how to scale best practices without frustrating team

How to Scale Best Practices Without Frustrating Your Team

To scale best practices, focus on how they work in different contexts.

Has this ever happened to you? Your top-performing team seems to have discovered the secret to transforming their productivity, customer relationships, or sales. And then you think, “It’s time to scale best practices –everyone needs this asap!”

We’ve worked with many executives who quickly rolled out the new best practice—only to be frustrated with spotty adoption and lackluster results. In the meantime, they’ve frustrated their team because that supposed best practice didn’t make any sense for the work they do, the way they do it, or the customers they serve.

The next time you find a best practice, we invite you to wait and dive a little deeper. When you get it right and everyone owns it, you’ll sustain your results and be ready for the next change.

Start Here to Scale Best Practices

Javier was a well-loved director and also an accomplished Italian chef. Every year he would conduct an operational excellence rally that he personally catered with spaghetti made from homemade noodles, handcrafted sausages from wild game he’d hunted, and a sauce he cooked himself with vegetables he’d grown in his garden. It was an annual labor of love for Javier. His team always left the annual rallies energized.

Another director in the same organization confided her doubts about her team ever performing like Javier’s: “I don’t boil water, much less cook like that. Our rallies are flat by comparison. I mean, I’d rather be with Javier’s team too.”

She’d fallen into a common trap that prevents many organizations from scaling best practices: she’d focused on applying the practice, not the principle.

A principle is a concept that works universally.

For instance, “Treat your customer with respect” is a principle of customer service. But the practice of respect can look very different from culture to culture, city to city, and between industries.

Cooking a homemade meal for your team is a practice. For most people, that practice isn’t transferrable. But the principle of personally investing and connecting to your team is transferrable—every trained leader can do that.

You don’t scale practices; you scale principles.

What to Do with a Winning Idea

Even if that new best practice looks good on paper, your leadership team is on board, and it worked well in the IT war room, the following steps will help you and your leaders to find the scalable principle and how to make it work in other contexts.

1. Ask Why It Works

Sometimes you’ll have to ask “why” several times before you get to the essence of what really happened or the fundamental reasons for success.

For example, you see John, a customer service rep, consistently getting high scores from his customers. When your manager explores, he discovers that John ignores the opening script your quality team prepared and connects with genuine empathy. The answer is not to rewrite the script to match what John says. Rather, tap into the concept of genuine connection and help all reps get there in their own way.

It takes courage to ask “why.” You might discover that your breakthrough was really a matter of luck and fortunate timing rather than a repeatable principle everyone can use. That’s okay.

Also, when you help your team members to think critically about their own ideas, they’re more likely to find meaningful solutions.

More training is needed.

2. Test the Principle

Once you’ve found the principle in the best practice, test it, and see if it works the way you and your team think it does. Try it in different settings, with different people.

3. Listen Closely

As you test the principle and roll it out, really listen to what your people tell you. Check-in with stakeholders, partners, and customers. Respond to feedback with solutions, not selling. When you fix something, communicate the fix back to the team five times, five different ways.

4. Ask, How Can It Be Better?

As you continue to test and roll out the principle, ask questions that will help refine the principle:

  • How can we address challenges and make the change serve its purpose?
  • What’s working well and how do we leverage it?
  • What enhancements do we need?

All these questions help refine the principle—and they also build morale by including employees in your change efforts.

Scale Best Practices by Localizing the Principle

Once you have a winning idea, one key to refining a best practice is to help your teams work out the principle in ways that make sense and get results in their specific circumstances.

Here’s an excellent example of how to localize a principle when you want to scale best practices: Three contact centers were asked to improve their customer experience by increasing the empathy in their representatives’ customer interactions. The principle was “more empathy,” but each center took a different approach.

Center 1

One center focused on prepaid-phone customers. These customers were often viewed poorly by the service reps. (Their view of who buys prepaid phones was biased based on a small percentage of bad experiences.) The lack of empathy translated to poor customer service. To address the issue, the manager gathered everyone together and showed them a picture of Betty, a kind-looking elderly woman.

