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Commit Random Acts Of Heresy

Back in ye olden times, any person who actively preached and acted against accepted dogma was branded a heretic. Unfortunately for these courageous characters it often meant a date with a stake and torches. The penalties for committing acts of heresy were enough to keep most folks in line. They figured out pretty quickly that it was far more preferable to do what everyone else was doing and conform to the norms of the community.

Funny how things don’t really change. In our businesses, we still adhere to the teachings of the Cult of Best Practices. We easily swallow conventional wisdom. We seek out industry benchmarks in order to know if our own mediocrity matches up to that of other companies. In short, we’re scared shitless to take the risk of going against dogma.

Except now, dogma has taken on a much wider definition.

The dogma of success. The dogma of perfection. The dogma of looking like we’ve always got our shit together. The dogma of needing that new Lexus. The dogma of being an easygoing, likable, agreeable employee. We all have some sort of dogma getting in our way. Well, that needs to end. Now.

It’s time for a lot more heretical thinking and doing.

What does being a heretic mean?
It means giving up best practices.
It means asking “Why?”…a lot.
It means going out on a limb and staying there.
It means having the guts to creatively destroy anything that’s old and busted.

What’s in it for us? Why not just stay easygoing, likable, and agreeable? Why not just keep playing it safe? Because safe is an illusion. Worse, safe is a trap that keeps us from fully igniting the fire of our imaginations and chasing new ideas that can truly change the world. Don’t know about you but I’m sick to death of playing it all so damn safe. I’m ready to commit random acts of heresy.

So…what dogma are you willing to give the finger to today? Share yours and I’ll share mine. Let’s go.

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The Seduction of Best Practices

I’ve been a fan of Dave Snowden for a while. Every so often I peek in on his work at Cognitive Edge and am often blown away by his insights. Here’s his take on best practices:

Now when you say that we should prepare ourselves to handle an uncertain future most people agree without a problem, the trouble comes when you try and explain just how major a shift in thinking this is going to be. For starters you don’t prepare for future uncertainty but following recipes based on case studies of what has succeeded in the past. Best practice is generally past practice and suffused with the seductive opiate of retrospective coherence and apparent safety. Many a reader of the airport Management how it was done books has fallen for the charms of the lotus eaters. I often see these books as examples of detective fiction, the author can decide who did it, while scattering multiple clues to mislead the curious reader. With the benefit of hindsight the final denouement allows the hero/heroine to show their genius by connecting the dots. Being wise after the event is only too easy, seeing patterns of causality in past case studies is too often an example of fundamental attribution error, confusing correlation with causation.

Indeed, there is quite a seductive quality to adhering to best practices. This is the introduction to a series talking about his three principles of complexity based management.

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Iron Man Puts A Beatdown On Best Practices

I love Iron Man. It just happens to be one of my favorite (and best written) comic book series being published right now. And as for the movie…I saw it twice in the theater and I’ve seen it three times since buying it on DVD. On my daily walk this morning, Black Sabbath’s Iron Man came up on my iPod and I started to think about scenes from the movie. One particular scene flashed across my thoughts and led me down an interesting path of reflection.

[SPOILER ALERT: the scene below is a crucial plot point so if you haven’t seen Iron Man…Wait…you haven’t? Okay, hurry up, buy it, and watch it…then come back. I’ll wait.]

Toward the end of the movie, Tony Stark/Iron Man battles his business partner, Obadiah Stane, who proves to be a megalomaniacal character with no remorse when it comes to selling weapons to both the U.S. and the terrorists that the U.S. fights. Stane also manages to steal the designs of Tony’s armor and has his engineers secretly build a much larger, more powerful version, which – at least in the comics – is referred to as the Iron Monger armor. So, this final smackdown between two metal giants becomes one between creator and imitator. Which, to me, is the connection to the fallacy of best practices.

Because Stane didn’t understand how his armor really worked, he became overreliant on someone else’s technology. Our heroic Iron Man took advantage of this by climbing on his back and ripping out Stane’s weapon targeting system which ultimately proved to be crucial to the villain’s defeat.

