The Experts' Best Practices Can Deliver Less Than the Best

by Harold Hambrose | Chief Strategy Officer

Disrupt, innovate, improve, transform. These stand as aspirational goals at every level of an organization and across every industry. They also serve as the management consultant’s promised achievements, the projected outcomes of “best practices” guaranteed to deliver. Yet deriving anything like innovation or transformation from a pre-packaged product is a tall, if not impossible, order.

Expert voices professing to understand another’s problems while offering readymade solutions are not unusual, and most definitively not unique to modern day business enterprises. History is filled with schemes that, on paper, were irresistible to leaders faced with daunting challenges and ambitious desires for a better future. Results have usually disappointed. One such example is an early 20th century architect who promoted his own “best practices” for the challenges of industrial cities of the West. Corbusier’s well-intentioned, seemingly well-informed formula for transformed urban living would have significant negative impacts for decades after his death.

In these post-design-thinking days, there is a lesson in Corbusier’s flawed “best practice” designs, and useful direction in a voice that rose up as a reaction to them. Instead of buying the experiences and opinion of “experts,” perhaps business operators themselves are the key to their own transformed operational future. Zenda leverages the expertise of its clients to discover insights within the human context, to support business operators in defining transformational futures that become their own best practices.

Best Practice Calculations: Corbusier as Management Consultant

It was the period in Western history that followed the Industrial Revolution. A fascination with the machine inspired the shape of architecture, furniture, and fashion and saw society come to believe that our future would be smooth, streamlined, and efficient thanks to the mechanization of everything. The Machine Age (1920s–1940s), unlike the preceding industrial age, saw machines move outside the factory, and the mechanization of everyday life promised ease and efficiency previously unknown to the average person. In this promise, the famed architect Corbusier found inspiration for the design of “the machine for living in”—the future domestic house. Corbusier’s notion of structure as machine helped birth the Modern design movement and would eventually lead him to design a “machine” for urban living known as the “Radiant City.”

Corbusier’s plan was a reaction to the industrialized cities he knew. Congested, dangerous streets were pushed underground and out of site. Carefully placed high-rise towers held precise numbers of residents. Proportioned open spaces resolved the treeless urban morass Corbusier loathed. The shape, size, and position of everything in the Radiant City was a response to Corbusier’s lived experiences. His design was an architectural best practice—a detailed promise of how transformational, innovative urban living could happen, each current-state challenge met with a future-state promise. Corbusier’s Radiant City was never built. But its motivations and promises would inspire urban development projects for decades.

Urban planners and architects charged with developing public housing in 1950’s America found inspiration in Corbusier’s modern designs. High-rise apartment blocks arranged around green spaces reflected calculations that, on paper, added up to affordable, healthy, and safe living environments for people of lower income. But the design of courtyards, elevators, and hallways didn’t anticipate quiet, dark periods that would harbor crime and the threat of harm. And despite the wide walking paths, parks, and playgrounds, residents abandoned these unhealthy environments by the 1980s. Left to deal with the challenges that arose in these expensive ghost towns, cities across America would concede failure, with hundreds of these projects demolished in subsequent decades.

Like the Radiant City plan, the consultant’s best practices describe to business operators how current-state challenges will be undone in a transformational future. Like the courtyards and green spaces of 1950s housing plans, shorter swim lanes and fewer boxes and arrows mark the promise of a better future; a future of streamlined workflows and operational transformation. Like construction drawings, complimenting technical architectures describe how the faster, cheaper, more compliant future will be achieved. And like the fate of the 1950s housing developments, according to consulting firm McKinsey, these calculated business transformation strategies and tactics have a near 70% failure rate. How can so many great ideas, such obviously improved alternatives to current state challenges, fail so consistently and so completely?

A Different Kind of Math

While carefully calculated schemes for modern public housing in NYC were being pushed to implementation in the 1950s and 60s, Jane Jacobs, living in the city’s West Village neighborhood, became a strong and influential challenger to these and other ill-conceived models promising to transform modern urban living. Jacobs did not believe in the calculations of so-called experts. Jacobs proposed that areas targeted for improvement should first be observed and understood as they are, because in what may be perceived as current-state chaos or challenge are characteristics unique to that environment and necessary to any future-state strategy. Jacobs promoted observation as a means of understanding the challenges and the successes of a place. She understood that few formulas represented universal solutions for urban planning and, instead, direction and success would be found in watching and listening.

Jane Jacobs saw safety in busy city sidewalks. City improvement efforts to calm foot traffic may sound like a step toward a more pleasant experience for city dwellers, but they are a dangerous game when the number of eyeballs moving along that sidewalk are reduced too much—when the security among a web of strangers in a public space is lost and the door for crime is opened. From her home’s front steps, Jacobs saw a complex organism of people and the parts they played in her neighborhood: the corner butcher, a center of communication among neighbors for years, had become a sort of keeper of keys to many homes in the community—a safer alternative to keys under doormats.

