Best Practices are a Lie

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.


  1. Totally agree; this drives me crazy. And can also make me laugh out loud as in “We want to be more innovative. What are best practices for innovation?”

    The obsession with best practices is turning improvement into a check-the-box, cover-your-ass activity. I see this in the learning and development arena where we teach people to apply Lean principles and methods.

    Lean is a powerful framework for improvement, pointing out where there’s waste and opportunities to increase value. Yet, people are reluctant, or lazy, to take the next step and actually get rid of the waste. “What are other companies doing?” they ask. “Other companies” aren’t like you. They don’t have your customers, your products, your employees and your culture. They are irrelevant to your efforts.

    While I loath ‘best practices,’ sound principles are important. And it’s the role of management to figure out how to implement a sound principle in their organization (most often with the advice and consent of those being implemented upon).

  2. Thanks Todd. Really well said. Thanks for adding some additional depth to this discussion. Best practice thinking is a pervasive mindset that desperately needs to be interrupted and replaced.

  3. I read your title and smiled.

    BEST PRACTICES I hear that a lot in organizations and as a coach.

    Best practices for one might not be a best practice for another.

    Instead of BEST PRACTICES why not try to find out WHAT you want to do and WHY you wand to do it and learn all the HOWS of what you want to do and go from there…

    live, learn, and stay curious

    Lead From Within

  4. This is so right the term best practice does strangle suggestions for new ways e.g. If everyone including the boss and other companies see this as the best way then I’ll keep quiet. And of course best practices generally speaking are old it normally takes a fair bit of time for anything to qualify as “best”
    Great article

  5. Jason,

    Great points on best practices. It is true that best practices are old practices. Once something hits the best practice level, it is likely on the downward slope of relevancy. Staying curious is key, just as saying uncomfortable is in order to discover new, better ways to advance forward.



  6. Great point, Steve. The lost potential and contribution from employees living in a “best practice” environment is definitely tragic and incredibly costly. Although, the cost isn’t easy quantified, so it’s either completely overlooked or dismissed by “management” in most cases.

  7. Thanks for demythologizing. It’s time to tell the truth like you are. It’s interesting that you brought this up. My dissertation regards nonprofit board effectiveness, “best practices” and socio-political factors. Therefore, I’m glad you brought up contextualism. Additionally, I would add how very important it is to engage ALL organizational stakeholders because of the power of perception as reality. While we often consider the internal context we often do so at the expense of the external context. Instead, we should consider the various constituencies that are served by our organizations and understand their perceptions regarding our effectiveness.

  8. Interesting article, the idea of pushing back and asking why is an interesting one, Unfortunately, i have witnessed the fall out of people attempting to challenge the process, albeit in a positive inquiring way; become a scapegoat to others ego’s. very important to ask why, the challenge is asking to whom is a tricky one, as people can be very invested in the idea of ‘best practice’ being the way forward!

  9. It is always an easier path to go with the flow and agree with the crowd. Pushing back, speaking up and asking why always comes with risk. This is what makes best practice worship so dangerous. It’s just another form of conformity. The challenge as a change agent is knowing when to pick the fight. Asking why might be a personal exercise to ensure you are maintaining a critical eye to discern which new “best practice” is a productive step versus the alternative.

  10. It would appear that this comes down to a balance – anytime you have more than a few people, say 3 or more, you really need to start having some processes in place, otherwise complete anarchy follows.

    If you spend all your time looking for the “best” way to do something, you spend very little time “doing” the actual activity you were meant to do – I guess you can call this one of the challenges of “work”. The only way to do this is in small iterative steps. You completed a process once, what did you learn from it, how can you do it better the next time. Focus on one or two things to improve, don’t try and change the world every time.

    I usually fall asleep anytime anyone hauls out the term “best practices” as the often ignore the fact that people are not automatons that just follow instructions to a “T”.

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