Case Study: When “Best Practice” Destroys Value

The work with defining and implementing new processes is often left to a small group of experts. This approach seems obvious to many companies, since they want to implement best practice processes. The problem is that most of the good thinking stays with the expert, in the instruction documents, tools or systems. The best practice thinking does not reach employees and it does not impact the organization’s real behavior.
There is an alternative way to implement both a strong business process and to ensure a strong sense of ownership in the organization. This post will explain how.


Four years ago a large European production company set up a corporate “Sales Excellence Department”. The purpose of this was to respond to changes in the market that required new skills in selling solutions rather than products.

The department invested significant resources in developing a number of new business processes. They also had consultants write detailed Role & Responsibility documents, instructional guides and communication materials. Then they trained selected sales representatives from all national markets.

The Excellence Team Ended up Destroying Value

Most of the steps they took were just by the book. However, today the result today is that the ambition of “excellence” has been reduced to a daily struggle about getting the sales reps to add their sales opportunities to the CRM system. Only a fraction of the original ideas have resulted in any behavioral change in the company.

So, the question is: What went wrong? Senior management set up the excellence department since they realized a need to standardize the business processes across the company. The sales reps, on the other hand, felt pressured to accept the solution to a problem they didn’t think they had. The approach was driven by CRM system needs, rather than the needs of the sale reps. The end result has been that the sales reps have not accepted the new approach. The transformation has not happened.

Is There an Alternative Path to Excellence?

Senior management has clearly seen the company as a machine. A machine needs fine-tuning by experts in order to run well. The problem is that companies are not machines. According to Peter Senge, companies are closer to being living organisms. Companies consist of people who each of them feel that they know best. They want to be heard and they want to be involved. This is why “fine-tuning” companies is very difficult. It is more about directing and supporting people so they can find alternative paths.


If the senior management team had had this fundamental view of a company, then they would have started with the employees that were supposed to change behaviors in order to sell solutions rather than products. In my opinion, this builds on two success factors:

  1. To start with a business process that represents the current, accepted way of working among the sales reps, and
  2. To involve the sales reps in changing this.

Start With the Current Way of Working

A good saying within the field of change management is that “you can’t drive the wagon faster than the horses can run.” This is why the implementation of new business processes initially is about removing unnecessary weight and the tendency to take detours (to stay within the analogy). It means making it as easy as possible to transition from an old way of working to a new.

In this case the opposite happened. The new way of working became highly advanced and complex after six months in the hands of a full time team of corporate experts and consultants. The local sales reps used to sell in their own ways. There was no common process. Then they were introduced to an advanced, best-practice solution sales process that consisted of a range of sub processes at multiple levels. Hundreds of pages of instructions and guides were sent to help them.

Complexity steals the individual’s resources both mentally and in terms of time lost. It is therefore highly important that the first version of a common process is very simple. More steps should only be added when the simple process is used correctly by the majority of the employees that are working with it. A multi-level sales process will only add complexity to the lives of sales reps who have trouble even placing their opportunities correctly in a simple sales pipeline.

So, in my opinion the first challenge is to ensure that everyone understands the relationship between  the work they know and do everyday and the abstract representation of it in the form of a business process. This understanding is often assumed to be there but it is only reached through co-creation of the new process. Only daily experience of gaps between the practical work and the abstract presentation of it can create this understanding.

Large Scale Involvement Ensures Large Scale Ownership

Involvement is crucial for ownership. A psychological experiment that has been repeated in many countries supports this (e.g. Ellen Langer, 1975). Two groups of people were asked to pick lottery tickets. One group selected their numbers randomly and the other group picked their preferred numbers. Just before the lottery draw, the researchers offered to buy back the lottery tickets from the two groups. The outcome was that the group that had picked their preferred numbers demanded a price that on average was five times higher than the group that had selected randomly. The point is that involvement has to happen on an individual level if it is to translate into a sense of ownership.

The Path to Excellence is Iterative

Large scale involvement and ownership requires the ability to support ongoing collaboration on the process by the people that work with it. The case company described above could have chosen a more iterative path that combined process work and change management:

  1. Map your current, as-is process as a hypothesis of how work is done. A team of sales people from different countries can map this in a single workshop (possibly aided by a facilitator.)
  2. Communicate this to a small group. The process hypothesis is presented to a group of selected sales people with an invitation to try it out in practice and provide feedback on an ongoing basis. It is important to do this via a process community tool, so the work can happen across time and space.
  3. Try it out in practice. The group will then try out the process during a period of 3-4 months (depending on cycle time). Each employee completes his tasks and activites in accordance with the process. Questions, concerns and answers are shared online and related to each step in the process. This helps capture feedback in the right context.
  4. Adjust the process. An improvement team of the most engaged and knowledgeable people (as defined by participation in the first steps) then gathers physically or virtually and created a new process version.
  5. Try in more countries. The new version is communicated again. This time people from more countries are included.
  6. … and so the cycle is repeated.

The company could have completed 8-10 of these process improvement cycles during the four years that have passed. Instead, they have been waiting for the “hockey stick effect.” Experts could still have challenged the sales reps during the process. Skills, tools and guides could have been developed along the way – based on actual demand.

The result could have been a best practice that had been developed alongside the company’s capabilities through an active improvement culture that was based on broad involvement from the people that were transitioning. The main assumptions would have been a higher degree of trust and a digital process community that would enable this large scale involvement.

No one can argue against best practice. My point is that it is just very hard to separate from its context…


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By Søren Pommer @ gluu | October 25, 2012

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