In the same way, Jacobs observed the physical environment serving different people in different ways. Sidewalks that distanced pedestrians from cars also served as a safe playground for children and a necessary, safe and surveillable loitering spot for adolescents. In designs for pocket parks on otherwise vacant lots, Jacobs predicted a breeding ground for unintended uses and negative effects. She observed that nannies, young mothers, and their charges could only use such a space for a few hours during each day, leaving the empty space to unintended individuals and groups. Those adolescents, loitering as adolescents naturally do, shifted from a secured sidewalk filled with eyes to a space with none, where undesirable behaviors were unlikely to be controlled by those with whom they had previously shared the sidewalk. But how could the plan for a playground that sounded so right on paper have such a bad result when executed?

Jacobs knew value, security, and risk mitigation existed within a clear and complete understanding of any environment that people proposed to improve. By thinking of business transformation programs in the same light as the urban renewal projects of her day, Jacobs’ approach holds promise for business operators who have experienced the 70% failure rate of their investments. At its core, Jacobs’ approach states that existing in our current state, if we are willing and able to look carefully enough at it, is a future that preserves discoveries of goodness and allows us to avoid risk by understanding what is likely (and unlikely) to be successful in an alternative model. In an expert’s best practice, Jacobs would say that there is little likelihood of a perfect fit and, more likely, challenges that may be significant and hard to predict.

Bottom-Up Operational Transformation

Jane Jacobs did not survey the people living in the city she observed. She didn’t pull samples of people into design thinking workshops to generate ideas and build excitement about radical new futures. Jane Jacobs watched people to understand what was happening and why it was happening. Management consultants, however, take little time to observe and understand their client’s current state environment—the very environment that, despite the client’s desire for change, has been successful enough to allow for hiring a consultant in the first place. The consultant’s best practices, vertical experience, technical platform knowledge, and polished promotion of AI, ML, RPA, and any other enabling technology, can quickly make them appear to be the expert that will deliver an idyllic future state, a Radiant City operation.

Behavioral and social scientists make up more than half of Zenda’s team of consultants. Boasting no deep knowledge in any particular business operation, they have reinvented how work transpires at fast food drive-thru windows, hospital patient bedsides, trading desks, and energy grid management control rooms. In every case, it is the client’s expertise in their business that, combined with the insights and explanations developed by Zenda’s skilled observers, allowed for the invention of new ways of working.

This is not design thinking in which workshop techniques promote activities like answering the question “How might we…?” in the misconception that those in attendance can accurately define challenges and identify opportunities from within a meeting room. This Jacobs-like, bottom-up view provides insights focused on human behaviors, mechanical and technological infrastructure, policy, regulation, data—all aspects of the work event. With these insights, a palette of future state options is revealed, and the introduction of new methods, tools, and techniques can be measured and designed according to the realities of the client’s people, culture, infrastructure, etc.

Opportunities Ahead

The management consultant’s knowledge of marketplaces, business verticals, and third party platforms coupled with their experiences across myriad companies is, in theory, valuable for operators rethinking the means by which work transpires. But when packaged as best practices, this theoretical value falls flat.  Appreciating that their organization is unique from others like it, business operators need a means of leveraging their own operation as a source of insight. Given this means, operators can hear the siren call of the consultant’s best practice solutions as just that: a dangerous distraction from defining a future state that makes the most of their organization.

When Observation Outpaces Best Practices:
Seeing a Transformational Future in the Current State

The Best Practice: Management consultants arrived to transform offshore master data management with their firm’s recognized best practice: new process flows and new system specifications promising to increase the speed and accuracy of offshore professionals charged with updating master data.

The Bottom-Up Perspective: Observation of offshore workers revealed key insights: Workforce was highly educated, motivated, and committed to success. Despite existing standard operating procedures (SOPs), ad hoc methods were universal and necessary to meet unanticipated nature of work. 90% of master data requests, the work tickets of offshore workers, were incorrect and needed to be corrected before any work transpired. Majority of work centered around increasing accuracy of master data requests—not making updates to master data.

The Outcome: “Best practice” processes and tools proposed by management consultants would only serve to speed the isolated task of making master data updates. No improvement to error checking and request refinement, which consumed the majority of workers’ time and effort, would have been realized. Observed ad hoc methods were preserved as new SOPs. Offshore consulting team formed to support special cases and projects. A smart form tool was designed and deployed companywide for creating master data requests. 99% of requests are now accurate. Bulk request capabilities were designed and deployed, reducing request volume by 70%.





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