Calling bullshit on best practice

When it comes to management theory, everyone thinks they know best. This use of “Best practice” is endemic in startups, but seemingly nowhere more than when it comes to hiring and employee engagement; with companies constantly looking for the best way to follow the ideas of others.

In fact, if you Google the phrase “Best Practices for HR” you will see over 78 million results. This copycat approach quickly leads to entrenched processes, set in stone, regurgitated through Twitter and taken up by every company in the land, something that sits directly against the principles of lean startups (disruption, A/B testing, validated learning).

In short, the path to mediocrity is paved with best practices… (and terrible rehashings of this statement).

Blindly worshiping at the altar of best practices is dangerous. The problem is that practices that work incredibly well in one circumstance can be ill-suited for another circumstance.” Scott Anthony – Harvard Business Review

But what can be done to change this? How can we break free from the homogeneity?

For this to happen, startups need to think and act contextually. They need to think about and set the processes that work for them, hiring the people that would be best for their company and utilising any ideas of what a ‘Best practice’ might look like merely as a framework. The leaders of the business need to understand their teams and audiences, acting in a receptive manner to feedback loops. 

Indeed, through the principles of validated learning, this approach allows startups to design and implement a process that can change and evolve at the same pace their products and businesses do, whilst selecting standardised principles that work for them.

It’s something that’s so common in engineering teams and one that amazes me in its absence in recruitment. 

A simple reason for this in high-growth startups is often the lack of available experience, context and understanding of what recruitment looks like.

As an example, I have, at rough (guess)timation, held around 15,000 telephone interviews in my life. I would be amazed to find many startup founders that have reached this and I still couldn’t say mine was the best way in the world to conduct interviews, however, plenty of people with less experience would gladly pose as experts and use that hyperbole.

The mass availability and ease of access to these best practices, combined with the lack of field experience then creates a dangerous combination that leads to homogeneity. As a startup, this is to be avoided, as it detracts from your candidate experience, your checks and balances and ultimately, your quality of hire.

To conclude…

It doesn’t matter how fast things are moving, just take the time to think about who you are as a business. Remind your teams that just because Google did it does not make it perfect and as per the dodgy stock image at the top; there are many ways to get down a mountain, so find the one that works for you and measure as such.

One Comment

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  1. To assume that benchmarking someone else’s ‘competitve’ practice is because they only want to copy it is a bit elitist. Understanding a range of practices that work well, work so-so and don’t work at all under conditions that are certainly different in many ways is a foundation for innovation. True enough- it is possible to become so enamored of someone else’s shiny object that you simply want to do it the way they do it. You aptly describe those consequences. Calling BS however excludes all the folks smart enough who start out by wanting to do it their way and yet, not wanting to ignore what they can learn from others.


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