No More Best Practices?

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.


In a recent meeting with a global CEO and his senior team, the CEO asked: “What’s the most important leadership gap facing our company?” After hearing answers from his audience of senior leaders, he gave the following perspective: The most important gap lay in their being too inwardly focused on what made them successful in the past. “We need to look outside our own boundaries,” he remarked, “to mine the collective intelligence that will help us solve our thorniest problems.” 
In a changing marketplace, if we think we have all the answers, we will most probably lose. Why? Because we’re faced with a dizzying array of new challenges, constantly shifting economic conditions and new global competitors. All constantly new stuff to many successful companies. 
Here’s the challenge: It’s generally not a matter of choosing right versus wrong alternatives. Leadership consultant Eric Olson states that the most difficult leadership and business decisions are those in which we must balance one “right” alternative versus another “right” alternative. Often we struggle the hardest when we must choose between shades of gray. 
Thought leaders including Vijay Govindarajan and the late C.K. Prahalad stress that rather than create best practices, we must explore “Next Practices.” To quote Govindarajan, “strategy starts to decay the day it is created.” Strategy consultant Gary Hamel agrees, describing the single biggest cause of corporate failure as overinvesting in what is, rather than investing in what might be. Lawrence Levin describes Top Teams as needing to focus simultaneously on the “Now and the New” – ensuring they take care of the business they are in while looking at the evolving environment. A paradox to be sure – but one which Top Teams deliberately manage.
But where is the fertile ground in which leaders can discover and develop Next Practices? It must come from developing internal diversity and creating a discipline of looking outward. All too often change agents are recruited because of their “differentness,” only to be shut down by a prevailing culture focused on the familiar. 
What specific actions can leaders take to mine and develop collective intelligence, so that they create robust Next Practices to become or stay competitive in a complex, changing world? Three things come to mind:
- Be willing to ask. Do you create a “criticism-free zone” in which people can ask questions and throw out ideas without fear of reprisal? Of course, not every meeting is like this…but is there somewhere that out-of-the-box ideas can find a place to take root?
- Be willing to listen. Within your conversations, what is the ebb and flow of expressing versus listening? How much do you encourage others to shine and develop their leadership?
- Be willing to learn. When did you last expand the scope of your knowledge? Bring in ideas outside of your industry? Outside your geography? Not every idea is applicable, but it’s a good way to keep your brain agile and resilient. And agility is often the key to competitive advantage, particularly in times of rapid change. 
Our global CEO is on the right track, first by acknowledging that neither he nor his team holds the ultimate recipe for future success. He’s raising the important questions and understanding the limits of “best practices.” And, he knows that in the discipline of creating Next Practices, he and his team will have the best shot at sustaining their considerable success. 

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