‘Best Practices’ Are for MBAs. The Rest of Us Get to Work

Why ‘best practices’ alone don’t work and the importance of experience for learning when to apply them instead.

Illustration by Skele Art

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Chiswick laying on the grass at Turnham Green devouring a copy of DHH’s & Jason Fried’s ‘It doesn’t have to be crazy at work’ while the sun was setting on the last pages of Chapter 6:

Every mature industry is drowning in best practices. There are best practices about how to price a product, conduct employee reviews, do content marketing, design a website or make an app scalable to millions of users.
Yet, so much of it is not merely bullshit but quite possible the worst thing you could do. What counts as the best practice for a company of 10000 is very rarely so for a company of 10.
And it is not only about a difference in size, it’s a difference in everything.”

Having spent the entire afternoon before that, at a café, reading articles and blogposts filled with ‘best practices’, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this particular section instantly struck a cord. I felt insulted in a weird kind of way. How dare they? But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

Infinite Problem Space → Infinite Solution Space

Kevin Kwok really hit the nail on the head here:

… people suffer from the same first order mistake. They give advice on what they did that worked. But they don’t elaborate on the underlying structural features of their situation that would need to be true for their advice to be applicable in a new situation. Everything is topologically equivalent–so only as long as the structural dynamics are the same, the advice is be useful to apply.
It’s like watching someone try to uproot a plant🌹 to the desert–without paying attention to what soil, sun, and watering conditions it thrived in. And then be shocked it died🥀
When we try to understand systems that work, we need to talk more about the systems that support them. Both in markets and within companies.

Aristotle also wrote something similar centuries ago speaking about phronesis, which translates to practical wisdom aka taking the ‘right’ actions (heavily paraphrasing here):

The situations one can find themselves into are practically infinite. Hence there cannot exist one set of rules to guide one as to what is to act with phronesis.

There are infinite combinations of industries, cultures, company sizes, resource limitations, external obstacles, product offerings, technologies, business models, customer types, market conditions etc. out there. Those are in fact changing every day.

It is therefore impossible to put a set of best practices down that will help one navigate any situation in this crazy world.

Case Study: Superhuman: How to Ignore All ‘Best Practices’

Superhuman is one of the most insanely beloved products out there at the moment. It’s an email client everybody is raving about that carved its own path while ignoring conventional wisdom and industry best practices:

  • Friction-full Signup: While usually one would want sign-up to be quick and frictionless, Superhuman made the product availability super limited and the approval process very slow .
  • Minimal Advertising: While companies usually bombard every channel with ads, promos and referral codes of their product, Superhuman keeps quiet and lets word of mouth and the power of exclusivity do most of the work.
  • Manual Onboarding. While everybody is trying to remove friction for the customer onboarding, Superhuman added some more(!) by forcing every Early Adopter that wanted to try their product to book a slot on their calendar to go through a 1:1 training of the product. This also meant that support reps needed to spend 1000s of hours training users in real-time when a single video would save them $1000s in salaries.
  • Non-gradual releases. Superhuman has been in the works for 3 years. 3 years of no releases. They were not building a rocket to Mars, so surely they should have had an MVP in year 1! But for one reason or another it was not good enough. When others would have shipped that product and asked for feedback, Superhuman stuck to their guns and vision and only went out to the market when they had something unique and extraordinary to show the world.
  • No free option or trial. When every competitor out there allows people to try the product before subscribing, and in a market flooded with decent free options, Superhuman wants you to commit right away. And with a pricetag of $30 a month, it is no small commitment.

‘Superhuman’ not only threw the ‘best practices for productivity apps’ handbook out of the window, but has reinvented it so that it works for them.

Best Practices, Gamified

What infrastructure should I set up my company on?
It depends. If you have millions of records being written every day, maybe consider a large scale solution like kafka. If you have thousands of requests per hour, AWS might be something to consider for scalability purposes. If you are a startup before even product-market fit, you probably just need a Google Sheet and the simplest hosting on Heroku.

What software development methodology is best to use?
It depends. Do you have a remote team? How big is the team? Do you have any tools already set up? A simple Trello or Airtable and Slack can probably serve you well if you are small. You don’t need to do any Scrum or Kanban. Just ship ship ship. If you are an enterprise then you probably need Wikis and a set process from everything from design to release to documentation.

