An interesting discussion over at Harvard Business Review has consultant Susan Cramm asking readers why so many tech executives tend to discard "best practices" and set themselves up for seemingly unavoidable failure in the process.
Of course, readers (all of whom are quite eloquent in their responses) come down on the two divergent sides of the issue: Tech leaders suffer from hubris that makes them believe the mistakes of others can't happen to them, or just laying up to best practices is a sure way to suppress innovation and commoditize your brand into ho-humness.
It's an interesting read, but not anything that will answer what ultimately is an unanswerable question, I think. For one thing, Cramm sparks the discussion with the example of a young CIO who is now in hot water with the board for trying to tackle what clearly was a multi-phase project in one giant and -- surprise -- failed initiative. We're not really talking black belt Six Sigma here, are we?
One reader at HBR evokes the sainted name of Steve Jobs and the Apple/Dell, innovation/process debate that crescendoed in 2007, largely sparked by a Business Week article about the balancing act 3M was trying to pull off.
I've never seen any real evidence that Apple engineers are at liberty to just bypass key points of QA in the name of "innovation," or that the company as a whole disparages process when it comes to executing. In fact, in surfing some older content over lunch, I came across this interesting post that points out the obvious: Apple's four pillars of innovation (users first!) can't really be described as all that innovative -- nothing with enough cultural traction to be described as a "pillar" is innovative, at least not in real time. (The post also includes an amusing "If You See Steve on the Road to Innovation, Kill Him" allusion and the key point, I think, that all that innovation buzz was happening at a time when the toxicity of top-line-only thinking had wormed its way back on the business front burner.)
Like most tough questions, I tend to oversimplify on this issue, and lean on these chestnuts:
Innovation is for what you do.
Best practices are for how you do it.
Of course, what you do can be different depending on your role, particularly in a large enterprise. A BPO shop's what is the business process itself, so obviously it must be constantly re-evaluating the processes that are its products. And differentiation happens at the product level. For Apple, the what -- a nifty smartphone that got users excited -- was the differentiator. Folks who get overly exited about innovation make the specious assumption, I think, that the iPhone got built in a couple of brainstorming sessions and a hacky sak game. I tend to think there were some Gantt charts thrown in along the way.
Again, oversimplification, I know. There's no doubt that the product and process do affect each other on the cultural level, and that leaders have to encourage the folks doing the work to question best practices. But the net gain there is that you get better practices -- not the chaos that some folks confuse for innovation.