First published in The Huffington Post 3 November 2015
It was a leading fashion house that stunned me with their thinking. There brief was simple, “We lead fashion. We don’t follow it. This is our culture. We don’t want best practice in leadership development – we want leading practice.” It turned my own thinking on its head. Rather than trying to be like the best – why not create the standard others follow? I realised it was the difference between the person who teaches you how the best people do things and being the person creating the best way. It’s a far more exciting place to be.
There’s nothing wrong with best practice, it simply means someone was there before you. They invented it first. By definition in order to become best practice others must first have figured out what the best way and others decided that there was no better way. Best practice has its place. The world of work is safer because of the commonly agreed standards of what constitutes best practice and enshrining this in law.
In contrast, leading practice is about being at the forefront of development – setting the standard that others then follow. Leading practice starts with the premise that ‘best practice’ is not good enough. Best practice focused on how to get the best from the horse whilst leading practice developed the automobile.
Best practice constrains performance
In my view, the term best practice constrains performance. It’s as if once you have achieved best practice the job is done. There is no better place to go. It is a closed mindset that allows people to wave the banner of ‘this is the best way’ forgetting the fact that what best practice replaced was itself once best practice and today’s best practice is tomorrow’s mediocre.
Whilst very occasionally throughout history step changes occur in performance that transform how things are done, like the Internet or the supermarket (yes there was a time before supermarkets existed), almost all improvements come from challenging what is considered best practice to see if there is a better way. Those pushing the boundaries of what is possible do not think in terms of best practice but in terms of better practice. They are driven by an insatiable appetite to improve.
Leading practice requires an intense curiosity to find out and know more. It’s the difference between reading articles on the latest thinking in your industry versus reading articles on other seemingly unrelated topics and reading about the latest thinking in your industry.
But reading the articles is not enough – the skill comes in thinking how the insights might be applied to your own industry. For example, insights into behaviour when applied to managing the interface between pedestrians and vehicles resulted in Exhibition Road in London. Here, there are no boundaries such as a kerb between pedestrians and road traffic. The result is a decrease in accidents contrary to what might have been imagined. The design challenges accepted wisdom of the traditional pavement raised above the road and separated by a kerb. Being curious means not spending time with people similar to yourself in the same industry but meeting other people from non-related businesses and listening to their view of the world and the lessons that can be learned.
From my own experience, spending time working with people who are specialists in process safety introduced me to the ‘Bowtie diagram’. On the left hand side are those things likely to prevent an incident occurring. In the middle is the incident and on the right hand side those things that need to be done if an incident does occur. In shape when mapped out, the image is one of a bow tie. I realised when helping a national retailer work out how to help store managers understand the role of duty manager, it could be explained in terms of a bow tie diagram. Spending time with a pilot led me to add into the same duty manager programme a series of simulations designed to test knowledge under a simulated incident.
Leading practice means being able to spot the assumptions about the way things have to be done. Often, what seems to be an accepted fact or wisdom turns out to be little more than custom and practice, for example, Clarence Saunders challenged the assumption that customers could only be served by shop assistants. He realised they were very capable of serving themselves enabling the concept of the supermarket to be developed. The first one was called ‘Piggly Wiggly’ by the way.
When faced with the challenge of developing more flavoured milk products, ‘Flav-R-Straw’ asked “why does the milk have to be flavoured?” and this led in the 1950s to the invention of the straw containing a filter that flavoured the milk. Shipping straws is a lot simpler than the challenge of processing and shipping milk. Flav-R-Straw challenged the assumption that the milk had to be flavoured to get flavoured milk.
It takes confidence
The trouble with assumptions is that by definition they are hard to spot. To challenge something that is the norm requires going in the face of what is normal. That runs the risk of making you look a little silly in the eyes of those around you. Far less stressful is to simply follow best practice – it’s hard to go wrong when you are doing the right thing. When experiments in leading practice fail, as they will, such is the nature of developing new ideas, people are quick to rush in with criticism for not sticking to best practice. We hamper further leading practice by putting in place performance management systems that reward completion rather than experimentation. Those taking the risk in pushing the boundaries need tremendous inner strength and supportive, visionary managers able to recognise the value in leading practice.
So ask yourself – Are you the sheep or the shepherd? Are you following best practice or leading it?
Dominic Irvine 2015 All rights asserted.