Education & Public Policy

Stephen Shapiro

Best Practices Are Stupid

Re-Thinking Innovation, Creativity and Collaboration

Stephen ShapiroSchool leaders face many challenges, of course, and responding to them with innovative solutions is essential to keeping our schools moving forward. But what if most conventional ideas about innovation are misguided or simply don’t work? That is the contention of Stephen Shapiro, author of the provocative book, Best Practices Are Stupid, and one of America’s foremost authorities on innovation, creativity and collaboration. Shapiro joins us this month to discuss his counterintuitive yet proven strategies and tactics for boosting innovation and making it part of the everyday culture of organizations. His methods have helped numerous organizations including Staples, GE, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force. Most ideas about innovation are neither innovative nor effective but, as many companies can attest, Steve Shapiro’s concepts really are different and they work!

Q: Thanks for taking time to speak with us today, Steve. Let’s start off by talking about the title of your book. Why are best practices stupid, anyway?

Stephen Shapiro: Well, there are two reasons why best practices are stupid. One is just purely from a competitive perspective, which is if you’re replicating what other people are doing, you will never be able to catch up to them. Therefore, they’ll always stay ahead of you. But I think the more important thing, certainly as it relates to schools and school administrators is the fact that what works for one organization, even in your same industry, may not work for you, because over time, organizations, schools, school systems create cultures. And you need to understand that what works for one culture doesn’t necessarily work for another culture. So just replicating what somebody else does may actually have disastrous effects inside your organization.

Q: You believe that the traditional models of innovation are broken, inefficient, and don’t produce results. What’s wrong with the conventional approaches to innovation?

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Best Practices Are Stupid

Hardcover, 224 pages
Published by Portfolio Hardcover
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Stephen Shapiro: Well, there are some of them that are correct. And then there’s a lot of them, though, that, again, only apply to certain types of organizations. And some of them have become these great, fun, trite expressions that people don’t even know what they’re really saying. So for example, and we’ll probably talk about this at some point, thinking outside the box. Everyone talks about thinking outside the box, but they don’t really know what they’re saying, why they’re saying it, what they want to achieve. And so what ends up happening is we perpetuate a lot of misconceptions and a lot of bad ideas in the name of innovation, which are, in fact, killing innovation.

Q: The first tip about innovation in your book is that it’s not survival of the fittest, but survival of the adaptable. Can you share the story of the two hikers that you tell in the book and what outrunning a bear has to do with innovation?

Stephen Shapiro: Sure. I love this. It’s an old joke. So many people know this joke, but it’s still the best definition of innovation out there. And it’s basically of these two hikers who are hiking through the mountains of Canada. It’s a bright, sunny day. They have their backpacks on. They have their hiking boots on. And then they stumble across a hungry, 600-pound grizzly bear. They’re clearly nervous. Well, the first hiker, he sits down on the rocks, takes off his backpack, takes off his hiking boots, put on his running shoes. The second hiker looks at him and says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear.” The first hiker looks back and says, “I know. I only need to outrun you.” This is really the essence of innovation. We get so caught up in new ideas and new ways of doing things and new products and new this and that. And it really isn’t about any of that. We are in an environment of hyper-change, hyper-speed. And it is about adaptability. You know, Darwin didn’t talk about survival of the fittest. It was survival of the adaptable. And that really is the name of the game. How quickly can you adapt to changing regulations? How fast can you adapt to the changing way that technology’s coming out? It’s all these things that you need to become better at in order to be successful.

Q: You quote Albert Einstein who said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” You say most organizations typically spend all 60 minutes finding solutions to problems that don’t even matter. What sort of advice do you have for schools when it comes to identifying problems and innovating to solve them?

