Guru Review: Best Practices Are Stupid

Matt May interviews Stephen Shapiro on his new book, "Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Way To Out-Innovate The Competition"
Strategic Facilitation & Ideation,
October 11, 2011

Fellow OPEN Forum contributor Stephen Shapiro has just published a terrific, extremely practical new book, provocatively titled Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Way To Out-Innovate The Competition. It's an insightful and useful collection of real-world strategies and tactics that actually work, from a practitioner's perspective. I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Steve.

Q: You've compiled a list of 40 best practices. Wouldn't I be stupid to use them?

A: (chuckles) Well, I always say that a best practice is to avoid best practices. But there are times when replicating what has worked elsewhere is long as you understand the context. Blindly using Google's or Apple's innovation approach could be a disaster if you have a completely different culture.

Q: What's a smart way to grow innovation capability in a company?

A: The first step is to recognize that in most organizations, innovation is ad hoc and only happens when someone decides it is time to think differently. To make innovation repeatable, you need to treat it the way you would treat any other part of the business, like finance, which has a CFO, CPAs, processes, systems, measures, and organization and more. Innovation needs a similar but not identical structure.

Q: What's the single biggest mistake made when trying to innovate?

A: The biggest mistake is asking for ideas willy-nilly, ala "give us your ideas." We've become enamored with gathering opinions and suggestions, but this tends to create a lot of noise and has a debatable ROI. In today's tight economy, efficient innovation is the name of the game. This requires focus.

Q: When it comes to framing innovation challenges, you suggest "The Goldilocks Principle." Can you explain it?

A: Einstein reputedly said, "If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions." Most organizations are running around spending 60 minutes of their time on things that don't matter. So clearly defining the challenge that people can rally around is important. But the challenge needs to be "just right." Ask a broad and fluffy question and you will get impractical solutions. Ask questions that are too specific and you cut off the possibility of divergent and tangental thinking.

Q: You state that expertise is the enemy of innovation, but Mae West didn't come up with relativity, Einstein did. Catch my drift?

A: Ha! Love it. Expertise is incredibly valuable for solving a wide range of problems. Studies show that most patents were indeed developed by someone with domain expertise. However, the true breakthroughs were almost always developed by someone from a different discipline or from multi-disciplinary teams. Let's face it, if 100 aerospace engineers are working on an aerospace engineering problem and they can't find a solution, adding the 101st aerospace engineer won't make that much of a difference. But if you add a biologist, a nanotechnologist or a musician, you might just get unstuck. It's about connecting the dots. Einstein was a unique individual who also had the great fortune of working in a patent office where he gathered dots to connect.

Q: What's The Performance Paradox and can you give a compelling example of it at work?

A: Paradoxically, the more you are focused on a goal, the less likely you are to achieve it. Here's a simple example we can all relate to. Imagine a sales person who is doing the hard sell. They are attached to the result. In studies we have done, we found that people who truly focused on the customer sold more than those who were motivated by the sale. We've seen that paradox in many different areas of life and business.

Q: What did Edison get wrong about innovation?

A: Edison is often quoted as having said that when inventing the filament for the lightbulb, he did not fail 700 times and in fact he claims he did not fail once. Each iteration eliminated things that didn't work and that was a valuable learning experience. This may be true, but if he was successful on the first try, he would not have tried 700 more times in the name of learning. Failure is overrated. Today, with the collaboration technologies available to us, we can push the risk, cost and time associated with failure into the market. Crowdsourcing is one useful way of getting solutions where you only pay for the successes in terms of time and money.

Q: Can you explain "the reality TV show" method of spurring company innovation?

A: There is reason why American Idol is so popular. It is fun to watch people compete and show off their talents. Organizations have used the concept of reality TV shows to help not just generate solutions to specific challenges, but also to create some buzz. Start a competition. Define a specific problem you want solved. Have people compete to provide useful solutions. Video it and create your own reality TV show.

Q: You know what my favorite of the 40 tips is, right?

A: Hmmm, let me guess. "Simplification is the Best Innovation." Right? I'm sure you could write a whole book on that topic.

Q: What's the one thing you want people to take away from this book?

A: I think the most important thing is a simple mantra: "Ask the right question, the right way, of the right people." When you do this, you accelerate your innovation efforts. You focus people on what matters most. And you also engage and collaborate more effective internally and externally. Innovation is not about new products, new processes, new services or even new business models. It is about adaptability. When the pace of change outside of your organization is faster than the pace of change within, you will be out of business.