“Best practices can only make you average. They stifle creativity and encourage ‘inside the box’ thinking.” I hear this all the time. But the truth is, best practices are what makes excellence possible, and I’ll tell you why.

Inside the box

The argument goes something likebest practices this: if best practices are gathered from a large set of people practicing them, they are, by definition, average. Adopting them, therefore, can only make you average.

Mike Lehr does an excellent job articulating the theory in Best Practices = Inside the Box Thinking.

The Box has become the standard against which creative thinking is measured. Inside the box thinking is basically solving problems from safely within the bounds of a well understood set of solutions for a given field.

Mike goes as far as equating best practices with copying others, and says “Companies do not transform markets or shoot ahead of the competition by copying.”

While it seems logical on the surface, it doesn’t hold up under closer examination.

Good to great

With an unapologetic nod to Jim Collin‘s Good to Great, I maintain that establishing a solid ‘good’ foundation with best practices frees up resources to solve your unique problems. Great companies don’t try to be great at everything. They focus their resources on the most important ones.

That being the case, why would you spend more than minimal resources solving problems the industry has already solved? Just adopt and go.

The concept is everywhere, hidden in plain sight.

  • Does a solid training in musical notation and harmony theory limit a musician to being average?
  • Do building codes limit architects to uninspired, average buildings?
  • Do creative civil engineers thumb their nose at the Standard Handbook for Civil Engineers when designing bridges?
  • Do professional athletes and their trainers ignore current practices in training and nutrition?

The answer is obvious: they don’t, and that’s exactly the point. Everyone in these fields has access to the same standard, “best practices” materials. They give guidance on how things are done; a foundation of sorts.

But what makes some great and others average is what they do above the foundation of these best practices. To be great, you have to build on best practices, not ignore them.

So, here’s the deal: best practices do not make an organization great! They reduce the effort required to be good. They are the proverbial wheel that needn’t be reinvented.

Reinventing the wheel

In his article, Mike points out that there are in fact thousands of patents for wheels. An apparent  indication that the wheel really is being reinvented.

But it’s really not. In practice, the wheel concept is being adapted in creative ways to solve new and unique challenges.

Imagine the effort it would require to invent a completely new transport method without adapting the wheel in some way. I mean, it’s possible, but why would you do that when you could simply take the wheel, adapt it as needed, and have a quick solution that’s based on well tested principles?

Excellence outside the box

Every organization has limited resources. They each must decide how to use the resources they have to best achieve the organization’s goals.

Why, then, would an organization want to spend more time inventing their own solutions, when there are readily available “best practices” than can be quickly adopted to great success.

This is where it gets interesting.

If your scarce resources aren’t solving already-solved problems, they are freed to focus on your unique challenges. The really great thing is, the more resources you free up in this way, the more you have to focus on those additional things that make you truly great.

Let’s say I’m in the proverbial six foot hole in the ground, trying to get out. I have this box, but I ignore it because my challenge is to get out of this hole. Outside the box thinking would have me engineer a ladder, or construct rudimentary stairs. Very creative. High marks for innovation.


I could push the box to the side, stand on it, and climb out. Problem solved; move on.

You see, leading organizations are very intentional about where they spend their resources. They know full well that you won’t lead markets or be excellent by mimicking others. This is exactly why they leverage best practices to quickly build a solid ‘good’ platform. In so doing, they free up their talent to work on those challenges unique to their business that will give the advantage they need to “transform markets and shoot ahead of the competition”.

Far from limiting you to average, best practices, when used correctly, are the fastest way to excellence.

What’s not to like?

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