Can replicating best practices stifle disruptive innovation?

As someone who has spent the better part of his professional life researching, teaching and implementing best practices in a variety of technology-driven global businesses, it is somewhat difficult to find myself writing the headline above.

But I had an epiphany of sorts during a recent flight, while reading a synopsis of Charles Landry’s book The Art of City Making. Landry’s premise is that depending on the best practices of others can stagnate creativity and commoditize innovation.

It’s not that best practices should be limited in the overall ideation process. It’s more that in many organizations, creative best practices are “outsourced” from other entities, whether they’re cities or businesses, often with little adaptation. Even worse, the process creates a “culture of copying” without a critical risk-reward mentality.

This hunter-gatherer innovation model can surely work for governments or enterprises, but it should not be done at the expense of inspiring internal creative capital. Many organizations are very open about saying something along these lines: “We don’t have the budgets or staffing to spend too much time on organic innovation. Even if we could, we don’t have the resources to execute anything that would require additional investment.”

So at trade shows and conferences around the world, the search is on to find pre-tested innovations that come close to what’s required back at the ranch. If the best practices are copied from competitors, the process quickly becomes a race to be the same.

So how can governments and enterprises balance creative copying while inspiring the stimulation of creative disruption from within?

  1. Encourage and formalize constructive failure. A process for developing internal best practices must be baked into the culture and incentivized by rewarding constructive risk-taking. Since governments are notorious for glacial innovation, some have set up “safe places to fail” as a way to accelerate innovation, especially in regard to smaller projects that require little capital investment.
  1. Require conference findings. Far too often, senior management learns nothing about the best practices hunter-and-gather exercise they’ve invested in. In my previous life, I required any conference attendee to return and present their “findings” prior to signing their travel expense submission. This forced the attendees to unearth best practices (and stories about them) and helped the rest of our team think about how these best practices could be adapted to our own organization. The goal is to transfer one best practice to an “even better practice” that specifically applies to the organization.
  1. Learn from failures, too. Executives seems to have an insatiable appetite for worst practices. In fact I would argue that gathering worst practices is just as, if not more important, than uncovering best practices. While best practices may be hard to replicate for budget, staffing and logistical reasons, everyone can learn from failed attempts. Going back to my previous point, constructive failure should be encouraged — but every attempt should be made to avoid time wasted on the avoidable.

 What’s your strategy for balancing home-grown and replicated innovation?


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  1. Juan Jimenez says:

    Best practices will stifle disruptive innovation only if they are mandated across the entire architectural structure of an organization. Yes, I know, that sentence might peg someone’s BS-o-Meter, but what I mean is that if you decide that best practices will underpin every decision in your org, your people will not be so keen on stepping outside the box. However, if the best practice approach is limited to the underlying components of the org that have been agreed as necessary supporting components of innovation, then your people will be more willing to get out of the box and think in disruptive ways to find new opportunities and avenues for expansion. Make sense?

    A more concrete example: if Tesla had to function within a society that thinks all cars should look like, feel like and smoke like Trabant’s, it wouldn’t work. Thank goodness that in the US, the transportation industry is free to innovate vehicles that can be designed with the understanding that they will operate in a road infrastructure where best practices in areas like markings, signs, pavement, etc. are in fact considered gospel, and where innovation proceeds at a slower pace.

  2. Lynn J Christofferson says:

    Agree with you both . . . best practices best fit the innovation process at a foundational level, and failure, as a best practice, should take a page from Stanford’s “. . . as an opportunity to Fail Forward, borrowing from the designer’s handbook to fail early, fail often so you succeed sooner. From a process perspective, the way we managed failure was by applying the prototyping mindset to various parts of human-centered design. Think of it this way: If you have multiple solutions to a problem, you’ve got a better chance of being right. And if you bring multiple solutions multiple times, your chances are even better.”


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