When I ask my students in my Strategic Internal Communication class what they want to learn in the course, I hear one phrase come up again and again.
"I want to learn about best practice in internal communication”
“I’m really keen to implement best practice in my work”
Best practice seems to be the holy grail in the world of internal communication. But what does it mean?
Definition of best practice
Our pal ChatGPT gave me this definition:
“The term "best practice" refers to a set of guidelines, methods, or techniques that are widely recognized as the most effective and efficient approaches for achieving a particular goal or outcome. Best practices serve as recommendations or principles that are proven to produce positive results and are often adopted as industry standards.”
But it means more than that. From my discussions with members of the internal communication community, best practice essentially boils down to “what everyone else is doing”. It’s about benchmarking against others and following cues from other practitioners. It’s about implementing other people’s ideas.
When people say “I want to adopt best practice” what they are really saying is “I want to do what everyone else is doing.”
What’s wrong with best practice?
The myth of best practice makes us believe that there is a right and a wrong way to do something. It makes us nervous about treading our own path by creating the illusion that there are definitive ways of how things should be done.
Remember, every current best practice was once just someone’s new idea. Someone came up with a new way to do something, tested it out and got good results. They repeated it and it became a practice that other people copied. It's a bit like painting your whole house gray because that’s what everyone else is doing, and interior designers call it ‘best practice’.
Best practice is just mimicry
Best practices are often developed based on specific contexts, such as industry norms or organisational structures. But every organisation is unique; it has its own culture and set of specific challenges. What works well in one organisation may not yield positive results in another. So blindly following best practices without considering the specific context may limit creativity and hinder your ability to solve the organisations problems.
What works well in one organisation may not yield positive results in another.
In my experience, the problems of organisational communication are universal but the solutions are not. In some areas of internal communication there are good frameworks to follow and reasonable areas of ‘copy and paste’, but when it comes to solving for specific business problems I have yet to see any universal solution that would solve the unique, individual problems of organisations.
If your professional life is spent imitating what others are doing, you’ll always be playing catch-up and your confidence will always wobble.
Trust me, I didn’t win 4 internal communication awards by copying other people’s ideas.
Best practice in internal communication states that communication channels should be two-way. However, I worked in an organisation where all of their channels were two-way and they were so noisy. Leadership announcements were lost in a sea of two-way chatter that resulted in widespread confusion about important business updates. What this organisation needed was a broadcast, announcements channel that was one-way only in order to make the leadership voice heard and create clarity. This solution worked very well when I implemented it, but it flew in the face of best practice.
Best practice places emphasis on conformity
Taking a best practice approach isn’t wrong. It’s just… safe. It shows you the common practices that generally work well and will help you avoid making easy-to-avoid mistakes. Best practices can help you mitigate risk as you’re following a well-trodden path. They are a helpful guide if you are early in your career and need a bit of a map to guide you in the world of internal communication.
We need to learn from these practices and from those who have been working in the internal comms industry longer than we have, yes. But we should be wary to think of ‘best practice’ as untouchable rules that must be followed without interrogation.
It’s a bit like going on holidays. Following the best practices in travel will bring you to the Eiffel Tower or Machu Picchu or the Grand Canyon; well-trodden paths which cater to tourists and that feel safe and easy. But if you stick rigidly to only visiting the tourist sights, you’ll miss out on the local restaurants, the haggley markets, the hidden beaches, the winding streets of an old neighbourhood – all the little gems where you might find the true rewards and make the best memories.
So do you want to conform? Or do you want to explore?
Best practice for internal events these days is to make them hybrid, in order to include all employees. But in a previous job, I ran an event where I made the deliberate decision to not hold a hybrid event and to fully only include those who could physically attend. Attendance was higher than any previous event as people had a case of FOMO. Hybrid events are rarely good as you need to essentially create two different experiences; one for those attending in-person and one for those watching online. Both audiences tend to have a mediocre experience. In this instance, I again bucked best practice and opted for an in-person event only. The event got an audience rating of 9.4/10 and helped to significantly improve their understanding of the business strategy.
