The “B” word

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There’s too many “B” words being used in business today. Best practice. Benchmarking. Blue sky thinking. The box (and thinking outside it). Please don’t use these words in front of me. Like other profanities their meaning has been lost by overuse. They’re reduced to peppering business small talk, padding it out in an attempt to sound “with it” when really that mumbo jumbo should have been thrown out years ago.

If you must use one of the phrases then blue sky thinking is probably the least grating. It’s also the most up to date, although it’s roots in one of the other terms still render it dubious at best. That origin is “Thinking outside the box”, a saying thought to have been invented by management gurus around forty years ago. According to the legend they showed their clients a square pattern of nine dots and asked them to join all the dots with just four lines, or less. Those who felt constrained by the dots were unable to complete the puzzle, it being necessary to venture out into the unsullied space beyond the dots in order to find the solution. Thus the phrase was coined.

The original intention of these phrases, to promote lateral thinking and open mindedness, is now defunct. These days when employees hear those terms, their reaction is confusion. What is being asked of them? Looking back to the original puzzle this response is understandable. We’re asking them to think outside the box, but what’s out there? A blank piece of paper. Nothing. Whats in the blue sky? Maybe the odd cloud, the sun, but pretty much nothing.

So where is the box? The phrase is used by people who don’t know what they’re looking for, but know they haven’t found it yet, or by people berating others when they perceive them as being uncreative. They’re not helping someone overcome that boundary, they’re actually creating a boundary by telling someone it’s there. There’s nothing like constraining people’s freedom of thought and action by artificially fencing them in.

When people are told there is a boundary, they need to imagine where it is in order to be sure when they’ve crossed it. The most logical conclusion is the confines of the organisation itself. This is where performance comparison techniques such as benchmarking and best practice rush in to fill the perceived gap. Such yardsticks can be useful but not when that stick is used to beat employees with. What starts as an exercise in external validation can end up killing creativity and independent thought.

Both of these processes – benchmarking and best practice – are the safe options. Any insecurities can be easily swept under the carpet by the rubber stamp they provide. But, use of these techniques is not the Be All And End All cure for organisation ills. While we’re fretting about what everyone else is doing externally, desperately comparing ourselves and trying to plagiarise their work, we’re missing whats important. A purely external approach leaves the organisation blinkered to what’s inside the box. After all, inside the organisation is where the most important resource is found – it’s employees.

What’s best for another organisation and their unique circumstances, isn’t best when its grafted into another organisation via a drag and drop approach. Best isn’t some unattainable ideal placed just out of reach. Organisations already possess the best, if only they would unlock it’s potential. It’s not about best practice, it’s about becoming the best.

I was hoping to ban the “B” words, but I don’t think that’s possible. So instead I propose a compromise – to change the context. The word best may be used, but only as a factual description of your own organisation. Concentrate on what’s important first and forget about everybody else.

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