Adjunct Lecturer of Social Enterprise, Kellogg School of Management
We cite “best practices” all of the time in education. The exemplars, the models, and the idea that, “If we could only scale this strategy, all would be solved.” In some ways, the pursuit of best practices may be our collective way of saying, “Thank goodness, somebody else figured this problem out; now we can just do what they did.” The harder but much more sustainable strategy, however, is not about replicating the best practice, but about having the discipline and humility to constantly improve and iterate on your own strategies.
The harder but much more sustainable strategy, however, is not about replicating the best practice, but about having the discipline and humility to constantly improve and iterate on your own strategies.
To our disservice, the philanthropic and education sectors rely too heavily on best practices as the key to determining where resources should flow, which programs should be scaled, and which leaders should be speaking at your next conference or convening. Sometimes best practices are identified by virtue of strong aggregate student outcomes combined with savvy marketing, public relations, and advocacy strategies. I certainly don’t blame organizations for trying to raise the profile of their work in order to attract resources, but we should be collectively careful in what we celebrate and why. Perhaps our desire to find best practices makes us see them where they may not exist.
While we seek “best practices” in the world of education, I suggest that instead we should be focusing our attention on “best processes.” Everything we do in life, be it getting ready for work to improving educational outcomes for all students in an urban school district, is a process. Every process, furthermore, has the opportunity to be improved in factors of both efficiency and effectiveness. When I look to strong social sector and education organizations, I find those that are having a dramatic and sustained impact on outcomes share some organizational characteristics: they dedicate time and resources to understanding how they learn as an organization, to knowing what data are critical for improvement, and to adjusting their strategies based on what they are learning.
As you think about these organizational characteristics, there are some key questions that can helpful to answer as a team in order to identify your own “best processes”:
- How does your organization learn? – Does your organization regularly take time to reflect on its craft, asking why things are done a certain way? Can you point to aspects of your work today that are different than three to six months ago based on something you learned in the field? Where do insights come from and what are the processes in place to constantly capture those insights? Are those insights from the field celebrated and explored or dismissed as exceptions? How are you structured as a team in order to bring learning to the entire organization for the benefit of those you serve?
Often times, what is going to improve your organization’s outcomes and the outcomes of those you hope to serve is sitting within your organization.
- What data does your organization use to improve? – What informative, interesting, and impactful data are you reviewing regularly in order to improve your practices (both programmatic and organizational)? What is your data routine? How often is your team coming together to talk through what the data are telling you? How visible are the data throughout your organization?
- How willing are you to adjust strategy? – This may be the most important question to be asking your organization. In the face of new insights from the field, your beneficiaries, and from improvement cycles, will you actually adjust strategy? How frequently are you willing to do so and how will you share these changes with your stakeholders? What does it take to make these pivots and shifts in your organization?
I encourage all organizations to think about these three big questions and their derivatives. Often times, what is going to improve your organization’s outcomes and the outcomes of those you hope to serve is sitting within your organization. It is not a shiny new exemplar program that you learn about at a conference, but rather a disciplined and thoughtful set of learning and improvement processes that will lead to sustained success.