Best practice stifles innovation and risk-taking
Adhering strictly to best practice approaches will help you avoid failures that others have experienced before. Best practices are generally designed to minimise risks and optimise results based on past experiences. This can discourage risk-taking and experimentation.
Innovation requires uncertainty and risk-taking.
If you feel bound by best practices, you may shy away from exploring new ideas or trying risky new approaches.
In his 2011 book, Best Practices Are Stupid, Stephen Shapiro argues that non-stop innovation is vital for high-performing organisations, and is essential in order to stay competitive and to make money. But blindly following best practice can hinder this and make us stay the course on safe, well-trodden paths rather than innovate and investigate and interrogate new ways of working.
Similarly, Clayton Cristensen states that organisations need to be innovative and nimble in order to avoid being overtaken by competitors, in his 2007 book The Innovators Dilemma.
I firmly believe that we NEED to take risks and fail in order to learn, grow and innovate.
If you want to deliver more than mediocre results, you need to innovate. You think to think creatively, try to solve problems in new ways, apply your thinking in different ways. This means being willing to step out of your comfort zone and try new things and make mistakes.
Best practice in internal communication says that curating content from employees, rather than creating it as a central comms team, is the way to go. This may take the form of employees writing blogs, creating their own videos or creating articles for your newsletter. It's all about employee advocacy these days. But I worked in an organisation where this would have been a terrible approach to use, because employees lacked the ability to write succinctly or clearly. They tended to send me 4,000 word blog articles which were repetitive and dull, and were not fit to publish to an audience. Instead, I hired a professional writer who acted as my in-house journalist, phoning employees to do interviews and writing up articles on their behalf. This was a hugely successful approach which was not best practice - it resulted in me winning quite a few awards.
Best practice makes us resistant to change
Best practices are generally based on proven methods that have worked in the past. This can make internal communicators resistant to change, or reluctant to deviate from what has been deemed the “best” way to do something. This may cause you to hesitate to propose new ideas or alternative solutions, for fear of being seen as not doing what is ‘best’.
This approach is career suicide for an internal communicator in an era of rapidly evolving communication tools, channels and approaches. Advancements in technologies, changes in the needs of employees and a multi-generational workforce are all causing disruptions in the world of internal communication. So best practices may not reflect the most up-to-date approaches for the modern workforce.
If you have the bravery to avoid rigid adherence to best practice, you can stay agile as an internal communicator. You can experiment with new channels and techniques and adapt to the changing landscape more effectively.
If best practice is so problematic, then WHY ARE WE OBSESSED WITH IT?
Our obsession with best practice suggests that we don’t have the confidence in our own abilities to be original and to try out our own unique ideas. We are so nervous, so tentative, so lacking in bravery and courage, that we are obsessed with copying others and reverting to tried-and-tested ideas instead of coming up with our own original techniques.
Does our obsession with best practice come from a lack of confidence?
I meet a lot of internal communicators who suffer from imposter syndrome and a lack of confidence. Is this why we, as a community, seem so obsessed with the concept of best practice?
I haven’t made my mind up about this yet. What do you think? Am I way off or on the right track?
Charting a path forward
You can’t have an outstanding career in internal communication if you’re hyper focused on ‘best practice’. We need to stop focusing on what everyone else is doing and focus on our own continuous improvement instead. We also need to develop the confidence to do our own thing and forge our own path. I like James Clear's approach of trying to get 1% better each day.
There’s a balance, isn’t there. We should leverage existing best practices for foundational knowledge, particularly for communicators with little experience who are finding their feet. But we also need to focus on innovation and make time for experimentation, risk-taking and exploring new ideas. This can foster a mindset that embraces learning from failure and embracing change.
So here’s my advice: stop focusing on ‘best practice’. Stop feeling the pressure to do what everyone else is doing. Why not set a goal of trying 1 new thing in the next 30 days? Take a risk that you would usually avoid.
This innovation will help you learn and grow faster than any ‘best practice’ approach ever could.
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