Which Best Practice is Ruining Your HR Shop?

There is a brilliant article over at Harvard Business Review called: Which Best Practice is Ruining Your Business by Freek Vermeulen (I’m naming my next child “Freek” by the way!).  ‘Best Practices’ are a sore spot for me when I attend HR/Talent conferences.  No matter what the conference you’ll find some HR/Talent Pro talking about their “best practice” and God bless them you’ll see a standing room only audience of HR/Talent Pros trying to find out all about this “best practice’ to take back to their own shops.  Therein lies the problem.  From Vermeulen’s article:

“Most companies follow “best practices.” Often, these are practices that most firms in their line of business have been following for many years, leading people in the industry to assume that it is simply the best way of doing things. Or, as one senior executive declared to me when I queried one of his company’s practices: “everybody in our business does it this way, and everybody has always been doing it this way. If it wasn’t the best way of doing things, I am sure it would have disappeared by now”.
But, no matter how intuitively appealing this may sound, the assumption is wrong. Of course, well-intended managers think they are implementing best practices but, in fact, unknowingly, sometimes the practice does more harm than good.

One reason why a practice’s inefficiency may be difficult to spot is because when it came into existence, it was beneficial — like broadsheet newspapers once made sense. But when circumstances have changed and it has become inefficient, nobody remembers, and because everybody is now doing it, it is difficult to spot that doing it differently would in fact be better.”

Best practices aren’t new ideas, they are tried and true ideas, proven out over time to work well for the organization that started using them.  Theoretically, if you use another organizations ‘best practice’ the best thing you can hope for is that you’ll meet what they’ve accomplished.  I know a ton of business leaders that would kick you out of their office if you came to them saying “Hey! I’ve got an idea that will allow us to meet our competitors!”   Most leaders want ideas that will allow you to ‘beat’ your competitors, even when you’re trailing in the industry that you’re in.

I’m not saying that many HR/Talent shops can’t improve by using a best practice from another organization.  That actually might be true.  But, again, you’ll only improve, at best, to the level that other organization has achieved.  You’ll never be industry leading – you’ll be industry following.  I always assume when I hear a best practice that it was something that worked really well for that organization, at a specific time, and then ask – “what are you doing now?”  Almost always, I’ll get a response of something new they are actually working on – but it’s not, yet, a ‘best practice’ in their eyes!  That’s what I want to hear – the new stuff – not what they’ve been doing for 5 years!

For me, true innovation does not start at best practice – that is an ending point.  If you truly want to innovate and turn your HR Shop into World Class – you have to be a best practice creator, not a best practice follower.  I’d rather hear presentations at SHRM (or any other conference) about stuff people haven’t even tried yet – but they think it could be out of this world and why they think it would be great!  Then we both go back and try it, fix it, try it again, and compare notes.

So, which Best Practice is going to ruin your HR Shop this year?

10 thoughts on “Which Best Practice is Ruining Your HR Shop?

  1. Great post, Tim. When I was interning at a marketing firm the owner used to always profess “I don’t want your ideas, I want an idea that’s been proven to work and you’ve just found a way to make it better” . I may have paraphrased, but you get the drift.

  2. Great post, Tim. Like you said, best practices should not be mistaken for “world class.” And as Doug said, the implication that best practice means it can’t be done better is what causes problems. So, by all means, look at best practices, but be prepared to look at them in a different way, from your circumstances and unique set of objectives, strengths, and weaknesses, and then either revise them or throw them out

  3. Hey Tim, I’ll happily share my views on this. I believe there is no such thing as best practice. Things change so that today’s good is tomorrow’s not good enough. Best practice implies it can’t be done better – and I think that sucks. I think best practice is arrogant and simply delusional. Good practice, I’m cool with that – there’s headroom for improvement there. Let’s bust out some new ways to work! Happy New Year – Doug.

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