Creating Frankenstein’s Monster from Cultural Best Practices

Imagine an organizational culture, stitched grotesquely together from an assortment of practices gleaned piecemeal from other businesses’ “success stories.” The lure of building something great by borrowing bits and pieces from other organizations – often described as ‘best practices’ – is strong, but it reminds me of the story behind the creation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. In the horror story that many of us are familiar with, Victor Frankenstein claimed to be creating his monster for the betterment of humankind. Of course, after stitching together various parts of human corpses to create his new being, Victor succeeds in reanimating the dead, but is repulsed by his creation.

Much like in this story, the sharing and learning from best practices is well intended and can, when done for the right reasons – certainly be of value. Everyone wants to get better at what they do and see their organization succeed. But too often leaders try to stitch together a set of best practices without understanding why those practices were successful in another setting. They fail to appreciate that they do not share the same underlying beliefs and assumptions that allowed those practices to have the impact that they did.

We see it all of the time in the culture work that we do. For example, deep down leaders may not believe in the importance of building the skills of their employees or see it as a priority, but they adopt a development program proven successful elsewhere, only to see it fail miserably. Or they hear about an organization that uses Town Halls to great effect to engage the workforce yet find that when implemented in their company, the sessions produce little more than 1-way communication and are viewed as a waste of time by attendees. How can that be?

The truly “best” practices develop from underlying beliefs and assumptions.

What we have learned is that the practices and habits developed in organizations are often the manifestation of the underlying beliefs and assumptions held by leaders and organizational members. If there is a fundamental belief that employee development is important to the success of the organization, then a multitude of programs that may take the form of mentoring, coaching, leadership development, etc. (a.k.a. Best Practices) will prove quite effective. If there is a fundamental belief that 2-way communication and interaction is beneficial for sharing information and soliciting reactions, Town Halls become lively exchanges of information and ideas.

What happens when these same practices are attempted without the same underlying beliefs? Employees see them for what they are – inauthentic and disingenuous. The result can be skepticism and even worse, cynicism. Leaders blame the ‘practice’ and often become resistant to try new things saying, ‘we tried that once and it blew up in our face’. They fail to see that it was not the ‘practice’ that failed, it was that the practice was never fully aligned with and rooted in their core beliefs as leaders.

Do you adopt the best practices for the best reasons?

There are many companies and many leaders that are doing great things every day. Examples of what can work and what is effective are abundant. At Denison, we see and capture those practices in an effort to support our clients on their journey to building high performance organizations. But we do so with caution. We ask our clients, are you attempting to simply stitch together practices from other organizations, much like Dr. Frankenstein did, only to produce something that is awkward and clumsy? Or do you truly share the underlying beliefs and assumptions that gave rise to the success of those practices. The honest answer to those questions will determine your ability to build on the successes of others or turn a good idea into something that is rejected and vilified.

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