Many business “playbooks” need to be dramatically reconsidered by calling out longstanding orthodoxies. Conventional wisdom may have been successful for decades, and both managers and employees are attached to it. But most of us are now experiencing pressure against long-standing business models and ways of working as a result of advances in technology. That means that many of our core business processes based on “best practices” have become either virtually unrecognizable from their original design and intended purpose; irrelevant, given shifts in what’s possible; or, at worst, both.

Recently, we asked our networks about some of these best practices that have gone sour, and we received a comprehensive array of (often humourous) responses from those enduring them:

  • Risk management procedures that don’t actually manage risk.
  • Long slide deck-making for internal audiences.
  • A desire to satisfy the “cult of collaboration” in which all opinions are equal and everyone can be creative.
  • Getting caught up in tracking process against internal targets, believing that driving the process will deliver the results... which just creates a diversion from actually delivering the results.
  • When “Jimmy from Finance” has an idea about marketing and it has to get vetted if we are “being collaborative,” just slowing everything down.
  • Rollover budgeting practices (e.g. prior year budget plus 4%) that carry dead weight investing year over year.

Clearly, it’s time for change. Employees can play a crucial role in lighting the fuse by calling out orthodoxy.

Some orthodoxies are good, such as codifying safety procedures at an oil refinery or converting accounting practices into financial regulations. But – across all industries – many longstanding orthodoxies have the potential to slow down necessary changes to your business model. Here’s how to spot an orthodoxy:

  • It’s passed down from generation to generation, either explicitly (written or codified) or implicitly (as part of the culture), and it’s followed diligently, since it is considered fundamental to the organization’s belief system.
  • It often lies at the heart of how an organization explains its success – “We are better than competition because of (fill in the blank).”
  • It’s rarely challenged for fear of accusation of heresy by those responsible for propagating it.
  • Even in the face of evidence that the practice may be less effective, adherents quickly rationalize away that proof.

The key to spotting an orthodoxy that needs to be detonated is to put it to a simple test: See what happens if you do something different from that past practice. Do results improve? Stay the same? Get worse? There are examples of leading companies putting orthodoxies to the test; Amazon, for one, has tested physical stores without checkout counters. They’re asking, “Why do we need someone to help you scan your purchases as you leave? Could we create a better customer experience without this process and save money at the same time?”

How can both employees and their managers adopt this “detonate” mindset? Encourage them to identify and speak up about orthodoxies that negatively impact the business. Here are five steps anyone can use to research and call out “best” practices that could be making your company worse.

  • Ask why you do things this way, and try to dig into where it might have started.
  • Imagine life without this orthodoxy; what would be the impact on your company’s activities and/or success model? Try unplugging from set processes for more creative brainstorming.
  • Find people who behave outside the orthodoxy, either at your company or elsewhere.
  • Identify a business or service that does exactly the opposite of this orthodoxy.
  • Pinpoint a place in the world – or a time in history – where this orthodoxy would be, or would have been, impossible.

Let your people help you see beyond the constraints of best practices and start a conversation in your organization. Consider asking some probing questions of your executives. Look around your organization for signs of ossification. When you hear answers like, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” zero in on those issues, and demand better from your organization.

About the author

Steven Goldbach is the co-author, with Geoff Tuff, of “Detonate: Why – And How – Corporations Must Blow Up Best Practices (And Bring a Beginner’s Mind) to Survive” (Wiley; May 2018), from which this article is adapted. He is a principal, chief strategy officer and executive leadership team member at Deloitte.

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