This isn’t the first time I’ve teed off on best practices (see here), but I’m also not completely opposed to them, either. The critical difference is how they are applied. If you blindly accept best practices without fully considering how they’ll work or without determining how they’ll integrate with your own systems, then you’re missing the whole point. And you’re likely in for a surprise when you find that you get some exceptionally poor results.

Instead, try this: BE UNIQUE for goodness sake. You have all kinds of creative ideas floating around your organization. They exist inside the heads of your people. Rather than looking for that next great idea outside your organization, look inside. Your people are the ones who have an intimate grasp of the challenges you all face…and likely they have some solutions, as well.

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Tools Of The Devil – Best Practices

Best Practices. Even the term sounds like easy success, doesn’t it? What could possibly go wrong if you implement what works for other organizations in your own organization? Yes, the lure of proven strategies has a very strong appeal. But I’m going to challenge folks to stuff some beeswax in their ears when they hear the sirens sing of the temptations of best practices. Like Odysseus discovered, the song is enchanting until you realize that it leads to a grisly demise.

You may be asking whether I’m overblowing the dangers of best practices. You may have used best practices in the past and they’re working out just fine for you and your organization. To you I say “Congratulations!” and then, “Where’s your next great idea coming from?” Far from encouraging organizations to embrace their inherent uniqueness and potential greatness, best practices merely condone a smallness that’s ultimately uninspiring to your customers and employees.

Best Practices encourage the belief that there is just one true path.
Ever hear a consultant or industry peer tout best practices like they were written in stone and brought down from the mountain by Moses himself? They preach that all someone has to do is simply install these practices into their organization and they’ll score easy rewards. They’ll argue quite strongly that to ignore best practices is to needlessly “recreate the wheel” and waste valuable resources. It’s enough to make you feel like a sucker if you don’t immediately sign up to learn as many best practices as possible. But let’s be frank…the sucker turns out to be the blind adherent to the religion of best practices. Hopefully, this isn’t you.

One typical response I get from folks in favor of best practices is that you can take a practice and then blend it into your organization’s unique situation. This may be true, except how many times do organizations really put this notion to work? It’s kind of like buying an antique dresser that needs some hard work to really show off its value. You get it home but instead of immediately getting to work at stripping, sanding, and staining the piece, you leave it in the garage as a “someday” project because all of that refinishing work is time-consuming. Five years later, you donate the dresser to Goodwill in the same state in which you bought it. So much for that “valuable” purchase.

Best Practices instill the notion that solutions are out there.
As someone who strongly believes that most organizations grossly underutilize the expertise and knowledge of its employees, the notion that innovative new ideas and answers to thorny problems exist out there drives me crazy. This lack of confidence in and understanding of the organization’s internal resources is a chronic failure of management. Rather than wondering what new practices a competitor is using or new ideas a leader in another industry is generating, get curious about building innovation inside your organization.

So toss away all those advertisements that want you to learn how to do things the Toyota way. Guide your consultant toward the door if they insist that their new program works for companies like Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, and Home Depot. And for goodness sake, stop focusing so much of your time on benchmarks just so you can compare your organization to others in your industry.

Encourages mimicry and mediocrity.
Finally, since when does being the best mean being just like everyone else? When you buy into best practices, you’re accepting the notion that it’s advantageous to your long-term business health to do things like everyone else. And you’re damning your business to a legacy of ordinariness. How long do you think you’ll last with that type of mentality?

Instead, consider the hard work of being remarkable. One of my inspirations in my own attack on best practices is Jeff De Cagna. A few years ago, he wrote a great blogpost called Be Original. It’s aimed at non-profit professional associations but the core of his message applies across any organization: “True success and true greatness come from daring to do what others can’t do or won’t try.”

So, the next time someone approaches you with the benefits of best practices, ask yourself, “Do I want my organization to be replicable or remarkable?” Your answer will speak volumes about your own leadership.

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