Benchmarking in the Trenches

I read an interesting blog post from Bob Sutton  the other day called “Harnessing Ignorance to Spark Creativity” where he discussed the virtues of naivete and ignorance in the innovation/ideation process.

It got me thinking about the process we go through when benchmarking as we look to find a solution to a work-related issue.    We compare our processes and performance to the performance results that are considered best in our discipline, industry and/or other industries.  We want to measure and compare in order to do things faster, smarter and cheaper.  But how many times have you looked to solve a business conundrum by merely asking your existing peer-network questions such as:

  •  “What’s your policy on XYZ?” or
  • “How do you manage such-and-so process?”  or
  • “How much vacation/sick/PTO leave do you offer?”  (* a classic HR example)

We do it all the time and there is certainly some initial value.  It’s easy and quick to get a general sense of what’s happening in other organizations, and we like to be armed with some baseline knowledge of what may be occurring in the market in which we work.  Ideally then, we contemplate, evaluate and use that information to formulate something for OUR organization or OUR department.  However, all too often, we consider this the end of the journey.  Our surveying is done, the answers are received, and we derive comfort in the fact that we are “in sync” with others.

There’s danger, however, in considering this the end of the road when we compare ourselves only to each other.  While a tweak here and a tweak there may result in an incremental change which we then measure and evaluate, we’re not setting ourselves free to have that next great game-changing out-of-the-box idea.

So here’s a challenge, whether you’re in HR or another part of the business:

  • Research, evaluate and consider ideas that flow from atypical sources:  HR folks – look to Sales, Marketing or IT functions for some ideas.  And if you’re in the manufacturing industry, why not take a look at ideas flowing from the hospitality or healthcare industries?
  • Make sure to take the time to ask “why” you are benchmarking in the first place
  • Consider involving some “radical innovators” into your process – people who may have the next great idea because they don’t know what has been done or can’t be done
  • Don’t just replicate a practice (or even a Best Practice) if it’s not right for your industry or your organization – consider what works for your particular organizational or department culture, goals and objectives
  • Why stop at BEST – don’t you want to be BETTER?  

I think it can be done – I’ve seen it work.  Have you had any extraordinary results or experiences by moving off the standard benchmarking path?


  1. Charlie Judy says:

    you get an emphatic “amen” on this one…as long as we’re talking about benchmarking on something of substance. just make sure you’re not wasting your time coming up with the next innovation on something as mundane as dress code policy. competiting priorities make it difficult to put forth the desired effort on everything. so when you chose to go the extra mile, make sure it’s on high-impact items!

  2. Jay Kuhns says:

    I love the concept of pushing beyond “best practice” which is often really the most “common practice.” Forcing ourselves to look beyond our traditional modes of thinking is not only a refreshing change, but may actually lead to breakthroughs v. a soft landing once again in our comfort zone.

  3. […] this post originally ran over at the HR Schoolhouse […]

  4. […] Benchmarking in the Trenches – Robin Schooling (*** 10 years later  and I still stand by every sentiment in this post ***) […]

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