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We are bombarded with “Best Practice” processes, models and thinking and they seem to be particularly prevalent in HR. Our proposal is that organisations and HR functions operate on a common-sense basis and embrace some of the notions of a learning organisation - practice is something evolving and living; something which is reviewed, refined and reconfigured in line with the changing state of business needs.
We are tempted – urged, even – to attempt to resolve every issue with a “best practice” solution. But a “one-size-fits-all” approach does not permit adaptability - even if the solution purports to be the “best” practice possible. It stifles creativity and adaptability, it makes businesses focus on the wrong things and de-personalises work. What works for one organisation does not necessarily do the same thing for another. Not every company can - or should try to - be Google! We need our organisations to be freed from the restrictions of trying to implement best practice and focus instead on what works for them.
Almost worse, in adaptability terms, is that proposed "best practices" are by definition usually described after the fact. Whatever is defined as the "best practice" is not necessarily what caused the desired outcome - it was a combination of circumstances: the unique starting point, the insight and understanding that went into developing the solution and the individuals and teams who implemented it.
We believe this hack ties in very closely with the approach and methodology of the “Chuck out your chintz” hack, which lays down the challenge to “create your own best practice”.
The CIPD is calling for increasing “agility” in leadership and management. This recognises that fixed, firm “best practice” processes undermine the will or ability to be agile and responsive. We are seeking to enable our HR practitioners to think for themselves, to work flexibly, with integrity and intelligence across their profession.
Those of us working on this hack have enough anecdotal and experiential evidence to show that having “Best Practice” firmly and unquestioningly in place supports an HR culture of risk-aversion, process & policy inflexibility and fear of legal repercussions. Requiring our profession to think for itself, and “create your own best practice” as outlined above, means decisions are reached that deal with specific issues, at the point of contact. This encourages greater responsibility to be taken for sensible, practical, effective outcomes to be achieved.
Ideally, implementing this hack would take place as part of the “Chuck out your chintz” hack, which goes wider than the specific target of “best practice” of this hack. We would add a further question to the “chintz challenge” that should be asked in conjunction with it:
- “Is there anything we are doing just because we believe it to be, or have been advised it is, best practice?”
If the answer is “yes”, define it and discuss it. Who needs to be involved in the discussion will depend on who it involves and who is on the ‘receiving end’. For example, if you have what is considered to be a “best practice” performance management scheme, get out and talk to the people who are actually using it on a day to day basis. Does it deliver what they need? Is it asking - and answering - the right questions to help the business move forwards? Or is it a perfect piece of paperwork that sits on a shelf from month to month, year to year and adds no value to the conversations that take place? It is no longer acceptable to answer managers’ complaints about the process with “ah yes, but it’s best practice so we can’t change it”.
Work out what needs to change to make it more valuable to your organisation. Do you need to bin it and go back to the drawing board? Try a different tack? Or are there just some simple tweaks that will make it better?
Part of the ongoing solution is to encourage HR Practitioners to question and reflect on their own experiences. To instil a culture of curiosity in our Profession, where they can investigate, inquire and learn for themselves and from each other, rather than going to a book or a manual to look at what “The Answer” is.
We suggest HR meetings are less about process and more about reviewing learning. We encourage looking at specific “cases” and reviewing how these have been handled. We encourage Action Learning models – where issues are brought to a forum and people discuss the personal and professional implications of handling a case in a particular way. We encourage mentoring from Senior HR professionals to newer entrants; we encourage the use of Social Media, networking and attending CIPD/non CIPD events to ensure HR Professional knowledge is relevant, flexible and constantly evolving.
Keep looking, keep reviewing, keep trying to improve. Ultimately, that is the aim of this hack - don’t just do stuff because it’s someone else’s idea of “best practice”.
HR solutions and approaches will be more tailored to organisations. HR teams will no longer waste time and resources trying to implement someone else’s idea of best practice. It should help organisations make more money.
Managers will be more empowered to suggest improvements to systems and not be met with a blanket “it’s best practice” answer.
HR teams will have increased self-confidence - they know what is best for their organisation and they should no longer feel that they are somehow under-performing because they aren’t trying to achieve the same “best practice” outcomes as everyone else.
Adaptability and innovation in HR and business practices will be increased - we are looking for the best solution for us - not something that would be transferable across other companies and sectors. This should be genuinely liberating and exciting for HR professionals.
Businesses will introduce more individually-appropriate activities, processes and approaches. This should increase engagement, commitment and, ultimately, output.
To implement this hack (and the companion “chintz” hack) will firstly need a motivated and “up-for-it” HR team. Overturning years of being bombarded with “best practice” concepts will be hard to overcome. It will need a good understanding of the business and how it operates with the ability to think about HR differently.
