Why You Should Focus on “Worst Practices” by Umair Haque

If you want to be disruptive, don’t start with best practices. Try, instead, find your industry’s worst practices and take tiny steps — or better yet, giant leaps — towards bettering them. When you learn how to see them, worst practices lurk everywhere — because they’re baked into the tired, toxic assumptions of business as usual. Customer service nightmares (think Dell Hell), design desolation (as I discussed in my recent post on Pontiac), lowest common denominators (like KFC’s stomach-churningly grody Double Down), marketing by half-truth, and what you might call total zombification (think GM’s reanimated IPO) — they’re just a few shining examples of the worst of the worst, desperately crying out to be bettered. But they’re not the only ones — and your challenge is finding and then bettering a few of your own, to form the basis of a disruptive competitive position.
So how do you find your worst practices? Here are four ways to get started.
Ask your critics. The simplest way to uncover a worst practice is to ask your critics — the fiercer, the better. Most companies have been taught to bash, beat, and silence them — but if you really want to discover where “best” is far from good enough, your critics are worth about five hundred times their weight in management consultants, pundits, and assorted beancounters. Way back in 2005, Jeff Jarvis wrote about his original experience of Dell Hell — and if Dell had listened to him with intent and candor, perhaps there wouldn’t be an instant replay today.
Spend a day in the trenches. I’ll admit it: I’m a compulsive watcher of “Undercover Boss.” Why? Because there’s nothing like watching a cloistered suit get a hefty dose of reality — and there’s nothing to deliver that dose like spending time doing battle in the trenches. Want to discover what really sucks about your distribution, marketing, pricing, service, partners, or products? When you’re in the boardroom, a dozen yes-men can cook up a billion excuses — but when you’re the one doing the above, there’s no escaping the truth. What might happen if the Gap’s senior management had to spend time actually trying to sell its uninspiring clothes to increasingly fashion-fragmented teens? I’d bet they’d cotton on quick to their worst practice: aesthetic aridity.

Examine your past.
Most forlorn, fading companies had a day in the sun — once. And a great way to look for worst practices is to get historical. There’s nothing like looking backwards, and examining the treasured memory of what made you great, to provoke the “a-ha!” moment about what you lost, when you lost it, and, most importantly, why you lost it. Once upon a time, Sony made awesome stuff like the Walkman because it was hyper-attuned to people’s rapidly evolving expectations. If I had to put money on it, I’d say that’s exactly what Sony lost somewhere along the corporate-reshuffling way. Now, like too many doddering corporations, Sony’s stuck on auto-repeat, pushing capital intensive, overmarketed, marginally improved, less-than-relevant stuff at people, instead of igniting new markets for what they will want next — but don’t yet have. Funny — that sounds a bit like the story of the American economy itself.
Diet on your own dogfood. What would happen, one wonders, if every CEO had a new clause inserted into his or her gilded contract: you make it, you use it — exclusively. It’s just a hunch, but I’d bet that if fast food execs could only eat fast food, if bankers could only invest in their own toxic securities, and if pharma execs had to swallow a handful of their own pills every morning, the economy might not be so riddled with toxic, self-destructive junk. Hence, if you want to track down your worst practices, start by making what you make part of the fabric of your own daily life. What — you think Steve Jobs types his emails on a Dell? Of course not. There’s a lesson there for every company struggling to break out of the lumbering herd, by bettering its worst.
While we might not want to admit it, I’d bet that deep down, we all know it: business as usual isn’t just marginally, barely not good enough — at doing stuff that lasts, resonates, and matters, it’s downright lousy. Business as usual is to enduring worth, bigger purpose, and deeper meaning what motivational posters are to the Mona Lisa. Result? An economy awash in the trivial, banal, inconsequential — and the downright toxic.
The 20th century’s best just might not be good enough to create 21st century advantage. To get there, you have to master the art of mattering. One way to start is hunting for what’s terrible, insufferable, and downright awful — and then striving, relentlessly, harder than your rivals think is even conceivable, to better it.

Source: http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/2010/11/why_you_should_focus_on_worst.html

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