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Why “Best Practices” Lead to Mediocre Results

Best practices are often used to try to reduce the risk of failure. But oftentimes, these strategies are things that worked well six months ago, and have since been embraced my many others. For something to be a “best practice,” it often means it has been tried so often, by so many people, that you are late to the game. That they value you will eek out of it will be meager and hard fought.

Best practices can also mean that you are focusing on the wrong end of things – seeing the results other people had, but not understanding the core mission and values that lead to those results.

An easy example is Zappos. They get accolades for their customer service, and teach other companies how to do it. They are sharing as much as they can about how their company operates. They give away their secrets!

They have whittled down what they are into a series of lessons, of courses, of practices. And yet, how many Zappos-like companies do you see out there? Few.

Why? Because managers go to Zappos based on the end-result, and are looking for “best practices” that fit into their current systems and culture. They want that one missing puzzle piece, not an entirely new puzzle to start with.

Zappos’ training is not challenging because it is a complicated system, but because it requires companies to rethink how they operate, how they view employees, how they view customers, how they view products, how they view communication, how they view the company’s mission & values, and how they view marketing.

And that is likely WAY too much for most people to handle. So instead, they look for simple, tactical “best practices.” And they get a TINY percentage of the value that the best practice delivers, and that value is always shrinking even further.

I see this again and again in social media. Instead of people thinking INTENTLY about their customers and how to serve them, they look for tactics on how to increase followers or ‘grow their conversion.’

So they move from flavor of the week to flavor of the week of jargon, tactics, and strategies. And they are often too slow and too late to create any meaningful value.

This methodology also SHUNS the idea of iteration, that you need to constantly evolve to improve your products and services and better serve your customers. Companies look for the one right solution, when really, it is best to constantly measure and iterate.

It is a corporate hallucination to think that one system will work perfectly, and continue to do so time and time again. And millions of dollars are wasted justifying such systems, changing again only as a measure of last resort.

If you are shooting for best practices, you will likely experience a faint shadow of the results of the people you are emulating.

Do you make toothpaste? Stop going to toothpaste manufacturer conferences, and start talking to your customers about their behaviors, experiences, joys and needs. Because the trends you jump on that other toothpaste manufacturers are jumping on will result in you being 2% different than the competition, meaning that in the end, it will all come down to price in the mind of your customer.

I’m sure Crest and Colgate each have convincing Powerpoint presentations expressing why THEIR brand is unique and powerful. But at the end of the day, we all just buy the one that’s on sale. Because, you know, its just toothpaste.

But for shoes – I buy from Zappos. Because they are somehow about something more than just shoes. They are about “delivering happiness” as their CEO’s book is titled.

For Zappos, best practices weren’t a starting point, best practices were the vapour trail left in their wake for others to pick up and wonder at.



  • Dan – on the money as usual.

  • Derek,
    Thank you so much!

  • I hope I can get a refund on my Toothpaste conference tickets.

    Although I do think it's good to at least look at common practices, I think your right in that, there is more to it. We have to really reach out to our customers to help them with what matters to them and focus the company's agenda around that, as a whole.

    Great Post Dan!

    • Dano,
      You make a good point about being aware of common practices, absolutely. Thanks!

  • Netflix has an interesting vacation policy…they don't have one. If you need time off, you take time off. Recharge as long as you need, come back, and kick ass.

    They iterated in a way they saw fit, and I'm sure every HR director of a F1000 would do nothing but throw negs at how it shouldn't be able to work. How it could never be replicate-able.

    What I like about this blog post of yours is it's almost a jab, a challenge to all entrepreneurs to rethink their business practices and make sure they're not stuck in “the old ways”.

    The only person that wins chasing “best” is the BCG consultant wearing $600 shoes. I'd rather be the Netflix guy wearing no shoes.

    • Casey: thanks so much! In a way, I suppose it is a challenge, though, not from me. We all face the challenge of creating something meaningful, a body of work worth the lifetime you trade creating it.
      Have a great night.

  • Excellent post Dan. I spent the week teaching people about business models and stressing the fact that if you change one part of a business model, the rest has to change as well to be consistent. It's exactly the same issue that you're raising here – you can't just drop in one part of someone else's successful practice.

    • I'm sure this has been said before, but after I read your comment the words “Frankenstein Business” rang in my head. Great Comment!

      • Dano – what a great term!

    • Tim – interesting! Bummer I can't sit in on one of your classes. Have a great day.

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