The Problem With Best Practices

Best practices don’t make you the best. They make you the average of everyone else who follows them.

The Problem With Best Practices
[Photo: Dailongumuneka via Wikimedia Commons]

In the late ’70s, Palo Alto-based entrepreneur Debbi Fields tried to get a loan to start a cookie store. Bankers turned her down with variations of the now-famous quote, “America likes crispy cookies, not soft, chewy cookies like you make.”

If crunch was the disco-era best practice in cookie making—borne out by the popularity of Chips Ahoy!, which debuted in 1963—it didn’t stay that way. Fields eventually got her loan. Today, chewy cookies are a staple among modern bakers, and her signature variety is sold by over 4,000 employees in Mrs. Fields stores worldwide.

Best practices are only the best until they aren’t.

When Best Practices Prove Otherwise

Thirty years after Mrs. Fields opened her first cookie store, the British newspaper The Independent switched from large pages known as “broadsheets”—the size of a present-day New York Times—to a smaller “tabloid” format. For some 400 years, respected, “quality” newspapers had stuck exclusively to broadsheet, believing that was the format customers wanted.

As Harvard Business Review has reported, though, when The Independent made the switch, it not only saved money on paper, but more people bought it. British newspaper companies had begun using broadsheet in 1712, after the government placed a tax on the number of pages a paper contained. Even though the tax had been lifted in the 1800s, newspapers kept printing on large pages anyway.

The “best practice” is one of the business world’s most common conventions, but it’s often arbitrary and based mainly on habit–the result of conditions that no longer apply. Crunchy was a “best practice” for cookies because one popular company already sold them that way. Broadsheet was a “best practice” for newspapers because of a centuries-old law. But neither one was the “best” in any measurable sense at all.

Shaking The Herd Mentality

I recently had a look at the websites of several B2B marketing software companies to see what “best practices” they used. I was surprised to find that not only did every homepage look the same (wide-image backgrounds, carousel sliders, identical navigation items), but “ugly” appeared to be the reigning principle.

It was clear that one or two popular companies in the industry had designed their websites a certain way—perhaps even based on split testing and heatmaps, but likely not—and other companies had jumped on the bandwagon, saying, “If so-and-so is doing it, it must be the best way.” I even saw the pattern repeat itself a couple of months later when a market leader changed its homepage background to a moving image, and suddenly every other website in the category had a video background, too.

This kind of herd mentality is common outside of business as well—fads come and go, bandwagons appear and disappear. But like Fields and The Independent, we risk leaving a lot of money on the table if we place too much stock in best practices.

What’s Wrong With The “Best” Approaches

Part of the problem is with assumptions. “If this wasn’t the best way of doing things, I’m sure it would have disappeared by now,” is a logical fallacy and an unfortunately common refrain.

The other part of the problem is that best practices are a misnomer. Often what we call best practices were at one point good or smart business moves, but we seldom do the work to determine how long they stay the “best” or whether they’re universally applicable.

If Mini Cooper had followed best practices when it relaunched its iconic coupe in the early 2000s, it would have released a Ford Escort. If Apple had followed best practices, it would have released a six-button mouse instead of the zero-button Magic Mouse that doubled its market share overnight. Best practices don’t make you the best. They make you the average of everyone else who follows them.

Finally, best practices are falsely self-perpetuating. A classic example is Hollywood, which has long assumed that movies with more stars are more likely to be big hits. Research from UCLA and SUNY, on the other hand, shows that this is not statistically the case for films with similar marketing budgets. However, movie studios still put more promotion behind the films they think will be big. Thus movies with ensemble casts tend to make more money, and the “best practice” gets reinforced.

I call this the “Best Practices Wikipedia problem,” as illustrated by Randall Munroe of XKCD:

History is clear that best practices can be enemies of growth. They allow us to take the lazy way out instead of pushing ourselves to be creative.

A cure for best-practice fever for those of us who can’t get out of our own heads (or are too addicted to benchmarking to do it any other way) is to borrow best practices from industries other than our own.

For example, when I was a college intern writing Google Adwords copy for marketing software, I beat competitors’ identical Google ads by borrowing techniques from online dating ads. I once wrote about a children’s hospital that borrowed best practices from a Formula 1 race team to solve a critical problem when best practices from other hospitals didn’t help. This is one way to engage in lateral thinking without having to be naturally out-of-the box yourself.

Looking to other, successful companies for inspiration is instinctual for most entrepreneurs. Another antidote to best-practice thinking is to attack problems using Elon Musk’s “first principles,” by stripping away assumptions, breaking problems down to their essence, and solving them as if for the first time. It’s more time consuming than copying your competitors, but it’s the way games get changed instead of simply played.

By definition, breakthroughs happen not when you follow conventions but when you break them.

Shane Snow is cofounder of Contently and author of Smartcuts. If you liked this post, subscribe to more from Shane here.

About the author

Shane Snow is a journalist, author of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success, and cofounder of Contently. In addition to Fast Company, Shane has written for The New Yorker, Wired, and The Washington Post.