Best Practices Define What Has Been Done Well, But May Stifle the Possible

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” – Yogi Berra

 “To make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan

It is common for companies to explore, identify and implement best practices they can use to either compare themselves to, or help identify gaps they should close in a particular area of focus.  This was a practice that really took hold in the early 90’s when TQM, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing and other inspired Japanese management processes were being introduced to North America and Europe.  It was very common back then for companies to hire consultants to conduct studies, gather the information and put together reports of best practices that could be used as benchmarks for just about anything.  This was all very labour intensive but useful at this point given the pre-internet stage of gathering data.  Additionally, the field of contemporary organization effectiveness was only in its adolescent stage at best and hungry for new information.  OE scholars and practitioners were obsessed (and quite competitive I would add) with the new knowledge and insights they could use and actually sold these best practice studies like products. We have to be reminded that the mainstream use of the internet was only just beginning in the mid-90s! Back then best practice insights were carefully guarded corporate secrets leveraged for sustainable competitive advantage, as companies who were first to successfully implement them bolted to the front of their markets.  Dupont, Toyota, Sony and Microsoft were good examples of this.

Today, I think relying on best practices has its flaws and actually stifles versus stimulates innovation and creativity.  Essentially, they really define what has been done well versus what is possible or could be.

Fast forward to 2013 and with internet availability and access to insights and practices for just about anything, best practices are at your fingertips – no consultants required.  

Unfortunately, in my opinion, what has resulted are very ho-hum best practice lists. What was inspiring, enlightening, and even earth-shattering over 20 years ago is well known and even standard practice now.  Am I saying what the US patent office purportedly had said in the early 1900s, that it was considering shutting down because they thought everything that could be invented was invented?  Absolutely not.  I just find that even best practices are not sustainable given the speed, complexity and globalization of business.  Additionally they are usually too high level, already well known, too general and not relevant enough for the unique organization and business situations they are being considered for. Plus, relying on such lists to define benchmarks can create internal laziness relative to what might actually be required, can reinforce a “me-too” perspective, and risks diminishing the stretch possibility thinking you want.  I’m not inferring that best practices should be abandoned; however it is risky to assume that they are the be all and end all of ensuring a company remains positive, productive and profitable, especially if it stifles creative solutions and outside-the-box thinking.  

What can be far more valuable and effective is both a good challenge question coupled with multi-disciplinarian exploration that leapfrogs conventional wisdom and spawns new “discontinuous” and even disruptive thinking about a current challenge at hand.  Asking different questions plants the true seeds of inquisitiveness, and multi-disciplinarian exploration leads one into the ‘stocked ponds’ of new ideas and insights.  For example, when data base developer Erik Lumer took on the challenge of dramatically increasing the flexibility of the custom-profiling system for the banking industry he gleaned his insights from studying how worker ants cluster their dead when cleaning their nests. Inspiration can be found just about anywhere when you open your mind to the possibilities.  Roger van Oech, a thought leader in innovation and author of “A Whack on the Side of the Head” and the Creative Whack Pack has often said “Innovation is seeing the obvious… and thinking something different. “ However, perhaps George Bernard Shaw summarizes my thoughts the best with his iconic quote: “You see things; and you say: “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say: “Why not?”

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