Jay Acunzo’s Break the Wheel: Looking askance at best practices

You ought to read Jay Acunzo’s first book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. But only if you’re willing to think a bit.

There is, in theory, a best way to do anything. There is a best way to change your oil, write a business letter, evaluate the effectiveness of your email marketing, and manage a car company. There are thousands of books dedicated to best practices, and millions of blog posts. And they are accessible to anyone.

But as Jay points out, because they are accessible to anyone, all they do is bring us all up to a minimally competent, minimally competitive level.

We imagine that we are getting this:

Graphic: Jay Acunzo, Contently

But since everyone else is reading the same stuff and learning the same competencies, we are just fighting to a standstill. We are instead getting this:

Graphic: Jay Acunzo, Contently

Jay explains this by analogy to the speech by a character in Game of Thrones:

The character Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones nails it when she says the ruling families of her world, Westeros, are all “just spokes on the wheel.” First one is on top, then anther’s on top, and on and on this wheel spins. We might not live in Westeros (thank God — it’s pretty murdery there), but we’re similarly caught on our own version of that ever-spinning wheel. First one best practice is on top, then another, and another. We just keep hoping and praying that we’ll find one to save us. But they’re merely spokes on a wheel.

The key is to get a different level of insight: to break the wheel.

In my experience with Jay, he is a truly original thinker. His take on the world is sparkling, new, and makes such sense that you have to say “Wow, this is important.” This “break the wheel” insight is in that category. You cannot help but rethink every single thing you have ever read, once you realize this.

Some worthwhile insights from Break the Wheel

My copy is dogeared with notes. Here are a few:

Unfortunately, vetting ideas or advice is not something most of us have been taught to do. It’s not something we spend much time doing, either, especially when you conside how much time we put in learning from experts, looking for shortcuts, or even tinkering with the latest trends and tools.

Generalizing can feel inevitable or even quite helpful in making decisions. Can you imagine a world where every move was questioned without first conducting a rigorous investigation? We’d all be paralyzed. Still, the working world struggles to break free of conventional thinking . . .

The truth is, our world today is evolving faster than ever, so when someone claims to have “the” answer, the only think we can say with certainty is that “the” answer will change.

Break the Wheel is vividly written with illustrative case studies from Death Wish Coffee, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s social media team, the Humane Society of Silicon Valley, and Poo-Pourri (which you spray to keep your bathroom fresh) to name a few. (After all, writing a business book with vivid case studies is a best practice.) And there is actually a framework for thinking for yourself. It looks like this (formatting from the Kindle version):

This book is worth your time, and Jay is someone you really want to keep following, because he is on a path to be the next Daniel Pink.

My thinking about best practices

I am a purveyor of many best practices, including five books full of them. But I had to consider what Jay is saying. Have I spent my life on a fruitless journey to teach people things that are not, in fact, useful?

No. There is still a best way write an executive summary and to give someone bad news in a performance review.

It is the unthinking adherence to these principles that is the problem.

Behind every best practice is a set of insights. There is a reason that executives summaries should be short and include facts and numbers — because people’s attention spans are short. There is a reason to start every review with good news — because otherwise the person you are speaking with will hear and react emotionally to a litany of negatives.

The lesson for me is that for every best practice, you should ask why. Why is this the best way to do things? What is the principle behind it?

Mastering best practices makes you competent. And competence is a wonderful, excellent, helpful thing. There is so much incompetence in the world. Learning the best way to do things, based on what experts before you have learned, is absolutely a worthwhile activity.

Not only that, but for many people, competence is a worthwhile goal. I want my customer support reps to be competent. I want the person changing my car’s tire to be competent.

But there is no need to stop there.

If you have the intelligence, the drive, and the experience, you can learn why these practices exist. You can develop the insights about what is actually going on. And then, you can learn when, and how, and how effectively, to break the rules. This is where creativity comes from. It is where leadership comes from. Personally, developing the ability to do this will allow you to rise above your peers, as Jay has. Reading this book will help you to get there. It will shake you out your torpor and train you to think more deeply. That is a deeply valuable skill.

Jay and his wife Xandra have just had their first child. So Jay is going to be going on an adventure just like this. There are many, many books of best practices about child rearing, and there is lots of advice available. But in the end, you need to understand what is going on with your child, and your partner, and develop your own intuition about what’s best. Jay will end up taking his own advice, and using the knowledge he has for the ultimate contextual task: figuring out how to be a parent.

Whether its parenting or marketing or leadership, the best, smartest people need a way to go beyond what “everyone knows” is the best way to do things. If that sounds appealing to you, get a copy of Break the Wheel.

Your resulting awakening will be hard, but worth it.

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One Comment

  1. The premise that following best practices will at best bring you to a minimally competent level makes theoretical sense. However, as a long time corporate trainer, I find that the reality is that just knowing best practices is almost never enough. The real problem is actually adhering to them and making them a part of your daily work, and my own conservative guess is that almost every human being on the planet–not to mention the organizations they work for–falls short in this regard. So, those that get even part way to doing what they know they’re supposed to do are generally far ahead of the “minimum” level. As Jeffrey Pfeffer says, there is a huge knowing-doing gap in the corporate world. (and the personal world as well, as most of us know all too well.)