Best Practice – Really?

best practiceBy Randy E. Spiegel

Perhaps it has happened to you; at a board or committee meeting, listening to a good presentation and the speaker, to drive their point home, drops the bomb: “this approach is used everywhere; it reflects best practice” Around the table heads nod in agreement. After all, can anyone argue with something that is “the best.”

Invoking this multi-faceted and often confusing buzzphrase, may enable the presenter to carry the table, but do they know what is required to succeed? Effective best practice can help to change attitudes, how people work and even how they think about their work. However, what works for one, may not be the magic bullet for you, in your shop. To be truly successful, you need more than a best practice; you need to be a best practitioner – now, all in favour?

What is “best practice”?

Wikipedia defines best practice as, “A set of defined methods, processes, systems or practices used by a company or organization to meet performance and efficiency standards within their industry or organization. Best practices are guidelines which are used to obtain the most efficient and effective way of completing a task using repeatable and proven procedures.”

And Wikipedia states that, “A best practice is a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved 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.”

Practically, organization CEO’s, synagogue executive directors and administrators look to their teams to perform efficiently, effectively and creatively while being fiscally responsible and accountable. We set standards and establish benchmarks, we review performance, and we analyze processes and procedures applied to achieve outcomes. We aspire to implement repeatable methodologies that lead to real successes.

Best practice is a valuable concept, however terming everything you want to do as a best practice can lead to a loss of meaning or worse, a loss of credibility.

Wikipedia again; “Consultants make a fortune selling their services, specializing “in the area of best practice and offer pre-made ‘templates’ to standardize business process documentation.” However, “Sometimes a “best practice” is not applicable or is inappropriate for a particular organization’s needs. A key strategic talent required when applying best practice to organizations is the ability to balance the unique qualities of an organization with the practices that it has in common with others.”

In any not-for-profit organization or synagogue, professionals are relied upon to be effective best practitioners in their own environments. The strategies below can help elevate your practice and help you help your congregation as it faces its daily challenges.

1. Be sensitive to your people and to what works in your world

The old adage of free advice being worth what you pay often proves itself when techniques from one environment ‘can’t miss’ in another. In the not-for-profit world, we deal with people and not products. We are agents of change and facilitators of change in people’s lives. We live to serve and are motivated to get up in the morning with the privilege of knowing that we have the capacity to make the world a little bit better. Often part of the Klei Kodesh team, we work for Kehillot Kedoshot, for Sacred Communities. Our work is humbling and our achievements reinforce why we do what we do.

Sometimes a volunteer or a manager may feel that it is right to be overly demanding and have unreasonable expectations. Sometimes CEO’s or executive directors themselves may push staff to get on the bus – their bus – or else. Professionals and the lay leaders together must champion and teach tolerance to keep loyal employees, donors and volunteers. We must be presently present, fully aware of our self, our environment and how to appropriately interact with those around us. The best practitioner is acutely aware not only of what can work, but how it can best work within a given environment.

2. Practice what worksbut make it your own

When you know your people and your environment, become familiar with the diverse ways to approach or solve problems that can work, for you. Accounting department best practice may suggest that a separation of duties is required. Implementation requires one staff member for accounts payable, another for accounts receivable, a third or payroll and the manager to oversee the staff and their functions.

In a medium or small shop, where it is inefficient to have a large staff, best practice requires the controller or CFO to implement an integrated information system with proper controls to allow fewer people to accomplish a greater number of tasks. By being creative, refining and right-sizing systems for the environment, the accounting department can maintain its integrity and its efficiency. If you want your practice to reflect your vision, make sure that you have your hands and your fingerprints on the process.

3. Make good decisions

When the CEO/Executive Director is empowering, s/he will bring the right ingredients – talented people and quality information – together. People thrive when given the opportunity to struggle, to challenge each other and to ask “what if” questions. Having opportunity and information can lead to the good decisions. Where people are restricted in methodology or an atmosphere that restricts creativity, or where information is withheld, the best decisions may never see the light of day.

