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Why Best Practices Aren't Always Best for Your Business

Ned Smith

Author Stephen Shapiro doesn't have anything against trying something that's worked for other people to improve your business. In the right hands, best practices can actually be beneficial, he says. But you need to make sure that they're right for you.

In fact, he's far from being the anti-best-practices firebrand that the title of his new book might lead you to believe, "Best Practices Are Stupid" (Portfolio, 2011).

"I'm not opposed to learning from what others have done, as long as you take the time to understand why they did it," Shapiro told BusinessNewsDaily.

What hits his hot button is when best practices become a knee-jerk response to all challenges and opportunities.

"There are two issues I have with companies blindly applying best practices," Shapiro said. "If you're applying it to an area that's supposed to be a source of differentiation for you, then you are clearly playing catch-up."

Cookie-cutter solutions

Shapiro's other hot button is toggled when companies look at best practices as a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter solution.

"The second issue I have is that what works for one company may not work for yours," he said. "Your culture may be different; your business model may be different. Trying to replicate what worked perfectly for someone else may have the exact opposite effect on your business."

There may be pieces of a particular best practice that are usable, but you really need to customize them and tailor them to your specific needs, he said.

And don't rule out taking a look at worst practices, Shapiro said. Examine things that other people have done that haven't worked so you don't continue to

The real issue for Shapiro, who previously led the 20,000-person process and innovation practice at Accenture, is innovation, which is reflected in the subtitle of his book, "40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition."

For him, best practices are about the status quo, not breakthroughs.

Innovation, said Shapiro, starts with looking outside your immediate frame of reference. The first thing businesses should do is ask who might have solved a problem in a fundamentally different area.

The enemy of innovation

"Expertise is the enemy of innovation," Shapiro said. "The big ideas come from people with fundamentally different points of view. Look outside your own bailiwick."

It also may help to take a contrarian viewpoint and assume that the solutions you come up with and the way you're looking at things will limit you because of your lack of peripheral vision from a business standpoint.

"Don't think outside the box," Shapiro said. "Find a better box. The more you know about the problem you're solving, the less likely you're willing to expand the way you think about the problem. You need to look at it from a contrarian perspective, which is very difficult for most people to do. I'm a big believer in what Steve Jobs once said, 'Creativity is just having enough guts.' "

Have enough guts

Too many people, he said, attempt to solve problems through the single lens of what they know about the problem. The way to out-innovate the competition begins with asking the right question the right way to the right people.

That requires that you get out and understand the market, not by doing focus groups or customer surveys, but by understanding some of the latent or subconscious needs that people have. Once you understand these, you can begin to frame the challenges and figure out the best way to solve the problem.

"If you ask the wrong questions, it doesn't matter what you do after that," Shapiro said. "You have to get that first question right to be more innovative."

Thrives on dissonance

Innovation also thrives on dissonance, he said. Shapiro said is a believer in the wisdom of hiring people you don't like to make sure your organization has enough creative tension.

"If you think about how companies naturally start, it's a couple of people who get along and who want to work together and create something," he said. "They get along because they think the same way, which is a problem. They're not going to see their blind spots."

One common fallacy, said Shapiro, is that creativity and innovation are one and the same. This is far afield from the truth, he said.

Creativity and innovation not the same

"Innovation is very different from creativity," he said. "Innovation is an end-to-end process that starts with a problem, issue or opportunity and ends in the creation of value."

Finding the solution is the creative part of the equations, he said; implementing it and creating value is the innovation.

Innovation as a system is the holy grail of innovation, said Shapiro. The ultimate level involves creating an environment where innovation is embedded in everything a company does.

"In the innovation world, people get overly enamored with the idea generation as opposed to recognizing what's going to be implementable in a reasonable amount of time that creates the most value," Shapiro said. "Creativity in a vacuum is not a competitive edge."

Companies don't have a shortage of ideas, he said. They have a shortage of good ideas that can be implemented and create value.

"If you ask the right questions the right way of the right people, you accelerate innovation and eliminate a lot of unnecessary work," Shapiro said. "If you don't innovate efficiently, you're not going to innovate at all."

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

Ned Smith Member
<p>Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and held&nbsp;a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.</p>