emerge. These local exchanges take place continuously - between specific people, at specific times and in specific situations. And it’s in the unknowable interplay of these interactions that the magic of ‘best practice’ lies.
But this magic can’t be "captured" and then transplanted, grafted on, or otherwise transferred. Organizational members must make their own, through their everyday conversations and interactions with others. The more opportunity that they get to make these connections – within and ‘beyond’ their own organizations – the more likely it is that magic will happen.
Related post: The everyday 'street magic' of change leadership