Data gathering is the best tool to making good decisions. Data tells a story. Put good data into the hands of people willing to see beyond the numbers and the data comes to life. Observing trends, analyzing statistics and asking people what they think, leads to good strategic decision making. At the core, we must listen to our members (and stakeholders), to each other and to what is going on outside of ourselves. Willingness to listen leads to a willingness to consider actions that may take you out of your comfort zone and be quite different than where you thought you might be. Taking a calculated risk based on good inputsgood datais the best practice tool in the toolbox. However, it is the practitioner who is called upon to make the educated decisions!

4. Be results oriented and solution-focused

How can you know if you are being successful? Before you embark on a new initiative, establish goals to grade or evaluate your performance. defines best practice as “a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark.” Measurements can be financial (the program will revenue neutral) or human (projected attendance is 200).  Goals, once established, are targets that professionals and volunteers to aim for.

A best practitioner, articulates realistic, manageable, achievable goals, and measures success. Goals become benchmarks for future planning. Analysis of results can break the cycle of “I want to…” in favour of “what if we try….” The best practitioner is prepared to do what needs to be done, to achieve success relative to the articulated goal. The best results can only be achieved if the best inputs are considered and if your eye is focused on the best solution for the current problem. Stay focused and always be driven by the desire to find a solution to the problem at hand.

5. Trust the process and keep it real

Noam Shpancer, in his article The Good Psychologist stated, “The process is important, regardless of the outcome, just ask Schacter.  …mental health… is not a destination but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going. The therapist is like a driving instructor, not a chauffeur.”

Everyone engaged in organization management is a leader and as leaders we must trust that those who surround us are playing by the same rules. A team or committee must be structured with a clear purpose, a clearly defined objective and a commitment to allowing people the opportunity to contribute. The best practitioner is a “driving instructor,” a facilitator and s/he trusts the people and process. Best practice is about how we get to where we need to get tothe result of a sound process, with a purposebut it is the practitioner who gets us there.

Dealing with people more than products, our craft is using a process of discovery to change and shape the life of our individual communities. Open architecture of opportunity and thought will enable and empower people to embrace practices best for their communities. In the human services business, the business of process is everything.

In 2012, in an internet discussion, Peter Braul, Editor at CIM Magazine wrote, “Much of the time, the definition of “best practices” is sufficiently vague as to not mean anything at all. When an organization claims to use “best practices,” it usually means that they conform with the standard that has been set by similar organizations. By definition, then, these practices are just average, and not the best.”

So, is there a difference between “best practices” and “standards”?

Chris Warner, Principal Advisor Lean Mining at BHP Billiton Iron Ore, responded, “Best practice is less a standard and more a pattern of thinking associated with the design of the standard. The standard being the output with the best practice being the input of associated thinking. The high velocity environment is more focused on the process with which a solution is derived than the solution itself. Thinking can be replicated to create broad organizational capability however solutions change as the environment changes. The later provides an insight into where best practice resides, more in the process and less in the result.

He continues by noting that in his “experience the term best practice can get abused for selfish intent rather than applied strategically to articulate modes of thinking that help generate organizational momentum.” He continues, that for those who have experienced true leadership, “being in the presence of a person who has formal authority however orientates his or her thinking towards listening, learning and serving, to you I say that best practice has been made known. Best practice resides BETWEEN OUR EARS, for those of us who can master our thinking patterns to us lies a blank canvass to be painted on, the opportunity to craft a beautiful life.”

In Conclusion

The best practitioners stimulate thought that leads to action and thoughtful action builds community. Where Oxford dictionaries defines practice as “the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use,” the best practitioner focuses on getting to work rather than talking around the table. Best practice results when we do what we do; when we apply our talents, use our skills, and dedicate ourselves with vision and purpose.

As best practitioners, we must be willing to try something new, in the search of something great. For our practice to truly be the best, we must lead our teams to find creative solutions to solve difficult problems. Best practitioners use best practices to grow and help others grow, like the Zionists in early Israel, to “build and be built” in the process. When we accept no bounds and embrace our work and each other, the results can be great and the journey itself, stirring.

As Jerry Seinfeld says, “the most fun game is one you’ve never played and you’re inventing as you go along.”

Randy E. Spiegel, FSA, MMHS, MJCS, is Executive Director of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.