Back in 1977, a 21-year-old woman named Debbi Fields applied for a loan to open up a cookie store in Palo Alto, California. Debbi made a mean cookie, but there was one problem: Her cookies were soft. But wait, you say, soft cookies rule! Yes, you’re 100 percent correct, but unfortunately banks didn’t share the same taste back then. Accordingly, Debbi Fields’ loan applications were rejected by numerous bankers.
“America likes crispy cookies, not soft, chewy cookies like you make,” one lender said.
While the rest of America was obsessed with Chips Ahoy!, Debbi finally got her shot at introducing her strangely soft cookies to the world when she got a loan (with 21% interest). Once people got a taste, they never looked back. Now, more than four decades after she secured her loan, Mrs. Fields Original Cookies is one of the largest retailers of baked goods in the history of human civilization, employing 4,000 people in 300 locations.
Now, we have to ask ourselves: Did Debbi Fields carve out a name for herself by pledging allegiance to a set of standards that worked for a bunch of other bakeries? Hell no. When she was trying to convince the bankers that people would like soft cookies, she probably heard something along the lines of, “If people didn’t enjoy cookies that crunch, they would have stopped eating them by now.” But that’s a logical fallacy. The reality is that people simply didn’t know they’d fall in love with soft cookies until someone introduced them. But if Debbi would have played it safe, her business would have been nothing more than a commodity.
It’s tempting to think that best practices earn their status because they produce the best results or because they’ve been around for long periods of time. Both of those assumptions are incorrect. A best practice rises to prominence because it worked in a particular set of circumstances (think Chips Ahoy!). Instead of deviating from that practice, people invest more time and money into it, thus reinforcing the cycle. Meanwhile, a better idea is hanging out there, untouched (like maybe in 2005 we could’ve used one singular device to talk to and electronic message others through, use as a calculator or flashlight, pay bills on, search the web on).
Differentiating yourself from the crowd is a near-impossible feat when you limit yourself to what everyone else is doing. Today’s audiences are quicker than ever to sniff out a brand that’s walking and talking like everybody else. Does this mean that best practices are inherently “wrong” or that you’ll fail if you follow them? Not at all. But just because one best practice is valuable doesn’t mean a brand or career should be defined by them.
“Best practices are nothing more than possibilities,” says Jay Acunzo, author of Break the Wheel. “The real value today lies not in obeying those best practices, but vetting them to decide whether or not they make sense for your specific set of circumstances.”
Making crunchy cookies wasn’t the “best practice” because those were the best cookies. It was the best practice because giant corporations were making millions of dollars off of them. That’s why so many others wanted to get a piece of the action. However, contrary to what we’ve all been told, best practices aren’t a recipe for growth—innovation is. In fact, best practices can often inhibit growth. Why? Because they perpetuate taking the path of least resistance instead of prodding us to push the envelope.
All of this isn’t to say you should try to convert people back to crunchy cookies or use flip phones for the sake of being different—although a crunchy cookie inside of a soft cookie, now that might be something.