Next practices, not best practices!

by Adrian Segar

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Photo attribution: Flickr user heygabe

Best Practices look backward, providing advice that worked in the past; Next Practices focus on what to do in the time ahead.
The Internet Time Alliance

I always felt irritated, but never knew why, when I heard someone talk about best practices as the business processes we should strive for. Reading the excerpt quoted above, taken from the Working Smarter Glossary of the Internet Time Alliance led to an aha! moment.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with learning about and comparing different approaches to solving problems or satisfying business requirements. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel or repeat mistakes that others have made.

But when we limit ourselves to the best that others are doing, two things happen.

First, we blind ourselves to the reality that our world is constantly changing, that the best practices of today may become quickly obsolete. As examples, we only need look at how the music & publishing industries continue to cling to outmoded business models as digital distribution becomes commonplace.

And second, we don’t think about next practices: ways we might come up with something better. Example? Unlike the rest of the airline industry, Southwest Airlines has been profitable for 37 consecutive years, not by implementing well-established best practices of the fiercely competitive air transportation business but by introducing new ways (flying out of smaller airports, standardizing airline fleets, employee profit-sharing etc.) to satisfy customers and grow their market.

Learning about best practices is fine for novices who need to get up to speed on what an industry currently does. And implementing next practices can be scary, because they may require us to do things that we, and perhaps no one else, have ever done before.

But, if we restrict ourselves to best practices, then at best we’ll maintain the status quo, with the ever-present danger that at any time a competitor could make our industry’s best practices second best. Instead, focus on next practices. Doing this allows us to be open to reinventing our work, leading us to the potential of a profitable (and interesting) future.

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  • I’m unsure of the value. While the concept seems to have substance, intuitively it’s unsupportable. Case in point – SW Airlines is used to reinforce the cute conclusion “Next Practice” is better or the evolutionary step forward after “Best Practice”. Reality – SWA is inherently an example of “Best Practice” both because it was a coping strategy for a newcomer to penetrate the market/gate squatters at the larger airports and lower costs to fly effectively/profitably using a lower fare structure. That’s not “next” after a quarter of a century in existence. That’s a best practice being copied all over the world now by other airlines.
    While all of what is written begs to be considered prima facie, it’s not really supported by the ONLY example provided. In fact, if we start trying to come up with examples of ‘next’, we’re going to run into stuff like beta vs vhs, prodigy vs explorer, even apple vs microsoft.
    I think it’s better framed as Best is Best until something Better comes along Next,
    but Next is not always Better than Best unless it passes the Time Test.

    • Scott, you wrote a great comment; let’s see if we can come closer to agreement.

      Yes, when “something Better comes along” it gets adopted, eventually, into a new “best practice”. But how does something better arise? Not by trying to implement current best practices better than the competition, and that’s my key point. Rather, something better comes about when people take a risk and try out new business models.

      Southwest was initially successful for the reasons we both mention, but the reasons the company is still profitable today are (mostly) not the same as they were in the 1970’s. Because competitors will implement your good ideas too, unless you have and can maintain overwhelming first-to-market advantages, you can’t rest on your laurels of the past.

      I completely agree with you that “Next is not always Better than Best”. Perhaps I didn’t make it clear that concentrating on next practices is not a guarantee of success. Far from it. The examples you give might be the rule rather than the exception; many new business implementations will fail to generate advantage over the prevailing wisdom. To pick one of your examples, Betamax recordings were higher quality than those possible with VHS, but VHS’s longer recording times and subsequent better penetration in the rental market eventually led to the former’s demise.

      Both best practices and next practices involve risk. The risk in implementing best practices is that your only advantage is your ability to implement them better than your competition, and you must always be playing catch-up when a better best practice comes along. The risk in implementing next practices is that your idea may fail in implementation or prove inferior to current best practices for reasons that may not be readily apparent. I’d argue that concentrating on next practices gives you an opportunity to succeed, at least initially, through uniqueness rather than superior implementation, and that the payback from the former will, in general, be greater if you succeed.

      • Ian Gibson

        I’m late to the party – but just wanted to say that I think these extended and well-reasoned comments (not necessarily including mine, here) really did add value to the original post and almost made me weep when I compare them to the general level of discussion board ‘comment’ around the ‘net now.
        I must be getting old “even nostalgia isn’t what it once was.”
        Anyway – Thanks Guys.

  • Two years after I wrote this post, here’s Seth Godin’s take on the same topic. I’m glad we agree!

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/05/your-best-and-your-same.htm

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