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July 19, 2006

Obsessed with Best Management Practice

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." If so, says Harvard's Robert Behn, then "best practice is the refuge of unimaginative ones." Behn continues, "Unfortunately, public managers everywhere are on a manic search for "best practice." Take a look at Behn's On why so many Public Managers are: Obsessed with "Best Practice" [PDF].

After exploring the pitfalls inherent in endless, and too-often mindless searches for best management practices, Behn challenges managers to ask two questions relative to BMPs, Why? and How?

Why? — Why this practice?

What vital (or merely helpful) purposes will we achieve by implementing this practice? What will the practice accomplish? … Implementing any managerial practice—good, better, or best—makes sense only if the practice will, somehow, help resolve one or more of the problems that prevent our organization from achieving our mission.

How? — How will this specific practice help resolve particular problems?

What is our cause-and-effect theory? How does this practice work in general—in the ideal case? And how must this practice be adapted to work in our particularly circumstances to help our agency accomplish it public purposes?

Behn concludes with, "For too many public managers, the search for 'best practice' has become a substitute for thinking."

Karl Weick has been thinking/writing on the subject for many years too. In Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in the Age of Complexity, Weick and co-author Kathleen Sutcliffe help managers sort out what is to be reduced to "standard" and what ought not to be. Like Behn, Weick and Sutcliffe want people in organizations to make sense of their lives and work by applying standards only where they make the most sense. In other cases, experimentation and "gut" are more the order of the day. Even in cases where practice is reduced to "standard," the standard must be revisited frequently to see if it still makes sense.

In all cases we must be very careful not to stifle innovation and ingenuity in our organizations. The last thing we need is to reduce ourselves to "gobots" or "robots" for bureaucracies that have standardized too many processes, sapping the lifeblood of their people.

Posted by Dave on July 19, 2006 at 09:04 AM | Permalink


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