The Myth of Best Practice

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How many times have you heard someone say or have asked “What’s best practice?” We all strive to achieve it based on an assumption that it will create competitive advantage but of course if everyone adopted the so called best practice it would be the median practice.

We get better through repetition ironing out inefficiencies and the potential for error. A “best way” emerges that we constantly adjust to respond to external influence; learning from the past while adapting for the present; linear constant improvement.

Technology has fueled the pace of change but does it mean we need to re-think the “best way” model to stay ahead? Will the future be so different that what we learn from the past will be irrelevant? If that were the case looking back to “best practice” could destroy value. For example if customers are buying online, refurbishing the store will not improve sales but improving your online presence or relocating the store to provide more convenience might.

When things are going well is the most dangerous time, that’s when so called “best practice” get locked in as the secret to success. There is an unwillingness to jeopardize success (or career) by proposing new approaches. How an organization’s culture embraces personal risk taking will influence its willingness to manage corporate risk involved with change.

Entrepreneurs approach business with curiosity and, like a novice see many ways in which things can get done. To an expert on the other hand there will appear fewer options and less willingness to jettison something that has been previously successful. Technology has meant adopting a mindset of constant change.

The fundamental element of any business in beating the competition is by responding to customer behavior and if that involves something that’s never been done before, an environment where it can be created and tested will need to be established. Uber harnessed technology to disrupt the taxi business and continues to do so with autonomous vehicles because it envisions that today’s business model will not apply in the future.

This mindset need not just apply to product innovation; try developing revenue forecasts starting at zero. Consider where will income come from and how it will be earned. Figuring out how much the market will grow may not reflect the pace of change in customer behavior. Change is increasingly not linear and is coming in fits and starts – so should strategic planning – the annual cycle may no longer be frequent enough.

Resistance to change is often reinforced by the questions we ask, for example “What’s the return on investment?” To avoid “best practice” syndrome a better question might be “What’s the return on that idea?” or “How do we predict our customers might respond?”. These enquiries will start to change organizational thinking and behavior.

Sometimes ideas will fail and no one likes to fail. If the pushback is too great it will cause the turtle to retreat into its shell. Attempting precedes succeeding and that is where the focus should be. Learn and adjust and avoid embarrassment or, blame and cause a return to past behavior.

This blog draws on a Knowledge@Wharton radio show featuring Geoff Tuff and Steven Goldbach’s book “Detonate: Why and How Corporations Must Blow Up Best Practices (and Bring a Beginner’s Mind)”.

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