Navigating the Best Practice Jungle – When best practice isn’t the best strategy

Herein lies the value of a framework. We at The Natural Step are big fans of planning that incorporates backcasting—beginning with the end in mind. When a company knows what the end game looks like, it can cut out a lot of the confusion around whether certain current best practices are relevant for it. From a sustainability perspective, this looks like the company defining what success looks like, constrained by fundamental socio-ecological principles of sustainability—or having eliminated its contribution to root causes of unsustainability. When considering an initiative already in practice in other organizations or industries, one can screen its applicability by determining whether it will move the organization toward its long-term vision of success, whether it can act as a flexible platform, and whether it will provide sufficient return on investment for the company.

This is echoed by Richard Rumelt in his June 2011 McKinsey Quarterly report, The Perils of Bad Strategy, where he notes that good strategy—strategies that work—have a basic underlying structure which includes:

  1. A diagnosis: an explanation of the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as being the critical ones.
  2. A guiding policy: an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.
  3. Coherent actions: steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy.

This approach, informed by a definition of the end game—which itself clarifies the challenge/diagnosis—helps to weed the applicable best practices from the so-called ‘best practice jungle.’ It also sets the company up to develop its own new practices—the next practices of its industry—which may in turn become the best practices of tomorrow, then status quo, and then passé. And that’s a good thing, too. We need evolution. It’s how we—and our companies—develop to survive and thrive.

Best practices have their place. They provide inspiration and proof of possibility. After all, they are not called best for nothing. To take a leadership position, however, best practices need to be complimented by a bolder narrative for sustainability guided by a strong framework. Then we can focus on what Rosenzweig calls, “what we know is true.” This will include knowledge of the company’s key sustainability challenges, strengths, and a clear sense of where the organization is heading for the future—a defined end game. With a clear sense of the gap to close, companies can then look to current best practices for inspiration and starting pads. These, in turn, can be utilized to spark development of the organization’s next practices, which will provide the stepping stones off of which it can leap to the sustainable future.

Happy planning!

Sarah Brooks is a Principal Advisor and the Senior Manager of Sustainable Business with The Natural Step Canada. Find out more about The Natural Step Canada’s service offerings for business or contact Sarah at sbrooks(at) to organize a free webinar for your team. To receive quarterly communiqués on sustainable business topics from The Natural Step Canada, please click here.