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Series: Ideas to retire

Idea to retire: The “best practice” of doing more with less

John Leslie King

Was there ever a dumber idea than doing more with less? Perhaps “best practice” qualifies. Both ideas should be relegated to the ash heap of history even faster than they will get there, which they inevitably will. As long as they are around they do enormous damage. This essay explains why these ideas are pernicious, yet have broad appeal. Public sector IT managers are not alone in receiving such suggestions. However, they deal with “systematic” issues and should be in the vanguard of public managers who respond to these well-intentioned but ultimately ridiculous suggestions.

Doing more with less flies in the face of what everyone already knows: we do less with less. This is not our preference, of course. Most of us would like to do less, especially if we could have more. People are smart: they do not volunteer to do more if they will get less. Doing more with less turns incentive upside down. It is telling that those who think others should do more with less often want more for this advice. Eliminating truly wasteful practices and genuine productivity gains sometimes allows us to do more with less, but these cases are rare. The systemic problems with were not solved by spending less, but by spending more. Deep wisdom lies in matching inputs with outputs, as discussed below.

There are two problems with “Best Practice.” First, what is claimed to be best practice is often not practiced by anyone. Consider the old saying, “Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.” No one wants to be a loser. People embellish their reports, including reports of practice, to say what they would like to do, especially if that sounds better than what they actually do. Proof that anyone actually practices so-called “best practices” is remarkably thin. It is impossible to tell from most reports of “best practice” whether any organization has actually practiced what is claimed. Claims are taken on faith. Embellishments start small, and grow over time. Cognitive dissonance is powerful: few managers want to try something that new, especially if its main attraction is that it has been proven in practice.

Second, how can you tell if “best practice” is “best?” Does “best” means “global best” or “local best,” “best possible” or “best under the circumstances?” The moment one adds contingencies to “best,” doubts set in about whether it is really the best. Maybe “it all depends.” Is a practice “best” or merely “good?” If evaluation depends in part on judgment, and is not wholly due to objective measurement, differentiating “best” from “good” is impossible. What about Voltaire’s claim (he was not alone) that the best is the enemy of the good? Does “best practice” preclude “good practice?” “Best practice” is, according to the old saying, “made to sell.”

Doing more with less and following best practice should be advantageous to managers during tight budget times, hence the appeal. It is crazy to argue for doing less with more, or following “worst practice.” But doing more with less can seldom be done, and best practice usually dissolves into semantic ambiguity. Giving up the literal meaning of both ideas triggers useful but difficult questions. The discussion of doing more with less ought to include the relationship between inputs and outputs. Genuine waste, fraud, and abuse should be rooted out, but there is usually less of this than candidates for public office talk about. Such “low-hanging fruit” has often been harvested long before any well-intentioned manager comes on the scene. Similarly, opportunities to improve productivity should be pursued, but genuine productivity improvement in the economy is rare enough to be measured in single-digit percentages.

The admonition to do more with less should cause managers to acknowledge that most organizations do less with less, especially over time. “Less” can show up in sneaky ways, such as when shrinking resources lead to quality degradation and work speedups. Mismatches between inputs and expectations cause equipment to be ill-maintained and not replaced as needed (the dreaded “deferred maintenance”); skilled workers leave for better conditions (workers hate work speedups); smart managers bolt before they become known as parents of a failure (leaving only the less smart managers). These are the slow and crippling paths to “less,” meaning less organizational capability. The honest path is to discuss with stakeholders why and how their interests must be cut back. Lower inputs mean less will be done; doing more with less is wishful thinking.

Considering best practice should cause the smart manager to probe, in addition to who practices it and whether it is really the best, how good the outputs of the organization should be. The choice is seldom between “the worst” and “the best.” It is usually between “not good enough” and “good enough.” The relationship between practice and quality is important, and ought to be what “best practice” is really about. Great ideas might come from watching others: imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. But when someone – especially someone from outside – says that the organization should follow a particular “best practice,” take it with a grain of salt.

Going forward, public sector IT managers should respond to suggestions of doing more with less by assessing what really needs to be done, and treating the least necessary as candidates for doing less. This should be accompanied by determining which stakeholders will be hurt, and how best to deal with them. The objective is to balance inputs and outputs without stretching inputs beyond their limits. Similarly, discussions of best practice should be followed by talking to those who purportedly follow the practice. Learn from them to help determine whether the practice might be good for the manager’s organization. Avoid the quagmire of “best;” it is neither necessary nor helpful. Find good practice. It might come from outside.



John Leslie King

Dr. John Leslie King is W.W. Bishop Professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He studies the relationship between technical and social change.

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