Why don’t organizational best practices get adopted?

Five years ago I wrote (with more than a little frustration): “I’ve read quite a few books related to organizational psychology and culture. All of these books use scientific evidence to support ideas that in many ways fly in the face of conventional wisdom. What’s surprised me most is that many of the clear best practices have still not been widely adopted, sometimes decades after first publication. Culture and habits are difficult to change.”

But why? Why is it so difficult to adopt practices that clearly work? When I pose this type of question to innocent bystanders, they tend to chuckle and tell me how idealistic I am. (A visiting Congolese elder once replied, “You have a pure heart.”) The implication, I suppose, is that human nature is self-centered, ignorant, and lazy. But I’m not the only one who questions that assumption. Certainly in my own life I’ve found some types of change to be very hard. But I’ve also worked very hard to make the changes that were important to me, and I’ve seen others do the same.

One explanation for change resistance I eventually honed is what I call “the Pope’s dilemma.” It goes as follows. Suppose you are the head of the catholic church. Your institution has for decades discriminated against LGBT members. You now realize that there is an avalanche of evidence showing that homosexuality is not a “choice” and your past policies and behaviors have caused incalculable suffering amongst the very congregants you hoped to serve. To make a change implies acknowledging the terrible mistakes of the past. How do you do this in a graceful way that does not upset the very credibility of the institution?

I eventually learned that this process has a name: reparation. Clearly, most of us are not yet very good at it. The hardest step in the reparation process is to forgive ourselves for the pain we have caused. There are all sorts of mind games we use to avoid thinking about that pain at all costs and to cast doubt on even the clearest of evidence that change is both warranted and possible. Although the suffering caused by outmoded business assumptions is not usually as dire as in the textbook cases of reparation, I do continue to think that this is a major factor holding up the adoption of many beneficial business practices.

But more recently I’ve realized that there is an even deeper answer provided by the theory and practice of next-stage organizations, many of which apply all sorts of best practices — sometimes seemingly effortlessly — while also continuing to invent new ones. Curiously, these companies tend to implement these practices for reasons that have little to do with any experimental evidence showing increases in employee retention, customer satisfaction, or profitability. Rather, they do it because that is the type of world they want to create and live in. A world abundant in generosity, compassion, connection, and wholeness. Next-stage organizations appreciate that those things often turn out to be good for business, but it’s not the motivating factor. These cultures choose generosity regardless of its direct impact on sales.

In other words, these new business practices tend to flow naturally from a certain world view (specifically, the view that has come to be known as “teal”). Conversely, those new business practices tend to react like oil and water against the world view of mainstream business. I can imagine plenty of managers who read these business advice books and want to implement some of their well-reasoned recommendations. And then: the organizational antibodies set in.

  • Some of the ideas seem too risky. (“Maybe it worked for some, but our business is different.”)
  • Some seem too expensive. (“We can’t justify spending money on something so peripheral to the core business.”)
  • Some seem too uncomfortable. (“We don’t talk about emotions at work.”)
  • Changes that do make it through get so watered-down as to be useless, or get little enough buy-in to be irrelevant, or quickly get cast aside when the next crisis or crunch comes along.

And thus we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation where mainstream business fully accepts the value of science and experiment and yet cannot integrate some of the best practices that result from these experiments! Meanwhile, in the emerging world of next-stage organizations, those very same scientific results are viewed as largely irrelevant, and yet the best practices they support are adopted eagerly and authentically!

For me, it was the scientific pursuit of best practices that helped me uncover these paradoxes and the understanding that there are other, perhaps more important ways of discovering best practices. (Are they generous? Compassionate? Do they build relationships? Are they authentic? More broadly, do they promote the type of world you want to live in?)

And, perhaps less importantly, it helped shed some light on why business advice books continue to fly off the shelves with little apparent effect on the day-to-day culture of business.

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