Which 'Best Practice' is Ruining Your HR Shop?

June 18, 2015

'Best practices' are a sore spot for me. Whenever I attend an HR/Talent conference, there’s always some HR/Talent pro talking about their 'best practice.' Without fail, those sessions are standing room only – filled with HR/Talent pros trying to find out all about this 'best practice' and take it back to their own shops.

Therein lies the problem.

A few years ago, I read a brilliant Harvard Business Review article called: Which Best Practice is Ruining Your Business by Freek Vermeulen. He says:

"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 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.

Now, 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 might be true. But, again, you'll only improve, at best, to the level that another 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 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’re working on, but it's not a 'best practice' yet in their eyes. But, that's what I want to hear - the new stuff - not what they've been doing for five years. And, that’s what we should all be focusing on.

True innovation does not start at best practice. That is an ending point. If you truly want to innovate and make your HR shop world class, you have to be a best practice creator, not a best practice follower. I'd rather hear presentations about stuff people haven't even tried yet, but they think could be out of this world. Then we both go back and try it, fix it, try it again, and compare notes.


Tim Sackett, SHRM-SCP, SPHR is the President of HRU Technical Resources, an IT and Engineering staffing firm headquartered in Michigan. He is also a popular writer in the HR and Talent space, and highly sought after public speaker. Schedule a hug at TimSackett.com.

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*Image by Christopher Michel

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