Give Up on Best Practices

In 2010, Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss entrepreneur, wrote an essay titled “Avoid News.” He makes the case that news distracts us, wastes time, kills deeper thinking, fills us with anxiety and is toxic to our mental health. His analogy: “News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.”

News is mostly irrelevant. Dobelli says to think about the roughly 10,000 news stories you’ve read or heard during the past year. How many helped you make a better decision about something affecting your life? Remember, news providers are profit-driven organizations. They publish what they think people want to read, not what will make the public smarter. Every publisher has a point of view, so you’re only presented with one side of the issue.

Many years ago, pre-HR, I worked for a public television station. We were totally objective. You knew it because we said so. The fact that we were so liberal that we wouldn’t espouse someone actually taking responsibility for their actions — except the conservatives of course — proved how unbiased we were.

What about HR news? Can we say the same thing about articles published in HR journals, including this one? I sincerely hope not. Nevertheless, there is a relevant point here.

HR publications are filled with news about how someone did something. The something is often reported as a best practice. Seldom is there a counter-argument such as you find in a scholarly, juried journal. The unspoken suggestion is that if you copy the best practice, you too will be successful. Could there be anything more stupid than that? Think about it.

First, consider timeliness. By their nature, best practice stories are old news. By the time someone does something, writes it up, submits it to a journal and sees it in print, a year or more will elapse. Further, is last year’s best practice valid not for this year but for the upcoming year, which will be here before you can translate and implement the practice in your organization? Now it is two years old. Is something that allegedly worked for someone in 2010 useful for your organization in late 2012?

Second, consider validity. Where is the research behind the supposed best practice? Was this a one-time affair whose supposed success was localized and not repeated? At least 90 percent of the articles published in all HR publications are not checked for validity.

Third, consider relevance. Is the reporting entity anything like your organization? How about its culture, financial condition, size, competition and employee capabilities? Need I go on?

Best practices are often exaggerations. After 40 years of reading them, I have given up. Now, I scan the table of contents and only peruse lightly something that seems plausible. Then I look for flaws before I pass it on to my clients.

So, what can you do to improve your operation?

• Read rigorous research. Whatever you read, check it out if you want to apply the principles, if there are any to apply.

• Talk to people who have a long track record, who really know what they are talking about; not bozos who are one-time wonders.

• Develop a research and development model that works consistently for your situation.

• Look before you leap. Think: would this really work in my situation?

You will be miles ahead if you develop two things. One is a filtering system that keeps you from adopting irrelevancies. Two, you need a management model that is based on timeless principles focused on validity, reliability and relevance.

Validity: Can it pass the test of truth? That is, when you publish the results from using this model, can you defend them?

Reliability: Are the method and the result repeatable? If you did it over again in another part of the organization, would you get the same valid results?

Relevance: Does it fit in your organization? The best practice from company X that bears no resemblance to you is worthless.