Market leaders and innovators have been talking about “next practices” for at least 10 years, but it can be difficult for many in their audience to know what steps to take or how to identify the results of successful next-practice campaigns. That’s because next practices, when they prove to be successful, are quickly and unconsciously redefined as best practices. What was once a deliberate exploration beyond the status quo (a next practice) becomes a recognized benchmark of the current state (a best practice). The “next” next practice, by definition, is hard to imagine.
The truth is, many of today’s best-practice-led innovations and processes could have been described as next practices when they were first proposed. Consider a few examples:
A PROTOTYPE OF THE FIRST SMARTPHONE, designed by IBM, made its public debut in 1992. The Simon Personal Communicator went on sale in 1994 but was pulled from the market six months later having sold only 50,000 units. Fifteen years after that prototype, Apple introduced the iPhone, now considered the best-practice example of what a smartphone should be.
CARRIAGES FOR HIRE PREDATE THE AUTOMOBILE, but for more than a century, hailing a taxi was only possible on the street or through a dispatcher. Then, Uber saw an opportunity to provide a better ride-hailing experience using mobile technology, leaving traditional cab companies scrambling to compete with a next practice that is quickly becoming a best practice.
FOR THE RIO 2016 OLYMPIC GAMES, Kellogg departed from the traditional, highly polished TV-led campaign and instead launched with a campaign driven primarily by social media and PR. CGO Clive Sirkin remarked, “the reach and earned media was unprecedented and we're on track to have the most effective Olympic sponsorship that we’ve ever had.” Expect to see many brands incorporating this social-led marketing into their own campaigns, transforming a next practice into a best practice.
Next practices require a new vision and a leap of faith. If they succeed — and once we understand the cause-and-effect relationships underlying their success — they become best practices. But in a world of rapid, often unpredictable social and market transformations, brands can’t always afford to wait until a competitor has blazed the path.
While established best practices will always have a place, we all need to engage in next-practice thinking and planning in order to keep pushing our brands — even the most traditional and established brands — forward in a dynamic marketplace. The risks of next-practice marketing are high, but they can be controlled. The risks of sticking only with yesterday’s best practices and getting left behind are unacceptable.
Best and next practices can and should coexist, but the two must be managed in different ways, which can be distilled into three paradigms.
1 — WHAT’S WORKED IN THE PAST VERSUS WHAT COULD WORK BETTER IN THE FUTURE
Best practices are inherently conservative, looking back in an attempt to re-create past successes. They follow well-established paths to help avoid potential issues and deliver relatively predictable results. But they are subject to diminishing returns as cultures, markets and technologies change.
Next practices acknowledge ongoing change, generating innovation and transformation by looking for new opportunities, identifying emerging needs and moving quickly to stake out a unique new position. The emphasis is on exploring new territories in real time to achieve a potentially profitable future state that best-practices management may be blind to.
Edwin Land, inventor of instant photography, said the camera should “go beyond amusement and record-making to become a continuous partner of most human beings.” For decades, Polaroid’s best practices focused on continuous improvement in chemicals and films. But now Instagram has fulfilled Land’s vision with a next-practices model that marries ubiquitous digital photography with social media, attracting more than half a billion users.
2 — CHANGE MANAGEMENT VERSUS ADOPTION ENGINEERING
Best practices manage change from the top down — instructing teams in their roles and goals, providing a rationale based on known past successes, and delivering performance metrics to gauge future success by comparison. This tends to channel teams into familiar pathways.
Adoption engineering reverses the familiar change-management model. Instead of mandating change, teams are given the autonomy, tools and support they need to collaborate and change organically. Adoption of change is motivated by innate social impulses, and the team is freed to respond to dynamic market and technology developments with unfettered agility and creativity.
Through Project Aristotle, Google has studied hundreds of its teams to learn how they function together socially. The most successful teams provide individuals with a sense of psychological safety, dependability, structure, personal meaning and group impact. Google is also famous for allowing engineers to spend much of their workday pursuing whatever project interests them. Is it any coincidence that the company is known, above all, for its total commitment to next practices?
3 — STRATEGY DEFINED BY THE CHALLENGE VERSUS THE CHALLENGE DEFINED BY THE STRATEGY
Traditional budgeting and planning revisits brand strategy on a yearly basis, fine-tunes the strategic direction for the coming year, and establishes goals and budgets accordingly. This long horizon is still an appropriate way to handle projects — such as a new product launch or package redesign — that require an extended development time, with results that will take months to evaluate.
But in the new worlds of digital marketing, social media, branded content and whatever may come next, the horizon is much shorter. You may be getting feedback within hours or even instantly. You need the ability to change direction on the fly. To update the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again — but do it right now!” As more of your marketing focus moves to these new channels, where every-day change is the norm, you need to do more budgeting and planning on a rolling basis.
The pathway to purchase used to be linear: See an ad on TV or in a magazine, then drive to the store. Now there are thousands of pathways, and they’re always evolving. Procter & Gamble is one company that has been adept at opening these pathways, and marketers often turn to P&G to learn best practices. But remember, best practices begin as next practices, and a closer look reveals a company that’s always ready to take a calculated risk by trying something new — then trying again.
Identify your business need. Employ situational analysis. Create and empower collaborative cross-functional teams. Be vigilant to the marketplace reception and agile in your response.
In other words, free your people to imagine the future. What’s next for your brand?