Stop Obsessing Over Best Practices

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This is an excerpt from my weekly Unthinkable newsletter, which explores intuition at work. Sick of average results and commodity content? Get weekly ideas and stories about conventional thinking and the people who dare to question it. Subscribe here.

“Yeah but how do we KNOW?”

That was a question I asked my boss a couple years ago — or, actually, one of my three bosses. This particular boss was Rob Go, one of the three co-founding partners of NextView Ventures, the seed-stage VC firm where I worked for three years as VP of Platform (content + community + marketing).

Over lunch, Rob and I were talking about the most confounding problem in the early-stage startup world: How do you know when a company is close to seeing great results?

“I’m writing a blog post about this actually,” said Rob. I glanced up from my wrap of chipotle-grilled-doesn’t-matter-because-I’ll-have-that.

“The problem,” Rob said, “is that people squint really hard to see something is sort-of working. And so they tell themselves that with a few more attempts or a bit more time, the curve will shoot up-and-to-the-right.”

“But that’s almost never the case,” I said.

“But that’s almost never the case,” he said.

I crammed the final bite of wrap into my mouth, that glorious, tightly folded flavor bomb that rockets you to the top of Sauce Mountain.

“Welp,” I said. “Now we just need to convince everyone else they’re delusional.”


The article Rob eventually wrote was titled “The Shape of Traction.” It is, to this day, the piece I share with others the most. I’ve sent this to startup founders, CMOs, content marketing managers, podcasters, agency executives, even a few friends just thinking of launching their latest video blog idea. You can find it here, and I can’t suggest it enough. (Whether you’re in the startup world or not, building a business or creating content, we can all learn a thing or three from this way of thinking.)

Now here’s the problem, and why it affects all of us, regardless of our industry or the size of our companies…

We assume we’re THISCLOSE to bigger results by doing things the way we’re doing them now.

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Buuuuuut we’re really not:

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But because we convince ourselves that the path we’re on is THISCLOSE to better things, we behave in a number of dangerous ways:

  • We keep seeing average results for longer than we should tolerate.
  • When we finally get frustrated, we look for the shortcut, hack, or tactic to copy. This leads to even more commodity work, whether by glomming onto the latest trend or following what worked for us in the past.
  • We fall victim to the HYPE CYCLE. We view buzzy approaches or technologies as our savior. We view them with outlandish expectations … adopt them for too long … get frustrated when it doesn’t work … and either resign ourselves that we can only get so-so results or assume the salesman was sleazy and their oils were snake-y.

This. Has. To. Stop.

We have to stop obsessing over best practices like they’re going to save us. We keep following these things and keep convincing ourselves that we’re THISCLOSE to getting great results.

The problem is that, while a best practice might have worked for others, they’re not working for US. And so rather than find someone else’s best practice, what if we crafted our own?

What if the goal wasn’t to continue down one path, getting fine results until somehow (magically?) it shot upward? What if the goal wasn’t to SUCCEED quickly, but to LEARN quickly? Because, let’s face it, the things we’re using to SUCCEED quickly aren’t delivering on those promises.

According to Rob, the startups that gain traction the quickest and go on to build exceptional businesses operate like this:

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They launch radically different experiments in the name of moving QUICKER and seeing BIGGER results. Instead of enduring average results for too long, they drop what’s going okay in favor of finding what could be great NOW, not someday.

Too often, our strategy seems to be to squint really hard at what we’re already doing and convince ourselves we’re doing the right thing. After all, they said this path was, indeed, right. In fact, they said it was best.

We tell ourselves we’re THISCLOSE. But if you realize you’re not, then the choice becomes clearer…

If you want to be good, follow the best practice.

If you want to be great, craft your own.

Posted on October 18, 2017 and filed under IDEAS.