Stephen Shapiro: Well, I think this is really one of the most important aspects of innovation. We get so caught up with people’s suggestions, opinions, and thoughts that we don’t really take the time and rigor to understand what matters most. Let me give you an example straight out of education. In the UK, the educational system there, one of the non-profits wanted to find a way of innovating the way they educate. And if you think about education, where people always go to are the teachers or the curricula or it could be the infrastructure or the technology. And so if I ask the question, “How do I improve the educational experience for the students?” we could go in a million and one different directions. And so we would be lost in all the possible solutions. So what this team did, though, is they took the time to understand the greatest, single most impactful thing for a student’s learning. And what they discovered is that the research proves, irrefutably, that parental involvement is actually the single greatest impact on a student’s ultimate learning. So instead of trying to solve all the other problems, which are obviously very useful, they focused purely on parental involvement. And what they did is they looked for someone, an organization that had found a similar solution. They found in Bogota, Columbia a school which has 100% parental involvement. And they started to learn from what they were doing and trying to apply some of those concepts. So it gets important to understand what is the thing we are trying to impact, and what is the leverage point? What is the thing that we could influence and have the greatest impact on finding a solution? So instead of asking a big, broad question like “improving education,” let’s break it down into something we can actually solve.

Q: One of your more provocative tips is that you should hire people you don’t like. How does hiring people you don’t like lead to better innovation?

Stephen Shapiro: Innovation is predicated on divergent thinking. That is bringing together people who see the world differently. And although we’ve been told that opposites attract, there’s, again, irrefutable scientific evidence that, in fact, opposites don’t attract. They repel. Like attracts like. Birds of a feather flock together. Whatever you want to call it. So what ends up happening is we … be honest with yourself – maybe with the exception of your spouse, because we tend to choose partners for slightly different reasons. But if we look at our life, the people we hang out with have a lot in common with us. Rarely do we hang out with people that are different than us, see the world differently, have different interests, think differently. And, again, this is great for efficiency. Organizations have been built around people thinking the same way. The problem is if you have everybody thinking the same way, it’s hard to innovate. So when I say, “Hire people you don’t like,” and, “Work with people you don’t like,” what I mean is find people who are fundamentally different than you are. Because the odds are they’re going to annoy you. So, for example, I consider myself to be this sort of creative person who’s very spontaneous. The people who drive me bonkers are the organized, methodical, somewhat obsessive-compulsive planners, because I find plans restrictive and limiting. But I’ve also learned that they are the most important people for me in order to get things done. And if you’re a person who’s totally by the books, totally by the numbers, you live by facts, data, and spreadsheets, you probably want to partner with somebody who is more empathetic and emotional and makes decisions based on gut and on people’s needs rather than just the spreadsheets. It’s this convergence of divergent thinking that actually allows innovation to thrive.

Q: In the book you talk about what you call the “Performance Paradox.” Can you explain what that is and why when organizations are hyperfocused on their goals they are less likely to achieve them?

Stephen Shapiro: This has a lot of organizational and individual implications. And basically what a performance paradox says is, “The more you focus on a goal, the less likely you are to achieve it.” Because what happens is as we start focusing on the future, we become less present moment focused and we create stress. And stress is the thing that reduces performance. We see this in athletics. We see this in every area. And I’ll give you just a very simple example of this in action. When I was traveling around the country several years ago promoting one of my earlier books, which talks about this concept, one of the women in the audience was just about to graduate from high school. And she was telling me a story. It was a great story! Math was always her worst subject. And so she needed to pass her final exam and so she studied, studied, studied, studied, and studied. I mean, she really … she focused on the goal of passing this exam. And when she took the exam, she bombed. She did what she always did, which was she failed the test. She basically begged her teachers to allow her to retake the test. This time she tried a different technique, and it’s one I talked about in the book, which is, “If you’re creating too much stress and you are getting in your own way, make believe you’re someone else, because you’ll start to see the world differently.” Now this young woman, she, instead of studying, she didn’t study another minute coming up to the test. But what she did is she visualized herself as someone she considered to be a very powerful woman who would not be intimidated by a math exam. And this was Condoleezza Rice, who was the Secretary of State at the time. And so everyday she would just think of herself as Condoleezza Rice and she got powerful just through the thought. She took the test and she got a 93, which was the best she’d ever done. And this just shows us very simply how the pressure to perform in the classroom can often be the very thing that causes people to perform worse. And what we need to do is create a little more fun for people and have people understand the big picture. Why are they studying? It’s not about the goal. There’s gotta be something bigger. It’s gotta be about the context. When we understand the big picture, we will always perform at higher levels and reduce our stress levels.