He described Betty: “She is a retired nurse. She was a Girl Scout leader for forty years. She was married for fifty-one years to the love of her life—a veteran who died recently. Betty is a prepaid-phone customer. She’s also my grandmother. Next time you take a prepaid call, picture Betty on the other end of the line.”

“What about Betty?” became a best practice for the principle of empathy. Coaches and team leaders could say “What about Betty?” for an instant boost to customer empathy.

Center 2

The second contact center heard about the first center had done with their “What about Betty?” campaign. They loved the idea— only one problem: the manager didn’t have a grandmother named Betty.

Their leadership team took a look at the principle: a person-focused reminder of what empathy looks like and came up with their own campaign. Every day for a week, various baby shoes, bibs, bottles, and pacifiers were scattered around the center. Then signs started to appear, “What happened to baby Carl?” People were concerned and intrigued. “Who is baby Carl?” they asked. “And what happened to him?”

At the end of the week, the leadership team pulled everyone together and revealed the meaning behind the baby items. “We know from the conversations this week that you were very concerned about this baby. Well, Carl is an acronym. It stands for Care About Real Lives. When you’re struggling for empathy, think about baby CARL.”

Then they got an infant-sized baby doll and wrapped it in a blanket. At first, the doll was used to recognize great acts of customer empathy. Soon, however, agents who were tired or struggling with empathy asked to borrow the doll and place it on their desks as a reminder to care about real lives and summon their empathy. This localized approach worked in their center and had a significant impact on their empathy and quality scores.

Center 3

The third center went a different way entirely. To increase empathy, they focused on how their leaders would show up with encouragement and empathy. Their best practices included behaviors like all the supervisors lining up as team members arrived for their shifts, then applauding and cheering for them as they entered the center. Team leaders made a point of asking agents “How are you doing?” and listening to the answers, reflecting the emotions they heard—in other words, showing empathy.

All three centers achieved improvements in the customer experience by increasing empathy during calls. But each of them localized the principle in a way consistent with their culture and context.

Your Turn

Finding and localizing the principle in order to scale best practices is an incredibly powerful technique to create ownership, pride, and sticky customer (and employee) experiences.

It’s also difficult for your competitors to mimic because they can’t just copy the best practice–if they try, they’ll be the ones frustrating their team with ideas that don’t work the way they intended.

We’d love to hear from you: Where have you experienced a best practice that’s used in different ways in different places?

You can download a FREE chapter of our new book Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates here.

Uncovering the Best Kept Secrets: Encouraging Your Team to Share Best Practices

Uncover the Best Kept Secrets: Get Your To Team Share Best Practices

The Biggest Reasons People Keep Their Best Ideas To Themselves

There’s no question about it. If you want great results, you’ve got to figure out what works, be sure everyone knows it, and get them to do that too.  And yet, most large teams haven’t figured out how to build the sharing of best practices into their cultural DNA.


1. Everyone’s Just Too Busy

Think about it. We bet right now you’ve got a best practice the guy down the hall could use, and he’s got one for you. But you’re busy. He’s busy. It’s tough to slow down to share. It’s easier just to buckle down and do the very best you can with what you know

2. The Stack Rank

It happens all the time. We ask Joe to share his very best practices with his peers on Tuesday. They love it. The adopt it. Three months later those same peers are playing Joe’s game better than Joe and he’s slid down a few notches on the stack rank which impacts his bonus and his pride.

Joe wonders why he didn’t just keep quiet. Stack ranked performance management systems often create behind-the-scenes pressure to hoard ideas.

3. Siloed Organizational Structures

When communication breaks down, the biggest culprit is often siloed organizational structures and competing departmental goals. For them to win, you feel like somehow you lose.  Or you’ve got departments that are separated by physical or political boundaries that stifle communication.

