Four Ways to Kill Best Practice

By Megan Louw

One of the phrases I hate to hear in a meeting is “best practice.” Some executives, especially those in large enterprises full of hierarchy, rules and rigid structure, feel the need to follow this dangerously linear way of thinking as a means to justify change. Consultants use this as a way to dress up old rope and sell it for new prices.

Granted, not all best practice methods are useless. If I were to have open heart surgery, I would prefer my doctor to follow best practice. An engineer planning a high-rise building in the middle of Tokyo, would do well to use what’s considered best practice. However, when trying to drive change, innovate or be disruptive, following best practice methods becomes a glaringly obvious contradiction.

Here are four ways to kill best practice once and for all.

1. Question everything
Organisations that adapt and thrive, question current methods as opposed to just accepting them. These internal confrontations are positive as it allows them to test their assumptions and identify their weaknesses. What becomes difficult is when we can see our competitor’s business model and it can be tempting to just copy and paste, without thinking why it has worked for them.

Take for example the newspaper printing industry in the UK. For years they kept printing their newspapers on the more expensive broadsheet style paper. The reason they did this was because they felt their customers did not want the cheaper tabloid style papers and that all the quality newspapers were printed on broadsheet. However, when a few papers started switching to tabloid, their sales soared and eventually most other companies followed.

Interestingly, the reason companies started printing on broadsheet was because in 1712 the British government taxed newspaper companies based on the number of pages they printed, so it was cheaper to print on large paper as that required less pages. Even though this tax was removed in 1855, everyone continued printing on the larger sheets. This method was accepted as standard and never questioned.

If a colleague or client is pushing to follow best practice, ask why they think this will work for their business and/or customer. If they have a valid answer that doesn’t fall along the lines of “it worked for them,” then use it as a hypothesis. Test the idea, does it meet your success criteria? If it does, implement the features that work and disregard the ones that don’t.

2. Test with your audience
Insights don’t appear from inside the boardroom. Talk to people and understand what drives them. Talk about the problems they are facing with your product, then show them your solution. Watch how they use it, see when they are delighted or where they struggle. Ask for their advice and take this back to the drawing board.

As an experience designer, my job is to look at how current systems work and try to make improvement for the people using them. On my last project, for example, I was working with physicians who wanted to digitise their discharge summary form. After showing the hospital the prototype and testing with a few of the doctors, they were excited that their workload would be dramatically reduced. When I went to visit a few rural clinics a couple weeks later, to see if we could help them in a similar way, I realised that imposing technology in these clinics would have the opposite effect. The doctors and the nurses were not heavy users of technology; they had basic phones and one or two computers per clinic. They were so efficient with their current pen and paper method of documenting patients, I was happy to walk out knowing that technology was not going to solve this problem.

Test your big, risky ideas early on, learn from the feedback and ensure you end up shipping a product that your customer actually wants. This is a perspective that shows up in methodology like “Just Enough Design”, and is a cure for assuming that what worked in the past will work today.

3. Embrace risk
Innovation is hard. It most definitely doesn’t come without risk. However, taking risks does not feel safe either. Someone’s job might depend on a certain decision or competitors might outwit you if you fail. Many companies I work with often talk about the benefits versus risk ratio, if the risks outweigh the benefits then we look for a less-risky alternative.

Rather than looking at risk as a downside, turn it around and look at it as a measure of opportunity. If the risk isn’t great enough you might need to ask yourself: “Is it worth it?”

This is one of the reasons companies are so entrenched in following best practices, as by definition they are proven as effective methods. The problem is what works for one organization does not necessarily work for the other. You will land up wasting precious resources and wondering why things didn’t work out. Take a chance, learn from it and start again.

4. Work with someone outside of your job role
For example, this could be a UX designer pairing with a project manager or a developer working with a digital marketer. When someone has little to no idea of what the industry standard is, they will help you steer away from it. They will also bring their own view of the problem that has nothing to do with how things should be done.

A study done at Harvard Business School wanted to test if cross-pollination of teams actually produced quality ideas. After researching more than 17,000 patents, the researcher discovered that the overall quality of innovations actually falls when teams are cross-pollinated. However the research also concluded that when breakthroughs do arise, albeit rare, from these cross-pollinated teams they have an unusually superior quality.

Running workshops or hackathons sporadically will bring out ideas you never thought of. Coming out with the next big idea is always going to be a challenge but working together will always do more good than harm and together you can come up with some incredible and unique solutions.

Best practices are only best practices in the context in which they sit. It is important to deeply understand your unique context, your set of business challenges and to then analyse if best practice will help differentiate your business or leave you following the crowd.


An earlier version of this article was published at www.thoughtworks.com on August 25, 2015.