If there’s one thing business leaders love to do, it’s dole out advice. After all, we want to make the entrepreneurial path less rocky for others by sharing lessons we’ve learned along the way. But in some cases, the business wisdom you’ve heard for decades might be totally wrong. And bad advice can do a lot of damage–it can lead to strained relationships, sullied reputations, and even business failure. In the world of dubious business advice, here are five of the most common offenders.
Following best practices seems like a good idea on the surface. Why reinvent the wheel when others have sunk time and money into discovering the best ways to do business? Not only that, but best practices also give all industry players a lingua franca for doing business together.
The Japanese word kaizen, meaning “continuous improvement,” refers to the manufacturing philosophy that makes everyone in a company, from its CEO to assembly-line workers, responsible for controlling quality and finding resolutions to problems. The kaizen approach rose to international prominence during the 1970s, when industrial manufacturing was king.
But today’s information economy now runs on new ideas, not optimized processes. Improving efficiency is valuable, but it sometimes comes at the cost of innovation. Sometimes you need to throw best practices out the window in order to innovate.
We’re constantly hearing about new technologies that promise to transform the corporate world, from wearable tech to must-have business apps. But technology can’t devise a sales strategy. It can’t mentor new leaders, and it certainly can’t dream up new products. We sometimes become so enamored with technology that we forget what makes companies great–the minds behind them.
Companies that don’t invest in staying technologically up-to-date do risk giving competitors an upper hand. But technology is no panacea for the range of challenges businesses today confront. Instead, prioritize investments in human capital over tools. Companies like Deloitte have made great strides by doubling down on employee training to ensure its workforce is constantly improving. New ideas–which depend on great minds to think them up in the first place–are what truly drive industries forward.
Shows like Shark Tank and The Apprentice have conditioned us to believe in business leaders who are decisive, brazen, and unafraid of ruffling feathers. That attitude is getting harder to pull off these days. The pre-Internet world was arguably more congenial to the least congenial execs. But in an era of social media, public outcry over leaders who make missteps or grow unpopular can now cost them their positions. And that’s to say nothing of the actual effectiveness of a strong-willed leadership style.
In fact, one recent study of more than 1,500 business leaders and their subordinates found that humble, empathetic leaders see better outcomes from their dedicated, service-minded employees. When you’re fair and honest with your team, they’ll be more willing to help you achieve your goals. Listen to others’ ideas without raising your voice, and give credit whenever it’s due.
One of the oldest ideas in American business is that hierarchies exist for a reason. Executive-level leaders devise company strategy, while the rest of the team toils to put it into practice. While business hierarchies remain common–and in some ways still work–many of them are long outdated. In this case, too, the digital era is partly to blame.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a worker with a good idea would tell a superior and might get rewarded with a small bonus for it. But today, she’s just a Google search away from thousands of alternative opportunities, and there’s nothing stopping her from striking out on her own with a side project or even launching a startup.
It’s more important than it’s ever been for companies to rethink whether their corporate structures still best serve their needs and those of their employees. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s well-known “holocracy” approach does away with job titles and managers, a structure Hsieh has credited with improving one-on-one conflict resolution, transparency, and employees’ own self-management skills.
This is a seemingly sensible idea. Employees who have been around the longest should have had the most time to develop the knowledge, loyalty, and strong interpersonal connections needed to help them succeed as managers. And much of the time, that’s true.
But company veterans aren’t always more valuable than new hires, and treating them that way by default is a bad idea. Workers gain practical experiences outside the time they spend in the office, and it’s likely in today’s economy that a newer employee knows “more”–or just thinks differently–than an old one. Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, that might be more valuable than what we’ve come to narrowly define as management-ready experience.
Instead, promote based on performance alone. Chipotle revamped its promotion process last year by promoting top talent from within, regardless of seniority or tenure. In fact, the chain’s first restaurateur was a 22-year-old working part-time in Milwaukee. Now he’s a team director of more than 60 restaurants.
The theme that unifies each of these outworn business ideas is fear: fear of change, fear of risk, and fear of someone else having a better idea. All of them hold companies and leaders back just as much as any market changes could. It takes courage and daring to challenge the status quo and question whether the way it’s always been done is really the best way to do it.
But perhaps more than that, it just takes a little common sense. The next time you’re offered some business advice, think for yourself about what you’re trying to achieve and whether the familiar approach is the best way to help you do it. Success in business is about acting on opportunities–especially new ones that you haven’t seen before–not on fear of missing out on those you have.
Sathvik Tantry is the cofounder of FormSwift, a SaaS platform helping organizations go paperless. FormSwift’s tools allow businesses and individuals to create, edit, sign, and collaborate on documents and workflows in the cloud, eliminating unnecessary printing, faxing, and snail mail.