Safe Innovation: why best practices lead to mediocre outcomes


If you work in an organization, you have most likely been part of a group of talented employees regularly gathering around a rectangular conference table. The meeting starts off well. You have a clear problem you want to solve. It’s gnarly, but it feels like the right thing to focus on. You collectively brainstorm a few different ways to tackle the design challenge. Wow, you actually see yourself dreaming big dreams and painting a vision for what the future might look like. But the deeper you get into it, the more you realize that you are entering uncharted waters. Before you know it, you realize that for you to innovate you have no other choice than to take a risk. Shit just got real.

Your body language changes as you contemplate the consequences of failure. What if it doesn’t work? How will it affect your personal brand? How will you get others to follow? And then it happens – someone has the brilliant idea to say, “What are the best practices that we should put in place to get there?”

Allow me to translate what this person is really thinking: How might we minimize risk by copying what other innovators in the world have done to achieve greatness?

The team loves that idea. Yes, best practices…that ought to get us to the best outcomes (and cover our behinds in case something goes wrong).

Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe in the power of seeking external/analogous inspiration, as long as it inspires new thinking that is followed with bold action. In organizations, the term “best practices” inherently puts you into a follower mindset when leadership is truly needed to innovate.

It’s easy to forget why some innovate and others don’t. At the end of the day, it comes down to courage – the courage to challenge the status quo and take action in situations of high uncertainty; the courage to go where no one has gone before and experiment your way to the answer; the courage to lead the way and not expect to follow in other people’s footsteps; and yes, the courage to put your job on the line to achieve a vision that you believe in.

Best practices might inspire you, but they won’t save you. There is no such thing as “safe innovation”…and if you think there is, you are probably not innovating.

Innovation is tough. There is no right answer…other than getting started.