Best Practice, Benchmarking and the Race to Mediocrity


We must be different. We must be lopsided. No more herdlike regression toward the mean – we must find the things at which we’re great, and build on those – Tim Kastelle

A few years ago my organisation adopted a new way of working. We implemented it , with the help of consultants, as it had achieved glowing praise during a regulatory inspection at a similar organisation.

It was held up as an example of that most intangible of things: best practice.

We all had lots of meetings about it. We all had training. And we all did a lot of work to prepare for the arrival of this system that promised to change the way we worked forever.

You can probably guess what happened next.

Nothing changed.

In fact I don’t think I ever used it. Not once.

The problem with buying in solutions that have performed brilliantly in other organisations is that most of the time, they just don’t work.

That’s not to say they never worked. They may well have worked for somebody else, somewhere else. They may well have worked at another time. But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to just port successful practice from one place to the next. 

The public sector predilection for best practice and benchmarking is quite perverse when you think about it.

  • Imagine starting up a new business and the first thing you decide to do is figure out who is operating in a similar space as yourself.
  • Having found them you both start a club and invite others, who are also like you.
  • Then you all start comparing your practices, processes and results and eventually work out who’s the best.
  • Then you copy them.

That’s absolutely not the route to greatness.

If everyone strives to do the same thing the same way, they will end up close to average.

Best practice and benchmarking are just a race to be first at being average. 

A quick caveat: best practice can work in some scenarios. Usually very simple repeatable ones. Chris Bolton points this out in his excellent post, but goes on to say, “The chances of someone else’s best practice working  in your complex environment (particularly if it is forced onto you) seems unlikely.”

Not only is it unlikely but the very act of best practice and benchmarking can drive standards down. It encourages all organisations to think alike. At sector level it creates groupthink , and we all know groupthink is the avowed enemy of innovation.

Within organisations a culture of following best practice can quickly become a culture that is frightened of doing new things.

I’ve heard many in my own sector say “We aren’t brave enough to do the things that (insert someone innovative) are doing, we’d rather watch and learn.”

This is a terrible mistake.

If you watch them and they fail – they have all the learning and you have none.

And if they succeed it means you have failed to keep up with them, and you still have zero learning.

Rather than regressing towards the mean let’s learn by being responsibly creative.

Try visiting lots of people who are unlike you.

The more unlike you they are the more you should visit. Connect with people via social media who are the polar opposite of you. If you are just hanging around with the sector crowd you will become more average with every passing day.

This a slide from Creating a Culture That’s Innovation Ready showing some of the organisations that we have visited and done business with over the years.

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 20.14.53

We haven’t attempted to be like any of them but it has been a massive generator of new practices, ideas and possibilities. Never go away and try to copy them though , always adapt the idea to your own culture.

Try learning by doing.

Most of these ideas are best tested by adopting a safe to fail approach: small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles.  We will always learn more by making our own mistakes than comparing each others (usually flattering) benchmarking scores.

Try being an organisation that only you can be. 

We are living in times when we need radical solutions to big problems. Trying to be like each other is a criminal waste of time.

The market is , as Seth Godin said , begging us to be remarkable.

We have an opportunity to be more different, more memorable and make more change than anyone else.

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity instead?


22 thoughts on “Best Practice, Benchmarking and the Race to Mediocrity

  1. What ever happened to being the best?

    Being the best is unique to you. Your group. Your hobby. Your work.

    Being the best is not a competition . It’s just you being the best you can be.

    Your comments on benchmarking are so true. They never show the best. They just show those who are good , at the survey moment of time, at being good at benchmarking.

    So remember the bottom on the benchmarking could mean your unique ability at being your best makes you a great person to be with, work with and buy from.

    Good luck.


  2. Don’t disagree with your critique of benchmarking – it’s Single White Female for business. That said, not all copying is bad; indeed it’s always been at the heart of innovation. My new book ( explains why and how. Think you might enjoy ;D

  3. Thanks Mark – sound interesting and I’ll take a look.

    I don’t disagree with you on ‘copying’. We’ve copied loads – but largely from completely different sectors. And we’ve adapted them to fit the organisation. Probably too many to mention.

    Single White Female for business? Brilliant!

  4. Thanks for the mention Paul,
    Coincidentally it is Groundhog Day tomorrow…. a good reason to share that post again, as I don’t think much has changed.
    For me there is a link between the ‘practices’ and failure.
    Best Practice is the world of zero failure. Something with a strong manufacturing background….if you are making parts for a space rocket, you don’t want them to fail. Likewise with things that are produced in huge quantities at different locations. Translate the best practice idea to public services and there are plenty of areas where you want the ‘best’ way of doing things: prescribing medicines though to processing a benefit payment.
    It’s where things get complex, the situation is not 100% similar, the ‘right’ answers are not known, and where you need to try something different is where best practice becomes a problem.
    You need to look for good, emerging and novel practices in these situations.
    Looking for these different practices always comes with the chance of failure – which is fine, as long as it is ‘safe to fail’ and lessons are learnt.
    As you say, if you go for best practice – you will stay in exactly the same place and never move on.
    Great in a heritage museum doing things like they did it 1890, but not much use today.

