I came across a Ted Talks video today that got me thinking about the overuse of the term “Best Practices” in the accounting profession. While I understand the meaning of the term and have been known to use it myself from time to time, I have always been troubled by the common use of the phrase. On the surface, it seems to refer to the implementation of the best solutions to the common challenges facing CPA firms. But I think far too often best practices is code for following the herd and suppressing ingenuity.

In the middle of a TEDx Talks, Shawn Achor speaks briefly on the danger of group think and the glorification of the average. The entire episode covers a great topic, but the first few minutes below “Escaping the Cult of the Average” is especially powerful and relevant to our industry today with the prevalence of copycat mediocrity.

So back to the topic at hand, “best practices.” Best practices seem like a great idea, don’t they? I mean why reinvent the wheel when it’s not necessary? That’s my first problem with the phrase. I feel like it’s emblematic of a profession that too often lacks creativity and ingenuity at the management level. Everyone is looking to copy someone else’s good idea. So who is coming up with the good ideas in the first place? Is best practices simply code for copying someone else’s idea?

While I struggle with conflicting viewpoints regarding the value of capitalizing on good ideas vs. the resulting lack of creativity industry wide, that’s not the biggest problem that I have with best practices. The biggest problem I have with best practices is the resulting group think and herd mentality that arises. The “Well, what is everyone else doing?” cop out that is masked in the managerial safety net of best practices.

Every time I hear a managing partner ask me what best practices are, I wonder whether they are really looking for the best available solution as a starting point, or whether they are really asking, “What is everyone else doing?” Far too often, further investigation reveals they are simply looking to safely fall in line with everyone else. And the more your firm safely falls in line with everyone else, the more you fit it. And by fitting in, by definition, you’ll be average.  Is that your job as the visionary executive leader of your organization? To fall in line and be average?

In the field of marketing, there’s a lot of copying. When I hear, “What are other firms like ours doing?” I immediately cringe. “What are best practices for a mid-sized local firm?” is another cringe-worthy question. It’s a question that begs another. Are you looking to be like all of the other mid-sized local firms? If so, then by all means, join the herd, we are all heading towards that nice looking cliff off on the horizon.

Marketing, like many other areas of management, needs to be visionary and aspirational. If you must ask what best practices are, look at what has been done by firms that have come from where you are to where you want to be. Study the fast growing firms, the profitable firms, those that have left the herd for good. They might just have some actual “best practices” that you can learn from.

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