It’s not often that cheese is a point of concern at Cullen Scholefield, but recently I kept thinking
about a particular television advertisement. It’s the one where a well-known dairy states that one of
their products is the ‘nation’s favourite cheese’. Their claim is strong; the brand has 10% of the UK
cheese market and 55% of all branded cheddar sales (excluding private label) 1 . I’m not disputing the
fact that they sell a lot of cheese, but I question the premise that high volume sales automatically
means that it is a ‘favourite’. I buy the cheese, I like it, cheddar is a versatile cheese, this brand is a
tasty cheddar, but it’s not my favourite cheese, it’s not even my favourite cheddar. Even if I bought
that cheese more than any other, it wouldn’t make it may favourite. It would make it the one I
bought more than any other, possibly because it’s on offer, or because I can use it for a greater
variety of culinary applications than my favourite, but it would always be a compromise against my
The problem with using volume as a measure of what is ‘favourite’ is that wide adoption makes a
product or process ‘the best’, and therefore one that you should buy or adopt. It allows people to
stop thinking, stop judging the alternatives and provides people with a rationale for buying or
adopting – but that may well be built on a false premise. If we are simply using ‘volume’ as a
measure of ‘favourites’, for example, then the M6/A66 Roundabout at Penrith was the ‘nation’s
favourite’ last Friday, judging by the amount of traffic backed up there.
Why does this matter, and what is the implication for people professionals? This happens across
people management and human resources. There are systems, processes and products in
organisations that we all know don’t work very well, they require work-arounds or give skewed
information, and yet, because they are widely adopted, they gain credibility, they become ‘normal’.
This is how thousands of employers have implemented and maintained annual appraisals, but are
unable to move away from the annual round of ‘feedback gathering’ to justify a ‘star rating’; have
maintained traditional recruitment processes but lament the supposed lack of available talent; and
consistently promote technically talented people into management roles, and then struggle with
ineffective people management and a resulting transactional HR function.
Building recognition into a product or process gives it validity. The more people and organisations
adopt it, the more it is likely to be adopted by others without question. It may well work, but the
issue is that it becomes the ‘norm’, the way of doing things and once embedded, anything else from
this point is ‘disruptive’ and rejected due to ‘change fatigue’.
The message that it is sending out is that you no longer need to even think about cheese, you just
need to buy this one because everyone else does and how could that many people be wrong? It
removes assessment of whether it is really what you want and need. This may not matter when it
comes to cheese, but when it comes to performance review processes, management training,
recruitment and selection, it is critical. What works for everyone else may not work for you. How
would you know? Where is the evidence? Try it, change it, evidence it.
In this series of blogs, we will be exploring ‘the nation’s favourite’ approaches to key people
professional processes, such as recruitment, performance management and training. We will be
offering alternatives and inviting comment. We are not saying that any particular product or process
is bad – we are saying that you should not assume it is right for you just because it seems to be right
for everyone else! Next time we explore the 9-box grid.
By Gareth Preece. A Senior Consultant at Cullen Scholefield, he specialises in strategic workforce planning, talent strategies and organisational effectiveness. Gareth is the former Skills Specialist at the Department for International Trade, a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, a Member of the Institute of Economic Development and an Associate member of the Institute of Export (IoE) and a member of the IoE Academic Board.