By: Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith, SVP, Global Research, PageUp

Posted on 13 Nov 2015

You don’t need to look beyond HR if you’re in search of a sanctuary for best practices. HR has been at the helm of creating, sharing and implementing best practices for so long you could forgive a naive newcomer for wondering why, that being the case, so few of them work. The performance management process that fails to deliver high performance outcomes; the competency-based interviews that all-too-often put the wrong candidate in the job; the change leadership model that ticks all the right boxes yet fails to facilitate the mind and behaviour shift necessary to successfully effect the change. To name a few.

Perhaps it’s time we grit our teeth and really look the best practice beast in the eye. Perhaps it’s time we call out the disappointing results, unwanted side-effects and unintended consequences of so-called established best practices. Perhaps it’s time we recognise that best practice can be, and often is, a trap.

Can it be too simple?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of simplicity. If anything, modern life has become overwhelmingly complex and frankly, it hurts your head. That said, a recent discussion I had with Patrick Sharry, Director of People Decisions and adjunct member of the Australian Graduate School of Management, highlighted the hidden dangers of responding to complexity with an over-simplified lens on the world.

Patrick points to the Cynefin Framework to put perspective on our approach to problem solving. The Cynefin Framework identifies four systems differentiated by the extent to which cause and effect are clear and predictable. When cause and effect is self-evident and acknowledged precedents exist, best practices can be applied, usually with positive effects. As situations get more complicated and cause and effect need to be uncovered, best practice may need to be adapted to a good practice that allows for variation. Things get really tricky when the situation is largely unprecedented – known rules don’t necessarily apply, cause and effect are only discovered in hindsight. Here emergent practices are required to deal with a complex scenario. And when chaos reigns, novel practices must be sought. Any of these scenarios may be apply, so only an objective assessment of relative complexity will yield the most appropriate response. This may help to explain why best practices are only the best, and indeed only effective, some of the time.

The halo effect of best practice

It goes something like this: someone (probably important) somewhere (probably impressive) expounds a theory, concept or model (initially academic) and an idea is born. The idea is interpreted, converted into an applied practice, adapted and refined. A bright and enthusiastic team implements the practice in a work environment and – voila – it works! It works so well they are invited to present it at industry conferences where many of their peers from different businesses, industries and regions gather and applaud their efforts and innovation. The applied idea spreads, is implemented repeatedly and further refined. With multiple proof points evidencing its success, it soon gets tagged as a best practice.

From this point forward, there is little imperative to put much critical thought to this best practice – after all it’s already the best. As a matter of fact, this best practice now enjoys the impervious shield of credibility: it is tested and proven.

An interesting cognitive effect now kicks in. The best practice is good, it need not (or should not?) be questioned and it is theoretically ready for universal implementation. Perhaps not completely consciously, we trust the best practice, we have faith in its ability to achieve its objective and we hope it will replicate its documented successes in the task to which we are about to assign it. Trust, faith and hope.

Where is our critical thinking? What happened to an objective analysis of our unique situation? Why would we proceed on the optimistic assumption of automatic success?

Neuroscience gives us some strong clues about what is going on in the brain when big challenge meets best practice. Our brains excel at pattern recognition and habituated programs of response. We effortlessly gravitate toward the known, the tried and tested. We are strongly influenced by the successes and failures of the past. That’s very effective and creates excellent short-cuts to problem solving, also making the process very efficient. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to it as thinking fast: essentially, using the high-speed limbic brain network that matches new information to existing patterns created by knowledge and experience, presenting almost instantaneous solutions to most things we encounter day to day. Thinking slow, on the other hand, is the laborious mental process of consciously analysing a situation or challenge – because it may be different and fail to match existing cognitive templates – and invent a new or adapted solution to it. We have evolved better and more powerful abilities for thinking fast than thinking slow.

Perhaps you can see where this is going. We are confronted with a big organisational challenge, such as a significant restructure, a new system or approach. We look to a best practice that fits the scenario. Superficially, the best practice seems to match our challenge – we are not the first to have confronted a significant restructure or new system. Needing to act fast, we think fast. Done. We convince ourselves and our stakeholders that the best practice is the right solution and quickly move to the process of implementation. If we were always operating in a simple world (as defined by the Cynefin framework), best practice would almost certainly work. Even if the challenge was more complicated, some expert advice and adaptations would probably also work. But today’s reality and the future are far more complex. Best practice can readily fall short and can even sabotage success in this environment. Therein lies the trap.

About The Author

Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith
SVP, Global Research, PageUp

Sylvia is a regular speaker in the field of human capital management and neuroscience and drives research and thought-leadership at PageUp. She has more than 25 years of experience in corporate and entrepreneurial business environments, including positions as Head of Selection and Development at Westpac Banking Corporation and Human Resources Manager for Citibank Limited.

View all other contributors