The Myth of Best Practices: They Lead to Conformity, or Worse

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Feb 4, 2014

Imitation is the sincerest form of collective stupidity.” — W. Carroll (Bill) Munro, former marketing director, Pepsico

I recently wrote an article about “best practices” recently for Compensation Café. It’s a hot button with me.

Just what is “best practice”? Wikipedia provides a definition:

A best practice is a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark.”

The road to conformity

Here’s my take: If something is a best practice, then it means that every other practice is inferior. But if everyone is doing the same best practice, it leads to conformity.

How can a business leap ahead of the competition if it’s using the same best practices as everyone else? The answer is it can’t. (And, keep in mind that best practices doesn’t mean just HR practices.)

Dilbert nails it in this cartoon.

While a handful of best practices might be applicable universally, they are few and far between. What’s considered a best practice in one industry, company, country or corporate culture isn’t necessarily a best practice in another. If something works for a small mom and pop shop, it won’t necessarily work for General Motors. (That’s an exaggeration to make a point.)

Are we guilty of assumptions when adopting best practices? You bet. Even if comparisons are confined to companies with the same culture — which is the primary consideration for deciding if a best practice is right for a company — it’s not easy.

Is there even any way for HR to find companies with the same culture? Maybe so, but it seems like an exhaustive research effort for achieving a questionable outcome.

What HR should be asking

Just so I’m not viewed as a total naysayer, there is value in looking at best HR practices. HR people should be up-to-date in knowing what’s going on. Learn what works in other companies but don’t be surprised to find that the same solution that works in one company doesn’t work in another!

When reviewing best practices, think about them in terms of whether or not they would/wouldn’t be a “best fit” for your company. Best practices need to align with your company’s unique needs, culture and business circumstances. The more tailored a practice is for a company, the greater the likelihood of success.

HR needs to ask penetrating questions and seek concrete supporting evidence when it comes to best practices, including:

  1. Who decided the practice was best?
  2. What basis was used to determine that the practice is best?
  3. In what circumstances and under what conditions is the practice best?
  4. Who is pushing the “best practice” and what are their motives and objectives?
  5. What is the probability of success in implementing the “best practice,” given current resources and capabilities of your company?

The standardization trap

Some external organizations have or want to have major influence in determining what the best practices are in their areas of expertise. I think our national HR organization is one of them. From what I understand, they want to come up with “standardized” definitions, processes, practices, etc. for HR to use.

Even if these “standardizations” are not mandatory, it’s not something I see as beneficial. I believe it will create a sense of “permission” to implement practices that are “endorsed” without doing any analysis.

And here’s another problem: If these “standardizations” are used, it gives HR a safe response for management if any of them fail — “But this is best practice and endorsed by our national organization.” And that can lead to some very counter-productive results.

There is a quote that reflects the dangers of blindly using best practices: “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

If HR is not willing to lead, then who else will?

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