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Book Review: Best Practices Are Stupid

By Jake Sorofman | August 12, 2013 | 4 Comments

digital marketing

Vacations can be an ideal time to put a dent in the reading backlog. Bill Gates made a tradition of his “think weeks,” reading *vacations* during which he’d famously speed read through the densest of tomes with his inimitably serious-minded purpose.

Needless to say, we’re not all Bill Gates.

My vacation selections aren’t exactly puffy-covered supermarket potboilers, but I’ll admit that I rarely reach for many of Gates’ more obscure favorites (although I do find his book reviews worthwhile reading in their own right.)

In this spirit, last week, from my relaxed perch in vacation mode, I cracked the slim spine of Stephen Shapiro’s book on innovation, Best Practices are Stupid.

Don’t let its compact size—or snarky title—fool you. It’s a worthwhile read.

Unlike so many other books in this particular genre, it doesn’t disguise otherwise straightforward concepts with overwrought explanation. Shapiro gets straight to the point with 40 often counterintuitive tips on how to strengthen your innovation muscles, served up with respect for your time and intelligence. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Asking for Ideas is a Bad Idea (18)—crowdsourcing is often sold as a veritable goldmine if you can figure out how to harvest the collective intelligence of the masses. But Shapiro concludes what I’ve said before: sometimes the wisdom of crowds is pretty darn conventional. While crowdsourcing initiatives can be worthwhile for the publicity they generate, the ideas are often another story altogether.
  • Crowds are Better at Eliminating Duds Than at Picking Winners (62)—continuing on a similar thread, Shapiro says that the wisdom of crowds is in hole-poking, not winner-picking. He suggests allowing experts to generate ideas and using crowds to help separate the wheat from the chaff by rooting out the duds.
  • Best Practices Are (Sometimes) Stupid (90)—as a saltwater-obsessed youth, I learned that you can’t win a sailboat race by following the fleet. Shapiro suggests that the same logic applies to business: best practices are little more than someone else’s strategy. However, he’s quick to point out that best practices are indeed useful in tactical, non-differentiating areas—and sometimes strategically, but only when they’re borrowed from another industry. (It’s a parenthetical caveat he’s wise to both include within the book’s pages and to exclude from its title.)
  • Simplification Is the Best Innovation (93)—Under Steve Jobs’ leadership, Apple popularized the notion of design thinking, a philosophy of thoughtful product and experience design as the basis for competitive advantage. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Shapiro reminds us that “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” The success of Apple and other design-centered brands is strong evidence that consumers agree that the best innovation is often addition by subtraction.
  • Someone Else Has Already Solved Your Problem (160)—I like to think of the shortcut to creativity as the application of known ideas to a new context. Similarly, Shapiro suggests looking outside of your industry to find novel solutions that may be ordinary in their original use, but nothing short of genius in their second life. He offers the example of whitening toothpaste, which took inspiration from laundry detergent. The lesson is learning to observe closely—and learning to reframe the problem so you can see beyond your own purview.

I spoke with Steve several months ago as part of the research I was conducting on the concept of innovation pipelines as a drill-down on the innovation theme first introduced in Gartner’s Marketing Maturity Model (subscription required for both reports).

My thesis was that product and service advantages have become somewhat porous and ephemeral, vulnerable to the restless, relentless ambition of global competition rising from all quarters. I suggested that, today, the only sustainable advantage is a continuous series of temporary advantages strung together with a replenishing pipeline of ideas—ideas that are differentiated, commercially viable and that actually make it out of the lab and into the market.

How you achieve this is easier said than done and Shapiro’s book may not be final word on the topic, but it’s excellent inspiration for those seeking to instigate change to tired products and services, moribund business models and outmoded ways of thinking.

Rating: *** ½

**** Disruptive thinking | *** Useful insights | ** Meh | * Huh?

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  • The Empress says:

    Cupcakes are for morons…..but they have become small, cheap, customizable, mobile celebrations. (Attribution is following the trail of crumbs & blue frosting mustaches.)

  • Couldn’t agree more. Best practice is entirely dependent on the organisation and the context. Understand those two things and you can get to the right solution. One size doesn’t fit all.

  • Jake, his recommendations may be very difficult to execute in mainstream corporate America — case in point, he said “Hire people you don’t like.”

    This is laughable (to me), since most people I know already work in organizations that use a “hiring committee” approach to recruiting talent. Any candidate that stands out (is not like us) will typically be eliminated from consideration by the group-think selection process.

    The result is groups populated by “nice” well-intentioned people that are most like their peers. Trying to hire someone that’s outside of this “tribe” mentality is therefore an uphill battle.

    My point: perhaps if/when “persona-diversity” hiring is encouraged by the government (in the same way race, gender is already), then we might see more progress. Today, you can openly discriminate against “different” or “strange” in hiring — it’s an unprotected class.

  • David, you make some important points here. I’ve encountered companies with the courage and explicit intend to hire people that cross the cultural grain in both skill set and disposition. So, while what you describe may be the traditional state of hiring practices, I do think that there’s value in Shapiro’s advice to think differently about how and who you hire. Clearly, he’s taken rhetorical license with the chapter title–I’m not sure he means hiring people who are offensive or inappropriate. Rather, I think he’s challenging us to step out of our comfort zone in our hiring practices.