Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 43;   October 24, 2007: Worst Practices

Worst Practices

by

We hear a lot about best practices, but hardly anybody talks about worst practices. So as a public service, here are some of the best worst practices.
Mustang stallions fighting

Mustang stallions fighting. With tooth and hoof, stallions use these fights — most often — to settle differences of opinion about reproductive rights. The mares usually accept the result of these conflicts, though they do occasionally object. The social system of the wild horse functions to optimize the fitness of the next generation, because in Nature, there's little room for anything less than the best. Organizations can learn much from Nature's systems. Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

The mythology about best practices is that they universally improve every organization. The truth is more likely that organizations are so idiosyncratic that any practice born elsewhere probably needs tailoring before it can be imported. My old shoes are very comfortable for me, but they probably aren't for you.

Worst practices are different — they're almost universally disastrous. We know this because, sadly, nearly everyone tries them. Here's a short list of some worst practices.

  • Provide only outdated equipment. Even better: make people share outdated equipment.
  • For security, lock all portable computers to desks
  • Never, ever train anybody
  • Use training as a reward. Provide it only to those who need it least.
  • To increase productivity, increase pressure
  • Let acrimony persist until it's truly injurious
  • Leave in place people who are clearly incapable of doing much of anything
  • Assign blame
  • Spend time defending yourself in case someone, someday decides to assign blame
  • Take credit for work done by subordinates or colleagues
  • Give credit to one person for what was a team effort, ignoring everyone else's contributions
  • Kill the messenger: punish people who deliver bad news
  • Kill the non-messenger: after you get bad news, punish those who knew about it but didn't tell you because you have a reputation for killing the messenger
  • Force consensus by shaming or punishing those few souls foolish enough to disagree with the "correct" position
  • Force consensus without allowing time for sufficient discussion
  • Make decisions autocratically even when there's time for consensus
  • Have favorite subordinates who can do no wrong
  • The worst thing about
    worst practices isn't their
    consequences; it's that we
    keep using them despite
    their consequences
    Have troubled subordinates who can do no right, even when they do right
  • As team owner, publicly castigate team members
  • Publicly overrule a subordinate manager, citing information obtained from one of his or her subordinates
  • "Sit in" on a subordinate's meeting unannounced
  • Make the problem excessively complicated by raising herds of ancillary minor issues
  • Angrily say things that hurt people, damaging the group's ability to collaborate
  • Add new people to the team. Even better: do it in a way that raises questions about the abilities of incumbents
  • "Temporarily" transfer some team member(s) to another effort
  • Conduct "emergency" project reviews regularly
  • Increase the budget without warning
  • Decrease the budget
  • Circulate rumors that maybe we'll be cutting the budget
  • Tighten project scope to maintain schedule
  • Use (faked) schedule urgency as a way of managing spending
  • Remove or relax some requirements
  • After work is well underway, add new requirements or tighten existing requirements
  • Reassign some work from one team member to another
  • Assign the same work to two people (or teams) without their knowing it
  • Assign to one person work already completed by another
  • Assign work to two people, together, without designating either one as lead

Count how many of these you've seen. Even scarier: count how many you've done. Go to top Top  Next issue: Illusory Incentives  Next Issue

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