Bracketing change: Standards, institutionalized practices and experiments

I have often been in the situation where an organization is keen on sharing or expanding the use of [best] practices or establishing “standards” to improve some type of performance.  I put [best] in brackets because my bias is that “best” is really situational and relative; what is best for one organization may not be replicable across organizations and maybe shouldn’t be replicable. The point is to get at practices that produce positive outcomes and are understood well enough to generate on-going adaptation, learning and improvement within the unique context of the organization in question.

And once you start to peel that onion you begin to see [best] practices as something more dynamic. And frankly, so are standards. So how do we walk the line between stabilizing practices or standards while acknowledging their dynamic nature? Here is an approach I’ve used often. It starts with defining what we mean by standards and [best] practices and adding a third element — experiments — that allows us to mess around, play, and prototype to discover something new and valuable.

Standards. Standards should imply compliance. They are binary. You either meet them or you don’t. And there should be consequences for not meeting them; you can go no further in the process, your work gets sent back, etc. By defining “standard” in this manner you set up a natural filtering system to ensure that anything that is defined as a standard is clearly articulated and is so important that you’d stop a process from proceeding. Compliance requires policing, auditing or tight systems and processes. Those can be expensive things. You want to make sure that each standard is worth the expense.

Institutionalized [best] Practices. I prefer “institutionalized” — even though it’s a bit of an academic concept — because it gets closer to what I think meets the situational nature of practices: things that work in a specific organizational context.

Think about the way in which some organizations have a very specific, well known and effective routine for running meetings. Agendas all follow a particular format; roles are clearly defined; there are signals or common language used to prevent run-on discussions (or to allow productive discussion to continue longer than planned); thought-provoking questions or agenda items encourage reflection and learning; and technology is used intelligently to support archiving, follow-up actions, communications, and on-going collaboration between meetings.

Some parts of this institutionalized meeting practice may be standards (e.g., no meeting begins without a complete agenda). Some parts may be well-worn routine and expected practice. But there is also enough flexibility for individual participants and teams to adapt the practice in ways to meet their specific needs. Bottom line, everyone knows what “holding a meeting at organization x” means. It is an institutionalized practice that integrates people, activities and technology. And further, the organization is set up to support the on-going use of this practice with systems, formal or informal training, coaching, etc.

Experiments. Let’s say that this very effective, institutionalized meeting practice was designed and adapted for face-to-face meetings. Now the organization is moving to situations that require groups of people to meet regularly but from multiple locations – virtually. By conducting experiments with different technologies, practices, roles and routines the organization can create some new “meeting practice” that works effectively in a virtual setting but feels consistent with the important elements of the original face-to-face practice.

My experience suggests that explicitly calling out some new activities as “experiments” frames the activities in the right light: We need to learn from what we do here. And if it fails, well, it was an experiment. What did we learn? (Thanks to collaborator Keeley Sorokti for sharpening this point).

It’s about bracketing change. In almost all cases where we are looking for [best] practices or standards we are looking for ways to improve performance — but we have blinders on regarding the constant state of change that impacts every organization. By framing the problem as defining standards, institutionalized practices and experiments we put brackets around things that each have a different rate of change. Standards are relatively stable; institutionalized practices are somewhat more dynamic; and experiments are free-form play. And we are the ones who decide when things move from one state to the next. Kind of a comforting thought when it comes to change.