As with any major cultural shift, there may be a sense of inertia that will have to be overcome. The “but we’ve always done it this way” response will need addressing through a sustained communication and discussion programme. The critical element will be to ensure that as many people as possible are engaged in the activity.
Because this is about identifying the right practice for individual organisations, it would make no sense to suggest following any particular gurus or looking into other company’s practices. However, connecting with like-minded HR professionals will help to highlight areas that proved a successful starting point in other organisations that would give a suggestion as to where to start.
Identify any areas in which the organisation is slavishly following "best practice" - either as interpreted by the staff or as advised by external influencers. As part of the hack discussions, we have identified that in some organisations, the infamous "Ulrich model" might be a good place to begin. Often touted as the best way to set up a HR department, it often has both negative impacts and unintended consequences (and in the hack team's experience, what most people think of as the Ulrich model isn’t really what he was trying to suggest anyway).
Shift your HR meeting structure and start looking at Case reviews and Action learning.
Use the Chuck out your Chintz methodology on 2 -3 key areas and review.
Write up the results – maybe for People Management, CIPD conference, a small talk somewhere.
Repeat, with the benefit of the lessons learned.
Gemma Reucroft for suggestions and in particular her own excellent hack
Doug Shaw and Liz Ryan (Human Workplace) for blogs that informed this hack
David D'Souza for comments, suggestions, support and encouragement
Kev Wyke for linking us to the thinkpurpose blog and involvement in the discussion
Everyone who has commented, debated and chipped in through the MIX Hackathon website. Your input has helped to shape our thinking even if you may not see it directly reflected in the final draft - thank you!
Storify of a Twitter conversation: http://storify.com/TimScottHR/there-is-no-such-thing-as-best-practice
Doug Shaw's blog: http://stopdoingdumbthingstocustomers.com/communication/best-practice/
Liz Ryan's blog: https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130811034131-52594-the-truth-about-best-practices?_mSplash=1
thinkpurpose blog: http://thinkpurpose.com/2012/04/21/stick-around-you-might-learn-something/
OK Paul - here is how I think it works
In your example, as a practitioner you have been convinced that Assessment Centres will provide a better approach to recruitment. Best Practice is to use data to validate that decision, or even to identify what action is needed to improve how they run once they have been established. Practitioners ask a number of questions, gather data, analyse and take action. So "better" compared with what, is the obvious first question - say, standardised competency interviews. In Best Practice you work with your clients to identify what constitutes success (speed of fill, length person stays on job, performance, cost, candidate feedback, etc). You then monitor the results, and compare the old method with the new to identify what action is required.
Your point about trained or untrained assessors - what difference in outcomes can be identified from the data.
So, as a Best Practice, HR practitioners use data to modify and improve the way Assessment Centres work in their organisation. If the evidence indicates they might even go back to the old method because the cost difference does not justify the value gained from the client perspective.
You're absolutely right - so the key is to use a "rich questioning" approach to get to what the real "best practice" is... and as you show here, the best practice is not using assessment centres (in this instance), but "using data to modify and improve the way the AC works in their organisation"...
So to get to best practice you have to formulate and reformulate the problem the practice is supposed to be solving,
Here we are talking about best practice in the context of organisational innovation... Our conversation has reminded me of a 1986 book (boy I'm getting old) on The Professional Decision Thinker by Ben Heirs and Peter Farrell - I always used to use it in sessions on creativity and innovation... But they said "… It is only the sequence of the mental process that gives us the chance to think our way wisely into the future" .
Apply it to our debate - basically, there is a decision making skill involved in getting to any innovative and creative solution around a management practice, which is all about enriching the question the best practice is really going to have to solve... Your example below is a great example of showing what the real question is the "best practice" of ACs might have to really solve...
So, we equip HR Professionals with Decision Thinking skills in order that they "work" best practices into the correct "set"...
Hi Nigel, Gemma
Good to caution that being "down" on best practices carries risks and should not mean rejecting all notions of pre-worked solutions.... I wonder if everyone would be best served if we used the term "better practices" not "best practice"!!
Yes, we have (well, should aspire to have) a scientific and social science underpinning in HR, and yes of course there are sound principles we can demonstrate that suggest some practices are evidently (on average) better than others - your model answers point. But if we say "better" practices it signals that there is a continuum of answer, and the model answer is not the total solution, and to get to "best" you are going to have do some more work beyond just importing a standardised (functional excellence) solution.
It's not being pedantic - there is plenty of evidence of uncritical importing of "best" practice in all areas of HR - aka the "what's the next big thing?' mentality which doesn;'t help our credibility
May be here is a worked example of your point that we need to start with a "model answer" but then signal that actually there is a "best practice set"...? . Model answer: "Assessment centres are the most predictive selection tool" and so best practice... Guidance on how to turn the model answer into an improved solution: "Well, compared to other techniques, yes... but everyone who has ever designed or run an assessment centre knows that it is not just the practice that makes it effective. You have to have identified the right competencies that it assesses (not always a given), you need the assessors to be trained and unbiased (not always possible if you want senior political sponsorship - so a trade off), and the selection tools you put into the mix have to really get at the competency you claim they assess".
