Note: This post was originally written for and posted on the Peoplefluent Blog.
Talent is the most critical ingredient to success for most businesses. We’ve progressed to where we don’t even have to argue this point with most executives. The lights have been turned on. But, the practice of talent management is still struggling to meet the needs and expectations that an enlightened organization requires.
The primary cause for this failure in talent management is our worship of “best practice.” In fact, for most organizations, best practice worship has replaced an organizational framework for how to define, measure and manage talent for business results. Instead of doing the hard work to gain clarity on specifically how talent drives our business and what we should do next, we try to replicate what we read about Zappos or Southwest Airlines.
Best practices are a lie.
Now before you freak out, let me be clear about something. I’m not suggesting that simply because something is or has been labeled a “best practice” makes the practice ineffective. That’s not it at all. What I’m saying is that the concept of a best practice is harmful and it’s costing our organizations millions if not billions of dollars per year in lost productivity and opportunity.
Here’s the reality:
- Best practices are, by requirement, old practices. In order for anything to earn the label of best practice, it has been used and replicated several times over. By the time it achieves mainstream visibility, it’s an old practice. When you consider that we run our businesses in an environment of almost perpetual and accelerating change, the idea of implementing an old practice as a matter of course doesn’t make any sense. The next generation talent practices are likely to emerge through the insights of brain science, behavioral economics, and big data—all areas ripe with potential for breakthrough where there are no best practices to be found.
- Best practices often ignore context. A practice that works great in one set of circumstances, may fail in another. While it may be a great idea to show up 10 minutes early to a meeting in one company because that’s the cultural norm, it could be wasteful of 15 minutes in another where meetings always start 5 minutes late. So, saying “always be early to meetings” is irresponsible, even wasteful. A practice must be evaluated in the context in which you intend to apply it.
- Best practice is the opposite of innovation. The practice of talent is desperately in need of new ideas and approaches. Yet, we continue to spend our efforts on copying what others are doing and looking to the past for answers. Innovation requires the invention of something new, something not yet proven. That’s pretty much the opposite of “best practice.”
“No idea in the world has been proven to be correct and valid in advance.”
—Roger L. Martin
Breaking free from the worship of best practice is a critical first step towards solving our talent crisis. To do this, here are some simple places to start.
1. Ask why early and often. If you don’t know why a process or practice is in place (or is being offered as a best practice), ask why and keep asking why until you either find a valid reason or you uncover enough nonsense to toss it out and replace it with something else.
2. Get clear on the problem first. Too often, we get enamored by alleged best practice solutions we’ve heard about at a conference or read in a book, and then we go looking for a situation to apply it to. Instead, we need to focus first on getting clarity around what problems we are trying to solve, then working to find a solution that makes sense.
3. When something is called a best practice, push back. We’ve gotten lazy. When we hear something called a “best practice” we make a lot of assumptions. When you hear those words, let loose your inner skeptic and start asking questions like:
- Where was a best practice and who said it is a best practice?
- What makes it a best practice (i.e. where’s the evidence)?
- What were the circumstances under which this became labeled a best practice?
4. Get more curious. Best practice worship has made us mentally lazy. Look for insights, perspectives and models from outside your expertise. Broaden your network to include people from other disciplines and professions. Read and research information from other disciplines. The goal—to feed your brain a more balanced diet.
The stakes are far too high for the talent management profession to continue to be led astray by the notion of “best practices.” The practice of talent desperately needs more innovation, not further repetition of the past.