4. No One Asked

“I didn’t want to seem braggy.” “Who am I to tell my peers who to do their job?” “My Daddy always told me, never give unsolicited advice.”

It’s awkward at best to share best practices if you’ve not been asked. Far easier to just keep doing your thing.

How to Encourage Your Team to Share Best Practices

So, how do you uncover the best-kept secrets, despite these challenges?

The companies who excel at sharing best practices don’t just rely on grassroots sharing, eg: “Hey I’ve been trying this new sales approach, you should try it too.” They instead set the expectation that sharing best practices is a key job requirement and provide teams with the tools and processes to make it easy. Here are four ways to uncover your organization’s best-kept secrets and spread them throughout the organization:

1. Start with Your New Hires

You’ve hired from the outside for a reason, so what are you doing to tap into the best practices of your new hire’s former company? Set the expectation on day one that you’re going to be asking them to share best practices, so they’ll have time to really think this through. Then after they’ve had a month or so to settle in, carve out some one-on-one time to mine for best practices.

A few questions to get the conversation going:

  • How did they approach (insert your biggest challenge here) at your previous company?
  • What does XYZ company do better than we do?
  • What tools or processes do you miss from your old company?
  • If you could teach everyone here one best practice from your previous job what would that be?

Conclude the meeting by thanking them for all they shared now, and reinforce the expectation that best practice sharing is an important part of everyone’s job around here and that you look forward to more great ideas in the months and years to come.

2. Reward the Sharing and Receiving of Best Practices

We’re totally in love with this best practice shared by Michael Schrage in his HBR article.  Execs built a simple, yet highly effective recognition program that rewarded both the sharer and the person who leveraged the idea.

The design was simple, clever and cheap: top management would recognize and reward people who demonstrated an ability to cross-functionally get real value from their colleagues and cohorts. We created two complementary yet competitive awards: “Thief of the Month” — a modest prize and high-profile internal acknowledgement for teams and small groups who “stole” an idea or innovation from another unit and successfully incorporated it into their own business; and “We Wuz Robbed” — a comparably modest prize and recognition for having one’s group’s best practice or process adopted by another internal group.

The side effect was that people were going out of their way to identify their best practices and share with others. Instead of being accused of “stealing an idea” they were rewarded for it. Brilliant.

3. Build in Dedicated Time

We almost always start off our training programs with some sort of “wisdom exchange” on the topic, to identify the best practices of the folks in the room. It’s always fun to see the excitement and responsiveness to these ideas coming from people they work with every day. We hear “I didn’t know you did that,” or “Wow, that’s a great idea!” They’ve already learned something before we even start the training. Of course, you can easily do that too.

Why not carve out 30 minutes at your staff meeting once a month where everyone is required to come with one best practice to share with the rest of the team? Be clear that the expectation is that everyone must share. You’ll then have your team actively looking for the very best that people are doing, which can’t hurt morale, and it gives everyone on your team permission to “brag” without looking braggy, since it’s a requirement. When you hear a great idea, you can also talk as a team about how they’re going to try it between now and the next meeting, and you can open the next session by asking who tried it and how it went.

4. Leverage Technology to Build a Quick Best Practice Sharing Campaign

If you’ve got a large, geographically dispersed team, your best bet may be technology. Of course, just buying it isn’t enough. There are lots of dusty knowledge management systems around. Try some focused, time-bound campaigns.

For example, we’re currently working with 200 employees in a company located in five countries. We trained them in our Own the U.G.L.Y. methodology to identify the strategic opportunities for their teams. We’re collecting their responses through an online system to easily identify the most important priorities and foster collaboration and best practice sharing.

What Are YOUR Best Practices for Sharing Best Practices?

Speaking of online sharing, let’s help one another. Leave a comment and share: What would you add to this list?

If you’re looking for more ways to tap into your team’s best ideas check out our new book, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers and Customer Advocates.