So an "expert" in assessment centre design would say use the "best" practice of ACs on a cost-benefit basis, but create the (localised, customised) processes around the practice in order for the practice to really deliver any value...
So, I agree, we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject any notion of best practice - there are indeed many many model answers of better practice we have a duty to promote... but we also make it clear that to get to your "set" then there must be an additional set of critical questioning and preparedness to support the model answer with enabling conditions... and in enabling you might end up moving quite some way from the original proposed practice...
That is what consulting is all about I guess... !
I think the proposed question makes an excellent addition to the Chintz Hack. Consider it updated!
Using a technique from a different discipline, let me set up a short thought experiment.
How does the local HR practitioner respond to the business challenge, “customer service is suffering because of staff absence – tell me what to do to improve attendance”. Do we really expect that HR person to build a solution from scratch? The answer has to be no, they will take some predefined answer (whether a fully documented one, or an outline to be developed and modified, whether a discipline based one or a developmental one will depend on organisation culture and context). That there is no one right way to carry out any activity in business, let alone how to execute HR practice, seems uncontroversial, so in this sense there is no “Best Practice” solution. But this does not remove the need for what might be called “model answers”. There may be no one right way for the HR practitioner to answer the question but there will be a limited number of these model answers. The HR practitioner has to choose the one for their organisation.
The main options at this point for our HR practitioner are – (1) leave and move on to next problem, (2) capture data about the impact of the solution, correlate variables and identify alternative ideas to be tested, (3) continue new policy as standard or, (4) now it’s been written up, roll out into the wider business and apply in more and different circumstances to that which applied when the solution choice was made.
I suspect that most participants in this Hackathon will see the merits of data, analysis and review so we can see what we think the answer should have been. It is this behaviour that I would identify as “best practice”.
However, if we urge HR to throw away all those, what I have called, “model answers” we will lose credibility. We need an approach that allows for the convenience factor, that allows people to build on the experience of others and allows them to transfer learning.
If we define “best practice” in terms of what we do operationally – then “Best Practice” has little to offer and has to be rejected. Model Answers may be another name for the same thing, but it tries to re-specify the contribution being made and they do have a role. We can now define “Best Practice” in terms of how we approach the problems we are trying to address. I suggest that not only is “Best Practice” of value, I think it is essential for our professional standing.
Other than analysis and the use of data, there will be other practices that might be identifiable as a member of the “best practice set”. I would be interested in what the group would include. For example, would we include principles and practices around ethics and integrity, would we include statements about how we relate to our clients?
Thanks Nigel for the thought-provoking answer. My initial thought was that I see the differentiation between "model answer" and "best practice". If I'm a frontline HR practitioner, I can use any number of tools to get a "model answer" type response about what to do when management an absence issue, to pick up your scenario. They are valuable in that they give you "if x happens, then do y" kind of guidance. However, I have very rarely come across a live scenario that fits into these boxes neatly and part of the joy of being an HR practitioner is having to adopt, adapt and improve (to quote a Monty Python sketch) all the time. Each situation is different - a model answer gives useful guidance for a model situation. To call something "best practice" to me implies it is what should be done in EVERY situation.
Thanks for making me think about that!
Hi Tim and team
I really support what you are saying here. Best practice can be the bane of HR. One way of arguing against the temptation to assume best practice is to think about creating value, which in most instances is about solving problems and doing something that someone else can not do. By definition, importing something that every one else can do without any tweaking isn't going to add much value...
You might add that best practices fail all three "value" challenges. They don't really create value, as above. The second way in which HR can provide value is to leverage value - so you maintain an existing strategy or activity but learn via the execution how to optimise that solution, improve on its delivery etc - again - not helped by assuming there is a best practice. The third way in which HR can deliver value is to protect and preserve existing value - e.g. make sure talent is not lost, manage against risks, reputation threats and so forth... and again this is about working out your own organisation's vulnerabilities.
So on all three "value" criteria the temptation to assume and then to adopt best practices is at best inefficient and at worst dangerous !
Best practices are often seen after the fact - they are what others have learned to be important - and represent the outcome they arrived at - "this is how we dealt with the ABC issue". The best practice is not what caused the superior performance - it was all the insight and understanding that preceded it !!!
As you say - this is about the confidence of HR teams to navigate their own way through a problem.
Very relevant to innovation.