    1. Great comment thanks Chris.

      I very much agree. There are parts of any organisation where zero failure applies and it’s right and proper for stringent standards and best practice. If a Housing Association , for example, gets gas servicing wrong someone could die.

      But many organisations apply the same repeatable thinking to many areas that are ‘safe to fail’ and that’s when entrenched ways can set in. Before too long it becomes “Well, we’ve always done it this way”.

      Experiment. Fail fast and fail well. Groundhog day indeed!

  5. Hi Paul. Couldn’t agree more on the dangers of process benchmarking and the group think mentality. Especially pertinent in the ‘risk’ retentive sector that is #ukhousing.
    However, I don’t agree from a value for money basis.
    Without benchmarking on an in the round basis of operating costs and the outcomes being delivered (–views/benchmarking-the-route-to-mediocrity-or-excellence), how can customers, staff or ‘stakeholders’ know whether they’re receiving or delivering value – or even values for that matter? Particularly in any sector which relies on any form of public funding.
    Every organisation wants to know it’s being competitive, and they all benchmark on that basis. ‘Price Match’ in the supermarkets being the classic example. Even Apple do it. Think Ipad mini. Designed to plug a gap and compete with Samsung. And very well done too based on their latest 1/4ly profits.
    Effective benchmarking should be the catalyst for innovation and improvements in outcomes for businesses and their customers. Which is probably what you’re suggesting, and is exactly what the #ukhousing HCA Vfm standard prescribes.
    As Mr Buffet says, “It’s better to hang out with people better than you. Pick out associates whose behaviour is better than yours and you’ll drift in that direction”

    1. Spot on Peter – and thanks for noting this very important omission. I think this is even more important in the public sector where – even post cuts to be honest – there are still a lot of services that would fail the ‘price match’ test.

  6. Oh I do love Dilbert.

    The problems with ‘Best Practice’ is that few are really truthful about sharing the scars or the impact of serendipity on the outcome. The right people in the right place at the right time with the time….

    And there lies the nub of the problem – ‘outcome’. Most of the time ‘Best Practice’ is no more than a definable output – some form of ‘idealised process state’ that delivers an improved outcome. So we strive to emulate the same ‘process state’ to reach the outcomes that have been achieved.

    That is where it all goes ‘pear shaped’. Because what we miss is the true warts and all experience of the journey that was undertaken to get to that place. The reality is that the true best practice is in the experience of the journey undertaken not the place that was arrived at.

    By all means aspire to emulate or better the outcome (not the ‘process state’ )- but just realise that your journey may well take you to a different place in doing so.

    Just remember that all the best travel writing is mostly about the journey, its tribulations, triumphs, humour and despair- not the destination. And a good story is engaging and inspiring. So where are those good stories when you are told about ‘Best Practice’ – it ain’t Best Practice unless it is a good read.

    1. Thanks Mark – that travel analogy is just exactly right. Too much emulating the outcome without understanding the context.

      Brilliant point

  7. Brilliant and honest post Paul. And Peter Hall’s comment completes the housing circle for me and justifies the dilemma of the sector.

    Calling it a sector is probably the problem. Benchmarking can ring-fence in a world where the main measurements aren’t pie charts but impact on people. Housing tends to safely measure the things that can be measured. Hence, the ‘standard’ approach.

    Life is more complicated than that and Paul hints that benchmarking only indicates what is best among the measured things.

    Peter rightly hints that this gives valuable information. It’s how the information is translated and used that creates the issue. That’s how customers measure the business.

    Highly satisfied customers do not always translate into profitable customers. A tenant reporting countless repairs will be eternally satisfied and costing a fortune. It’s the return on that investment that counts.

    ROI is a vital part of value for money and this is where many housing businesses are struggling. Measurement is not easy because of a traditional lack of practice.

    So, how can any practice be ‘best’ when the actual business impact of that practice isn’t being applied?

    1. Thanks Barry – insightful response.

      You’re right – many of things we measure we do so because of historic benchmarking. Much of this was what was easy to do rather than what adds value.

      A lot of the work we doing in the Lab is to look at the ROI of ideas and concepts at an early stage. What’s the ROI and SROI of , say , getting someone into employment? How would we be more cost effective than Serco, and if we are more expensive how can prove enhanced quality?

      This goes back to your point of what do we mean by ‘the sector’ – and I think you’ve nailed it on why we struggling with ROI.

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