Innovation: Rethink “Best Practices”

Has the term “best practice,” become industry jargon for a common implementation, technique, principle, or simple way of doing business that becomes widely adopted in organizations? If so, then “best practice” is a complete misnomer. There are a growing number of voices in leading organizations who believe that this is the case. In a world in which both business and government must innovate or stagnate, the “best practice” may be a call to mediocrity rather than a wise buffer against failure. Let’s examine some organizational voices that have asked us to be wary of “best practices.”

Mike Myatt of Forbes states pretty plainly that “best practices – aren’t.” The implication is that it is not possible to gain a lead in an industry if the assumption is that following a common rule is regarded as the “best” thing to do. He views best practices as mythical, wants to remove them from the leadership vocabulary, and notes that their adoption is based on a misguided notion of emulation. Company Y sees the value of the practice to company X, and falsely assumes it can be just as successful using the practice. The factors that lead to success with a company are complex and varied, and sometimes are a matter of being in the market at just the right time. The instinct to copy is found even in open-air African fruit markets, where vendors will switch to trying to sell whatever foods they see their competitors selling the most. However, even the world’s largest tech companies emulate each other: for instance, Apple iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive, and Google Cloud Storage all essentially do the same thing.

Another voice in innovation and leadership echoing caution about best practices is entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham. Graham himself, as a startup founder years ago, went against the grain of industry. When developing his main project, Viaweb, Graham used desktop PCs as servers instead of industrial-level machines and used the highly academic but flexible language Lisp for the software. His take on best practices is as follows:

“Within large organizations, the phrase used to describe this approach is ‘industry best practice.’ It’s purpose is to shield the pointy-haired boss from responsibility: if he chooses something that is ‘industry best practice,’ and the company loses, he can’t be blamed. He didn’t choose, the industry did.”

Approach best practices with caution, as most of the time they are really just “average” practices. Contact us to continue the discussion on better approaches to leadership and innovation.

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