Book Review: The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices by @PaulCulmsee & @KailashAwati


The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations
by Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati

The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations

by Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati

The monolithic topic of organizational theory may be a necessary evil in the worlds of project management and management as a whole, but only true wonks can be excited about diving into a dry and academic volume about best practices. Fortunately for everyone, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices is not one of those windy tomes that lay forth great deals of lofty theory but very little in the way of actual usable ideas and solutions.

Substantial and meaty, with a density of information disguised by its conversational tone and easiness to read, this book and its authors turn convention on its head and talk clearly and with plenty of supporting evidence about why many traditional best practices approaches are outdated and destined to ultimately fail.

What many of the rank-and-file already know – that conventional organizational theory can be bloated and empty all at once, and that these big ideas very often lose steam and die as soon as the memos about them have been read – is treated thoroughly in The Heretic’s Guide.

The authors’ assertions are amply illustrated with studies supporting their contentions and showing very clearly that many initiatives put forth in organizations to align the messaging and processes between the upper levels and lower-level people, on the face of it look polished, but are not as well-planned and effective as they first appear, and often fail at all but the theoretical level.

You find yourself nodding a lot as you see the authors’ thoughts about how closely many organizations actually resemble the world of Dilbert. Seeing these examples laid out all together helps you see the big-picture absurdity of swimming along in an ocean of meaningless buzzwords and best practices Kabuki. The book also helps you appreciate the practical ramifications of being entrenched in an organizational environment that is bogged down in keeping up appearances by digging up the latest trendy jargon and setting forth acronymized initiatives defined by platitudinous mission statements.

OK. So we know what the problems are with current best practices. What to do about it? How to shake it all up and apply practices that will actually work outside of the consultants’ boardroom? Besides pointing out the ills of present-day organizational theory and best practices, the authors take on addressing in practical, real ways solutions that are meant to unite the goals of the nebulous “They” at the top of an organization’s hierarchy, and the lower-level people who actually carry out the core tasks of the organization’s mission.

Though I hesitate to use the phrase “thinking outside the box” because it is exactly the kind of jargon that Paul and Kailash point and laugh at in the first section of the book, many of the techniques they propose to bring greater practicality, realism, and actual effectiveness to modern best practices are well-outside the mainstream and may seem unnatural and difficult to people who are accustomed, if not actually wholeheartedly buying in, to the status quo. The authors address the issues surrounding adopting less conventional approaches to organizational theory.

The third part of the book presents case studies supporting the unconventional approach to applying these solutions, and show that shrugging off the same old-same old best practices model can work in real-world organizational environments facing the same problems and ruts that any number of organizations can fall into if they don’t take a hard and realistic look at the actual effectiveness of their practices.

The authors thoroughly illustrate how being willing to step outside of the largely ridiculous traditional best practices model (that looks flashy but produces disappointing results that leave stakeholders feeling bewildered and betrayed, and which don’t provide real movement and results for an organization) can result in greater cohesion between high-level and lower-level folks, and yield more satisfying organizational results for everyone involved.

The authors have been paying attention, and have broken free of the traditional mindsets that are increasingly stale and ineffective in today’s rapidly changing business environment. Particularly appealing is their consideration for the little guy in the organization; the common sense approach they advocate is refreshing and provides an interesting and innovative perspective on effecting real and lasting change in stagnant organizations desperately needing change but drowning in a sea of empty and stillborn initiatives propped up mostly by ineffectual platitudes and buzzy concepts. The authors’ theses are well-supported with studies and examples that cleanly illustrate the authors’ points.

Paul and Kailash give to us a book that is no-nonsense and peppered with a charming dry humor that is engaging and pleasurable to read – even for laypersons not heavily immersed or well-versed in best practices or organizational theory. The book is ideal for neophytes just getting into the subject who want to kick their careers off with innovative approaches, as well as for old war dogs who are looking to shake things up and make the most of the benefits of applying sound and meaningful best practices to their organizations.

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