'Better' Practices Often the Best Results of Innovation


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.

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Sep 3, 2009 6:02 PM Miichael Harris Miichael Harris  says:

As you say, an interesting but ultimately unresolvable discussion.  My two cents - there is one area where innovation and best practices (in the "process" sense you use it here) will always be in conflict: failure.  Best practice processes seek to remove opportunities for failure.  One of my measures for how innovative an organization is would be how many failures they have.  I always argue that if the organization cannot point to a few failed experiments then they are not pushing the innovation envelope hard enough.  With that, I will get back to trying to get this camel through the eye of a needle while waiting for the responses that argue that the best practice process for innovation includes failed experiments. 

Sep 3, 2009 7:57 PM Flvio Pimentel Flvio Pimentel  says: in response to Miichael Harris

I believe that the point is not to be receptive to failure, but to change the way how you define what you do. Everybody looks like to be adopting the classic model of production (r&d-product-production-market) when they could be working with collaboration (including external value chain) to define what to do, and so increasing probability to innovate reducing failure. Maybe practicing like that since the product definition may reduce the probability of failure because these ones are (in general) related to low efficiency in attending consumer needs than having technical limitations or something related to that.

I think that what and how are very closely related with each other, but must exist being practiced together among different groups at the same time to realize innovation.

Flvio Pimentel

Corporate Innovation Director @ciandt.com

Sep 8, 2009 6:28 PM M Ellard M Ellard  says: in response to Flvio Pimentel

So much becomes semantics. But I think we're in agreement here -

Seems like there's three steps:

What you can do - that's where innovation comes in

What you should do - that's an analytical step that tries to weed out innovations that are clearly not practical (that collaborative step you mention)

How you should do what you should do - that's where the best practices kick in ...

Innovation runs into trouble when it gets to be innovation for innovation's sake - like art for art's sake, it may be very cool - but odds are there's no money in it.

Sep 18, 2009 8:46 AM Greg Martin Greg Martin  says: in response to M Ellard

Edison famously treated his attempts to get a light bulb working as just discovering ways not to do it right, a positive, healthy attitude to innovation. He also did his work in a lab keeping excellent records etc, best practice for his time and equally valid today.

The argument is ultimately unwinnable because if the old miser had a way of avoiding even 25% of his wrong attempts he would have integrated it in a shot - and actually we dont know that he didnt.

The point being that if you implement best practice you might mitigate the right risks more often (and therefore 'succeed' even though you achieve nothing) and you might also throw the baby out with the bath water (and therefore fail because you achieve nothing)

But the Wisdom of Crowds (or wideband delphi if you prefer) suggests that the more expert opinions you consult the more likely (on averaging out those opionions) you are to be correct. Which is why ALL best practice methods bang on (ad nauseam) about collaboration and communication, not to hide behind committees or to spread the blame, but to give us the best chance of identifying the right course with limited information.

I'm sure Edison would recognise most of todays methods in one way or another and wonder why we spend so much time debating the obvious

Sep 18, 2009 9:32 AM Bryan Moore Bryan Moore  says:

It sounds like the terms "Best Practices" and "Innovation" need to be better defined.  My opinion is that both are important and need to exist. But like anything else, they need to remain in their place.  For instance, consider the senario below:

'I need to travel to and from work every day.  Right now, I have two options for doing so.  I can walk or ride a bicycle.  I decide to ride my bicycle because it is faster than walking.  However, my work is 20miles away so after the first day of riding my bike, I realize that I need an even faster way to get there.  So, I will try to use my "Innovation" to invent a motor vehicle, but until I figure out how to make a motor vehicle I will use my "Best Practice" of riding a bicycle.' 

Granted, this is a very simplified example, but you get the idea.  As you can see, it is neccesary to come up with a standard (or "Best Practice") first and then once you see where you can improve, you use "Innovation" to figure out how you can do better. 

Then if we look at this subject in an even broader sense, we can see that in life, some people tend to live on the edge and do things differently all the time and never stick to a best practice.  These people get in to trouble sometimes by wasting alot of time on doing things the wrong way.  However, there are also those who get comfortable and never change the way they do things.  These folks get in to trouble because they could be saving time if they would just be willing to be a bit more "innovative".  What we need to strive for is a balance between the two.  "Innovate where it makes sense, and perform a "Best Practice" where it makes sense. 

Sep 19, 2009 9:06 AM Greg Martin Greg Martin  says: in response to Bryan Moore

Well I sort of agree but I think that within 'Best' Practice there has to be room to innovate or (almost by definition) there is a practice that is better!

Sep 21, 2009 6:19 PM Bryan Moore Bryan Moore  says: in response to Greg Martin

Yes, I agree.  That was basically my point, but you said it better. So, thank you! 


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