With organizations, what they do is they get so focused on the numbers. So if you take a school system, they’re probably focused on the performance of the students in terms of tests. And there’s all these standardized tests. And the problem is, first of all, when we get so hyper-focused on the numbers, the question is, “Are we really focused on the right thing?” Are we focused on the students’ learning and the applicability of what they’re able to do in the real world. So that’s one big question which any organization has to look at is, “Just because we hit the numbers, have we actually achieved what it is we want to achieve? Are we looking again at the bigger picture?” The other thing, though, is for organizations to recognize is that when they drive these numbers … so in creativity, for example, one organization I worked with was so driven by how many new products they were able to create that they put so much stress on their people that they never hit the numbers. So when we tried a slightly different approach, which was to not get them to focus on the number, but to actually have them relax in the morning. We did some exercises in the morning before they started and they always hit the number. So when they weren’t focused on the number, they hit the number. When they were focused on the number, they didn’t. And so it’s this paradox. And what we find is when people aren’t focused on the number, not only do they feel less stressed, but they don’t even think they’re performing as well, but they actually are. We’ve done the same test with sports teams and found that athletes will perform better – they’ll perform better when you tell them to be present, give them something to do in the present moment rather than the goal that they’re trying to shoot for, even though they don’t think they’re performing as well. So it’s this weird paradox. And organizations need to get it’s not about focusing on the endgame. If we focus on the present, doing the right thing today and doing the right thing tomorrow, we will always do the right thing in the long run.

Q: People are frequently told they need to “think outside the box” in order to come up with new ideas. But you believe that “thinking outside the box” is actually not a useful way to innovate at all. Instead of thinking outside the box, you say we need to find a better box. What do you mean by that and how do you find a better box?

Stephen Shapiro: Well, the better box is that question, challenge, opportunity, or issue that we’re gonna work on. So we say, “Think outside the box,” we tend to go to this freethinking mindset. And what ends up happening is when we do that, we tend to create a lot of wasted work. We tend to create a lot of noise in the system because people then start to think about things that are totally irrelevant. So what we try to do is actually give them more structure. Not less structure. The issue is not the fact that they’re in a box. The issue is they’re typically in the wrong box. And we do this one activity with people that actually demonstrates very simply and very powerfully that when you tell people to think outside the box, first of all, the solutions that they come up with are typically the obvious solutions. And then what ends up happening is if they go past the obvious the solution, they go to the ridiculous and useless. But if we can redefine – actually give them a better question, something more focused, something that actually solves the real problem – the quality and quantity and relevancy of the solutions increases massively. So if you’re working on any kind of problem, you know, don’t ask people to think outside the box. If bullying is an issue, don’t say, “Well, okay, think outside the box on ways of stopping bullying.” Actually, let’s understand, what’s going on here? Why is this taking place? And how do we frame it in such a way that gives people a little more structure so that they can think creatively inside of the right and maybe a bigger box.

Q: You believe that expertise is the enemy of innovation and that the more you know about a particular topic, the more difficult it is for you to think about it in a different way. That seems particularly germane to our audience of school leaders. Tell us about that if you will.

Stephen Shapiro: Absolutely! I like to explain why expertise is the enemy of innovation through something which we can all relate to. It’s just an analogy we can relate to, which is if you’re like me and you’re a little messy and you lose your keys and you’re in a hurry to go to a meeting or something and you can’t find your keys, and what do you do? You’re looking on your desk. You’re looking in your pocket. You’re looking in your sofa. You’re looking in your laundry. Whatever it is, you’re looking everywhere. Ten minutes goes by. You find your keys. What do we inevitably say to ourselves? “Can you believe it? They were in the last place I looked.” We say this, but it’s crazy, because who finds something and keeps on looking for it? Well, the same thing is true with the brain. So if you are an expert, you are going to find solutions quickly. If you’re close to a topic, if you know a lot about a topic, it doesn’t matter what it is. If you’re close to the topic, you will find solutions quickly and then you will stop looking for new solutions. And the odds are the things that you thought of first are the obvious solutions that people have thought of in the past. So if you’re an expert, what you want to do is two things: one is you want to suspend your judgment that you actually have found the solution. You want to allow yourself to play and think and expand and find new solutions. The other thing you want to ask yourself is not, “How do we find a solution to this” but, “Who else has found a solution to something like this?” Because most of the problems everybody’s working on are related to something someone has solved in a different domain. So if you’re trying to work on something inside of education, don’t talk to educators. Don’t talk to administrators. Maybe you want to talk to corporations that have solved the problem in a different domain, but for a related problem. Or maybe you want to talk to cultural anthropologists if this has to do with the way people are interacting in the school and the culture of your school. Well, talk to people who actually study indigenous cultures and understand the way they see the world. They might have a breakthrough solution to something you don’t understand. I guarantee you every problem that a school faces has been solved in one form or another by someone, just in a completely different context, and we don’t think to look there.

