18 Months

I’ve been at mwah. for over 18 months, and it is a pretty awesome place to work. We have an amazing team and great clients – their people, their organisations, their thinking. And the work we get invited to do at the pointy edge of HR is invigorating and rewarding. And my read is that we will never do something with the intent of creating “Best Practice”.

And I love it, because “Best Practice” is bullshit.

Hear me out.

For 18 months I have not yet posted an article of outrage. And for much longer than 18 months I’ve observed, interacted, traversed, swapped roles and hung upside down trying to better understand people. Not least of which came ‘in the age of’ or ‘because of’ digital.

And I’m absolutely unwavering in the belief we humans are fundamental – despite all the talk on digital, disruption and any other jargon tossed in the mix. Don’t take that as a throw-away, these things are real and they are coming at pace. But as clear as I am that people matter – I am even more unwavering in my conviction that “Best Practice” in HR (or most other functions) is NOT the answer.

Best Practice Terminology

Let’s get the ball rolling – where did the term “Best Practice” come from? The sceptic would suggest as a synonym to ‘copycat’ or perhaps ‘laziness’. Ok, I’ll pare it back.

If we go with a wise internet definition, it could be the “commercial or professional procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective”.

I’m sorry, that doesn’t feel like the bar we should shoot for in HR. I want more than that for the profession. I think we should aim higher than ‘most correct’. ‘Most correct’ sounds like a way to win an argument where there is more than one answer, or what they write before questions in a multiple choice exam, or a practice that might make sense if you’re a Doctor looking to cure a patient. Most correct treatment to help a patient based on science.

I’m good with all of those.

But in HR, with the exception of safety or wellbeing or harm, where we MUST get it right – most things we do can have a little more risk. Although risk is a dirty word.

Although risk is a dirty word.

Let’s rephrase. We can take an educated guess. We can try something that is circuit or pattern breaking. A leap of faith. We can deviate away from copying others in the fallacy of “Best Practice”. Of course, we should do that with data, insight, perspective and care – but we don’t always need to be ‘most correct’.

Sometimes I think we’d be much better placed being much less than ‘most correct’. In fact, I think it would be pretty human from the team looking out for humans to be WRONG. As long as in being wrong, we’ve actually tried something, actually done something. Instead of being too slow, in a state of inertia, constantly juggling 50 priorities where none of them ever quite reach done. We’d be better doing 10, maybe even 2, and nailing them, then moving to the next ones.

And that is not a bottomless criticism or bashing. I’ve been there. It’s tough. Steering through a big ship, navigating the system, the stakeholders and trying to agitate. Balancing through the HR models and structures, or being a standalone operator, having constraints.

I think if we were to move away from our reliance and passion for ‘Best Practice’ in HR, we would do a lot better. Although, I think we would need to tighten our own remit.

What do we actually do?

Why do we give cagey answers to anyone except other HR professionals? Or make it sound unnecessarily grandiose. Other functions like Finance have it clear on the value they add. Setting of budgets, forecasts, do reporting, support capital requirements and cashflow and provide the business insights.

Why is it harder for us to define and talk about? I get the confidentiality bits – on certain situations, to be respectful of people, legalities – but we don’t need to be cagey on it all!

We know it’s a valuable profession – or we wouldn’t be spending our time on it. But articulating the value can be tough. We’ve tried that – we’ve argued the importance of ‘a seat at the table’ or ‘the business case for..’ or ‘the ROI on X Y Z’.

In fact, I think some of the guiding principles, conventions, HR models – have in and of themselves been created by “Best Practice”. If you look like this, your model should be like that. This many people in the function, then this ratio to employees, you must have these functions and areas. And that has been part of the problem.

So, what would really happen if we all agreed to kill “Best Practice” in HR today.

We are fairly confident people don’t leap out of bed in excitement and anticipation about the HR practices the day might have in store for them. In fact, even as HR professionals, at times we probably wouldn’t want to get out of bed for our own practices.

What if we killed everything we knew about HR – and simply decided we would listen to people – and I don’t just mean senior execs or leaders or only the frontline. I mean all the perspectives. In a meaningful way, to allow participation by people, not just a survey that hardly scratches the surface.

What if we spent more time on Understanding, so the solutions that make sense to our contexts become clearer. I firmly believe that would get people interested in helping us HR folks, opposed to reluctantly joining some project outside their core job. And we would have more enjoyable work, and not be scrambling around to try and plug the inertia with others ‘Best Practice’.

What if we used meaningful data points (quantitative and qualitative) to map out what really matters to our people with real conviction. With our egos at the door. With our pasts as respectful legacy, and our futures at the mercy of value for people and the organisation – ultimately, our customers.

And instead of arranging ourselves by the activities we’ve always done, with the operating models and way of working and structures and roles, we just decided to get a backlog of valuable stuff that matters to people and ticked them off 1 by 1.

I think we should do it.

However big or small. Maybe it’s a true ‘employee experience’ view or maybe it’s something a bit different. Whatever the case, we need to change.

We should be looking more closely at our own backyards, and we should be shooting higher than ‘most correct’, because “Best Practice” is bullshit.