Best wishes. Paul Sparrow
Right a bit late to the party. A couple of observations:
1) we talk about "best" practice and "common" practice(s) as if they were one and the same thing when they palinly aren't
2) "best" practice is often practice around managing the status quo when the real challenge might actually about up-ending the applecart and shifting that paradigm
Hi Tim and team, thanks so much for this thoughtful hack. As the community guide assigned to your team, I thought I'd share a few comments.
First off, I really love the idea of challenging best practices. I also agree with the team that this hack is very closely connected with the "Chuck Out Your Chintz" hack. I think you've also offered up a very simple, practical way to challenge these best practices, namely by forcing organizations to ask themselves the question: "is there anything we are doing just because we believe it to be, or have been advised it is, best practice?"
You are really suggesting that organizations keep their collective head up, and don't just blindly accept doing things they way others do or they way they've been told is the right way without continually challenging their assumptions.
Totally agree that this is a sure path to greater organizational adaptability.
One thought I had that I'm not sure exactly how to address is that it seems like while organizations shouldn't blindly follow best practices, they may want to be at least aware of them, i.e. those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. Couldn't the current best practices be data points and a palette of potential options to study, and from which you paint your own organizations best solution to the problem, also including new elements that are specific to your organization along the way?
I agree that sometimes not understanding a bit about best practices is the best way for a truly innovative idea to emerge, but I also wonder whether there is a bit of reinventing the wheel that might be avoided if people were at least aware of--but not a slave to-- the current best practices.
Would love your thoughts on this.
Nice work on a provocative hack!
The problem with best practice is actually a problem of objectivity. Best practice is when the objective procedure is derived. And the objective procedure is actually the analogue of the natural order. In my work, I have called it the standard procedure. When procedures are standardized, they obey the wave model and self-containment principle.
From my understanding, the problem of objectivity is at the heart of the human dilemma.
Success that brings satisfaction follows from the choices that we make. There are two, 2 aspects of these choices:
1. The choice of desires or goals, and
2. The choice of the appropriate specifications that describe the goals accurately
The only time these can be fulfilling is when both are objective.
Get the definition of objectivity wrong, and fulfillment becomes a mirage, or at best, a fluke.
It is Immanuel Kant who made the distinction between the personal order, P-O and the natural order, N-O. Although at that time he argued that the N-O cannot be defined, today physics has done a good job of it, through the wave model and the principle of self-containment.
Then, objectivity is when the P-O approximates the N-O within an acceptable tolerance limit.
The duality series in operations research has shored up well as an acceptable outline of the N-O:
Given a goal therefore, the wave model provides an objective basis for deriving SMART Objectives according to the items on the duality series. When this is done correctly, it also satisfies the requirements of self-containment.
This solves the problem with the choice of specifications.
The choice of goals or desires is approached similarly. Simply reconstruct a higher order goal, which is inclusive of the particular desire, as an objective. This is the application of self-containment. It creates a spiral that goes on and on, ad infinitum; with neither a beginning, nor an end.
The emphasis on best practice, without the expertise to back it up has been very exasperating. But that is the reason for my hack: http://www.mixhackathon.org/hack/sustainability-index. Could you look at it, to see whether it comes near anything you have thought?
Yes, Tim, there is a best practice.
Of course, one should be careful about validation. Best practice should not be confused with passively adopting a popular template. In the following example, best practice is NOT adopting a policy based on the average reported from the perceived top performers.
Here is one example. Assume that you want to run in a 5K race that is scheduled 8 weeks from now. You have a list of three options for practice to prepare for the race:
Option 1: Imagine yourself running in the race. Do this everyday before the race.
Option 2: View videos of other people running 5K races. Do this everyday before the race.
Option 3: Run everyday from now until the race. Get some advice from someone familiar with running and your current fitness level and future goals. Adjust your training based on direct observations from your trainer every few days. Confirm with your doctor that you are healthy enough for this activity.
Of these three options, which will provide the best practice for your objective?
Sure, there might be something superior but there is a good possibility that clues will emerge in the next eight weeks.
What one perceives to be the current best practice, may change. Results may differ from the expectations (forecast, predictions, plan,...)
The key point is that best practice includes theory, activity, and testing. Discard items appropriately. Adjust, adapt, and repeat.
Mark, thanks for the comment. I think we're saying much the same thing actually - in particular with your "adjust, adapt and repeat" conclusion. It is exactly slavishly adopting a passive template that we are targeting. To take your running example, yes, I take your point that option 3 would be better practice than 1 and 2, but others might be better running every other day, depending on their age, existing fitness levels, general health etc etc. I don't think there is a single best practice for preparing for a 5k race... there are good and bad practices but no one single "best". As you say, "what one perceives to be the current best practice may change" - in other words it might not have been best in the first place! Semantics? Possibly - but I think it's an important distinction.
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