Q: In your book you describe wandering around your own house as a great way to come up with innovations. Tell us about what you learned from looking around your bathroom and how that might translate for school leaders. Can a school leader learn anything from walking around his or her school or district?

Stephen Shapiro: Well, I love this quote from Steve Jobs, who said that creativity is just having enough dots to connect – dots being ideas or experiences. And the reason why creative people are so is either they’ve had more experiences or they’ve thought more about their experiences than other people. So it’s about collecting and connecting dots. And so, you know, I was just looking around my place, and I always do this. I mean, that’s the nice thing about being somewhat messy is that everywhere I look, there’s a thought, a stimulus. I can look at a picture. I can look at a tube of toothpaste. I can look at anything and try to make connections to a problem that I’m working on right. You know, so I was looking at, for example, some shampoos, and I saw the whole concepts of lather, rinse, repeat. And I thought, well, that’s an interesting concept. How does that apply to the thing I’m working on? And I always am looking at, well, what else is around me that could be the stimulus for a new idea? So if you’re working on a problem, and it doesn’t matter what it is, ask … when I look at the telephone, what are the attributes of the telephone? What are some of the aspects of the telephone? What are some of the things the telephone does that might help me find a solution to whatever problem I’m working on. It could be, “How do I get people to take tests better?” Okay, great. So how does my cell phone help people take tests? Well, people like phones. Maybe there’s some kind of connection there. Whatever it is, just look around and make and force connections. Instead of always looking where you’ve always looked, like I said in the last question. You know, if we always look to solutions school administrators and teachers have developed in the past, we’re always gonna get more of the same. But let’s look in other places and let’s look in inanimate places, like books and sunglasses and pens. And you can get a sense of what I’m looking at on my desk right now from those last few things that I just said.

Q: Finally, what do you believe it will it take to enable schools to become places where nonstop innovation is the norm and how can a school leader create that kind of culture?

Stephen Shapiro: Well, this is a really interesting and tricky question, because obviously there are lots of different types of schools. You have public schools and private schools, and each of them have their own different pressures. And, you know, I think part of it is everybody’s always looking to the government and other people for the answers. And the first thing I always tell anybody is that you can’t look to anyone to find your solutions. You can’t look for anyone else to do anything for you. You’ve gotta, first of all, take the initiative to recognize that you control your own destiny and that you can innovate inside of any environment and any context under any situation. And once we get that, then what we need to do is – I think the most important skill of anything that any innovator and organization can do is get better at asking questions. What happens is our natural inclination, especially, let’s say in the educational system is about knowing. It’s about knowledge. It’s about having the answers. Having the answers is much less important than having the questions. So I would encourage people to become questioning machines, to start looking around, to find what are the questions that we don’t have answers to? What are the problems, issues, opportunities, or challenges that if we could find a solution to them, they would actually have a huge exponential impact on the performance of our school system and our students and the way people actually get educated? Not just about test taking, but actually about education. And then really dig deep and take the time, as that Einstein quote said, “59 minutes defining the problem.” Actually take those questions, use a little rigor, and find out what the real underlying root cause is. What is the leverage point for finding a solution? And then get creative about finding solutions only when we know the question. So it’s really about becoming better question askers.


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Stephen Shapiro is one of the foremost authorities on innovation, creativity and collaboration. He is the author of five books including, Best Practices Are Stupid, selected as the best innovation and creativity book of 2011. He is also the creator of Personality Poker, a fast-paced card game that helps individuals of any age quickly learn their personality style.

Posted in April 2012, Education & Public Policy, Main Interview, Management Experts | 1 Comment

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