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It's early morning, and you're sitting around the cave contemplating the group's need for nutrition. You know you have to go out and hunt today, and maybe pick some berries if you can find them. However, only a few days ago Bob walked off a cliff, and last week Bill was bitten by a bear trying to get some honey. What to do? It doesn't seem safe out there.

Better have a look at the cave drawings and carvings made by Roger. He was out yesterday and brought back plenty of fresh kill—something he seems to be doing a lot lately. Maybe his petroglyphs can shed some light on things.

It Works in Marketing, Too

Do best practices give you an advantage in devising marketing strategies and executing tactics? Yes, they do. Not only will the empirical knowledge represented in best practices protect you from the mistakes made by others, but using them as a baseline will also allow you to come up with sharper strategies and better results.

Few people would argue that a pilot should give up his preflight procedure in favor of a creative session, but there are those who argue that marketing professionals should always start from scratch and make their own mistakes, even if the exact same mistakes have been made a thousand times before. Why?

Is there something about soft-skill disciplines that requires the practitioner to make his own mistakes? Does a marketing strategy become more effective if devised by novices? Not likely.

In fact, recent research in the cognitive sciences demonstrates the value of best practices in soft-skill disciplines. One study at Northwestern University found that participants consistently achieved a higher monetary outcome (9% on average) when they negotiated according to a specific procedure.

The procedure? Negotiating contingencies rather than applying the more common strategy of "cutting the baby in half." The contingency strategy represents a best practices procedure that allows for more creative solutions at the time of need—during the negotiations—which in turn yields higher monetary outcomes. This strategy also represents a best practices procedure in which the practitioner is given creative freedom so that she can claim ownership of the results.

To argue that best practices should be dumped in favor of reinventing the wheel (as some do) is simply not to understand the value of best practices and how to use them to your advantage. Sometimes, best practices are simply a way of maximizing performance. Other times, they are about building on the knowledge of others without wasting time getting bitten by a bear.

Finding and Defining Best Practices

  • Research best practices internally. Start by interviewing the person directly responsible for the performance of the practice you are researching (e.g., sales manager, team lead). Sometimes, just sitting down with this person will help clarify what works and what doesn't. Do not assume that upper management has a better grasp on things than the person who has consistent experience with that practice. Also, look for recent and older performance reports and stats, and interview the best performing employees whenever possible.

  • Use external sources. If you do not find enough information internally, or if you are not confident that what you did find amounts to best practices, look outside your company. You can either do your own research or purchase a set of best practices off the rack from companies specializing in this field. Remember that best practices are essentially the most efficient (least amount of effort) and effective (best results) way of accomplishing a task. You are looking for empirical knowledge (from trial and error) on how to best perform a task.

  • Defining best practices. When looking for best practices, always keep in mind the difference between preferences and best practices. Most people believe that their own preferences represent best practices, but they rarely do. Best practices should be similar to a pilot's preflight procedure. You are looking for repeatable procedures that have proven themselves over time and for more than one person.

Taking Advantage of Best Practices

How do you ensure that everyone uses best practices to their advantage? Other than confusing the most comfortable way of doing things with the most efficient and effective way, there are typically three reasons why people do not take advantage of best practices:

  • Lack of advantageous retrieval from memory at the time of need. One simple but common impediment is forgetting to do the right thing at the right time. It's what happened to the less successful negotiators in the Northwestern University study (they forgot to negotiate contingencies). This is why mission-critical operations deploy checklists—and you should do the same. Each important task in marketing should have its own set of checklists to be used either just ahead of performing a task or during task execution.

  • Not knowing what constitutes best practices for a specific task at any given time. Recent research from the University of Michigan Business School, Duke University and the University of Chicago reports that people at all skill levels, including both top achievers and poor performers, are poor judges of their own comparative talents. Good checklists combined with ready online access to relevant support material solves this problem as long as you can ensure that the tools are used.

  • Not picking up the right knowledge when needed. Most disciplines, including marketing, are in a state of information overload. It is therefore not enough to require an employee to Google a topic to pick up the right information. You need to have an established procedure for editing and vetting new information for relevance, then making sure it is accessible online for use when needed.

* * *

When marketing strategies fail, it's not because they aren't innovative enough. They fail because someone didn't think it was necessary to pay attention to fundamentals.

The choice, therefore, is yours: Throw best practices out the window and end up getting bitten by that bear, or focus your attention on how to combine Roger's good hunting techniques with your own knack for picking berries, and end up with both a main course and a delicious dessert for all.

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Evan Berglund is CEO of EduCel (