Imitating successful competitors is a leading pathway to business innovation. Benchmarking can offer meaningful insights into comparative performance and help discover learnings for improvement. However, adopting others’ best practices can be surprisingly misleading and ineffective.
Four perception biases that come with benchmarking other companies can fail to make yours any better.
Many companies luck into success.
As I’ve noted before, you can’t reproduce others’ luck. Successful companies tend to significantly overvalue the effect of their leaders’ deliberate decisions on their performance and understate the role of chance—being at the right time, at the right place, with the right people. Alas, what worked in their circumstances may not work in yours.
The set-up-to-fail syndrome.
Benchmarking can be remarkably misleading when you make oversimplified comparisons to superstars who may not represent your situation. You could sink your business if you blindly copy celebrity leaders’playbooks in the wrong context, product, strategy, or market.
Companies that benchmark Apple and Steve Jobs and sidestep market research often disappoint themselves when their product launches fail. The leaders of these companies neither have Jobs’s brilliant intuition nor his extraordinarily talented creative team to build what customers want but didn’t know they wanted yet.
In the same way, companies that imitate the 20-70-10 “rank and yank” processes from Jack Welch’s playbook often fail to realize that several factors contributed to their success at General Electric. Welch had a robust organizational culture that insisted on regular and candid employee feedback and robust personnel processes for recognizing and developing the best talent within the company.
Corporate culture is a tricky business.
Your company’s culture—the prevailing way your people feel, think, behave, and relate to one another—cannot be changed easily. One industrial company aborted trying to imitate Google’s culture. This company couldn’t get its managers and employees to be more autonomous and innovative because the company’s and the industry’s ingrained culture did not lend itself to experimentation, risk-taking, and the celebration of fast failure.
Benchmarks look backward, not forwards.
In a competitive, ever so fast-changing world, what has succeeded in the past ten years may not necessarily do so in the next 10. The management guru Tom Peters once warned, “Benchmarking is stupid! Because we pick the current industry leader, and then we launch a five-year program, the goal of which is to be as good as whoever was best five years ago, five years from now.”
A strong focus on “quick wins” can turn out long-term losers.
Benchmarking can make short-term gains but have adverse long-term effects that may not manifest until many years later. By imitating an industry leader, a capital goods company decided to boost efficiency by outsourcing design to its suppliers. Years later, it discovered the debilitating effects of the loss of vital technical knowledge.
Idea for Impact: Best practices only add value when applied in the proper context
Applying best practices in the wrong context is a sure-fire way to hold your company back.
Pay attention to all ideas, mull them over, test what makes sense, adopt what works, and discard what doesn’t.
Sure, help yourself to great ideas wherever you can get them, but be mindful of the context. Try to understand how the top performers’ circumstances and culture may be causing their success. Think through the long-term consequences of any decision you take or any practice you adopt.