How do I go about getting the right licenses to operate my business?
It depends. In a highly regulated country, getting government license for your, say, electric skateboard business through a lawyer would be wise. The same approach would fail in a country where the only thing that would move your business forward is either bribing or simply functioning in grey legal areas and hope you influence legislation (see: UBER).

Should’t I create sleek designs to delight my customers and differentiate from the competition?
It depends. For example: Building a super sleek app full of delightful animations might be a great idea assuming you expect your app to be used over WiFi or your customers to have access to strong 4G but the same wouldn’t not work for your customers back in markets like Mongolia and Uganda.

Best Practices Looting

“The real skill is not to memorize all the details of your items. The real skill is neither to loot for every item out there. The virtue is actually having the judgement to pick the ‘right’ one at the ‘right’ time with the least tries.”

Learning about ‘best practices’ from blogs, books, conferences, podcasts and YouTube talks is like looting items in a game.

Potions to replenish your health, goggles that reveal portions of the map, keys that give you access to hidden parts of the world, spells that cast a defense of your settlement…

Product Manager’s Items

The more you have the more your options expand. Which is great.

What is not so great and indeed dangerous, is what we mentioned that J.Fried, K.Kwon and Aristotle pointed out: The belief that something that has worked for a company, in a given point in time, with a given set of circumstance, is going to work for your case.

The Art of Picking The Right Loot

The real skill is not to memorize all the details of your items. The real skill is neither to loot for every item out there. The virtue is actually having the judgement to pick the ‘right’ one at the ‘right’ time with the least tries. The virtue is seeing all the weapons in your armory, all the magic portion power-ups, all the special gear you have available and being able to pick the right set to tackle the problem at hand. In a world as complex as ours, this is an extremely hard task.

Our job as professionals is not only to know about best practices but to be able to pick the right practice at the right time. And if the practice doesn’t exist in the handbook; our job is to devise it.

In fact, there is this Japanese concept of Shuhari(守破離) which says that for one to reach mastery, learning the rules is only the first step (Shu守). After that one should learn to bend them when they should(Ha破) and eventually break them(Ri離). Exactly like Superhuman broke all the rules on how one is to launch a productivity app on this day and age. That is work well done. That is the art, the craft and the real skill.

Experience | Connecting the dots

So if not ‘Best Practices’ then what?

Do we stop reading advice articles, study case studies and learning from books then? No. Not at all. But one has to fortify that raw knowledge of ‘best practices’ otherwise all you will have is a theoretical knowledge soup in your brain. We want to then know how to connect the dots and extract the value out of the knowledge…

Aristotle adviced that in order to develop phronesis one should not only read to gain theoretical knowledge but also:

-1- Observe and learn from other virtuous people.
-2- Experience situations in the real world. Trying, failing and calibrating the virtue balance.

One might know all the ‘ practices’ out there and memorize hundreds of case studies but it is not until he/she is put out in the wild (-2-) that they can truly grasp now one would truly use, shape or break those in the ‘right’ manner for the given situation.

Naval Ravikant (🐦) brilliantly emphasized the importance of supplementing theory with experience here:

“A lot of what goes on in business schools is anecdotes. […] They are trying to get you to pattern match by throwing a lot of data points at you but the reality is that you won’t understand them fully until you are in that position yourself.”
[…] “A lot of people think that they can become really skilled in something by watching others do it or even by reading about others doing it […]but in reality you are going to learn a lot more about running a business by running your own lemonade stand; on the job.

Becoming a good decision maker

So our way of picking the ‘right’ best practice is then this:

  • Explore & loot items: Learn about industry practices but do not take them as a given. Instead utilize them to expand the solution space.
  • Observe how other players use the items: Learn from what other companies in similar conditions as you did in similar situations (-1-) but always take these with a pinch of salt.
  • Examine the items: Break down situations to their first principles. Deeply understand as much as you can the conditions under which the ‘best practice’ or advice applies.
  • Go out and play! There is no such thing as GAME OVER. There are always more coins. Go out and lose, lose, lose until you start winning more and more and more. That’s experience. You have to try stuff out for yourself. You were probably not born with a 6th sense of business so your only choice is experimentation. Fall, stand back, evaluate, dust off, repeat(-2-).

Leveling Up to Master Level

If you do all the above for long enough, you will graduate from being a student of the game and advance onto being a master of it (Ri離). Master Players are so good that not only win the games by bending rules but can employ creativity on a level that transcends them.

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