I often advise companies on the implementation of technology or the rollout of marketing campaigns. Companies, especially larger ones, always want to know industry "best practices" for their problem. A standard question I get: "How do you plan to apply best practices in the work you're doing for us?"

It's not always a straightforward answer. First, you have to define what "best practice" means. Then--and this is the surprising part--you have to understand that the "best practice" may not be what you are trying to accomplish.

Who Decides What A Best Practice Is?

Best practice is often preceded by the word "industry," but it's important to recognize that best practices can and should be pulled from many places--not just from your company's direct competitor or your industry. Three potential sources for defining best practice include:

Industry specific. If the words you are using or the problem you are addressing is wholly an industry problem, then look to others' solutions, existing knowledge or expert opinions may be the way to go.

Based on context. If you are creating content for an educational product, but your company is focused on selling insurance, an educational best practice will be more appropriate than traditional training or documentation on insurance.  Consider the situation and what other examples might work better to address the need.

Based on the users. If the problem or situation is more appropriate to an informal audience, the best practice may come from pop culture or current trends. The CDC provided a great example of making content accessible to the general public when they created "Zombie Pandemic" as an engaging way to teach the people about emergency preparedness. On the other hand, a communication to a specialized group will require specialized words.

Once you determine the best source for your best practices, you must then determine what, if anything, you are going to do with them. In many arenas and for many implementations of technology or messaging, the best practice is a given. The best practice is simple to define and implement. The examples of best practices are available everywhere you look. That doesn't mean you should follow them.

The risk of merely following best practices include:

Best Practices Mean Average

The definition of a best practice is something tried and true. It's been done before. But to stand out in today's world, companies often need something more than best practices: They need to delight or wow their customers and look for ways to accomplish something in a new and innovative fashion. A best practice should merely be viewed as a benchmark or starting point to build upon.

It's Not the Same to Everyone

Over and over I've seen that trying to create a "best practice" version often doesn't take into account the varied needs of the individual consumers. To some consumers, the ability to search on a website is a best practice, for others drilling down to information via category is preferred. In the development of a consumer packaged good, best practice for one group might require the product be delivered in a box, while another set of consumers prefers a bottle. Today's consumers don't want a standard delivery approach, they want a product, service or technology that fits their specific needs.

The Best Practice is to Innovate

Often the best examples of how to approach a problem or implement a solution can be found by seeing what companies are doing that surprise or delight you. Something that you didn't expect. I advise companies to think of best practice in a new way--make it a "best practice" to determine how to be innovative and stand out from the rest of the crowd.