The Questionable Value of Benchmarking

Look inside, engage your team’s expertise, test your ideas, and you’ll find that what others are doing is much less important than what you originally thought.


Working with a client the other day, the request came to do some benchmarking: looking outside the organization for best practices, points against which her team could be measured and assessed.

I asked her to stop and think for a minute about what she hoped to accomplish with such an exercise.

She explained that she was looking for some new ideas to break her team out of its complacency.  

I told her she could stop right there, because no one ever found anything new by benchmarking.  It’s impossible.  By definition it’s not new if someone else is already doing it.

“New for us,” she protested.

“Maybe you could find something like that,” I agreed.  But no one ever became the best at anything by copying someone else.  

“I’m also interested in seeing how we stack up against the market, whether we are even on market with our practices,” she offered.

“OK,” I said.  “That will get you a study that points to what some consultant wants to sell you as best-in-class, or worse, a bunch of ideas that don’t fit in your organization.”  (I was beginning to feel like I was raining on her parade with all this cynicism and negativity.)

“You’re really not being very helpful right now, you know, Michael.”

(Ouch.  That confirmed my cynicism.)

From there, I suggested that no one knows the business better than her own people.  Engage them.  Have a conversation with them about what they know and see.  If you need to bring someone in to help you have that conversation, fine, but let your people carry the load on content.

If they’re stuck, expose them to new and different things (including people).  Not through benchmarking, but through a visit to a museum or a walk in the woods.  If that’s too far out there, just go to a different place for your meeting.  Talk about what people notice.  Challenge the group to use that to find real opportunities.

Tap your own expertise and inner wisdom first.  Then, run small experiments with clients (or potential clients) to get some help in refining what you think.  Expose your ideas to light and air.

Remember something we’ve talked about in the space before: reality is something you create yourself through your words and deeds.  Use that to construct and define your own market, not what someone else says your market is.

These kinds of strategies will build commitment in your people and lead to results.