Last week I spoke to some European entrepreneurs visiting Silicon Valley companies on a learning tour, when one of them explained how excited he was to visit the Google campus. He went on about how he was keen to learn from one of the world's most successful companies, so he could import Google's best practices into his company.
The conversation reminded me of how many times I have seen this classic benchmarking mistake. While clearly it's a fine idea to observe the habits and practices of great companies, it is not a great idea to assume that those best practices will work or are appropriate for your organization. Too often I meet people seduced by the likes of Google and Facebook who make the mistake of believing that because these companies have realized massive success, that their company will realize similar success by adopting the same practices.
What is special about great companies is they found a way to make their own magic with a unique formula that works with their leadership, culture, market and employees. It's a magic that fits where they are in the evolution of their company and what suits their employee and leadership demographic. I can promise you that your company is very different than other companies in dozens of ways.
Chances are most of us are not in the same business as Google; we don't have the same workforce as Google, we have a different executive team with different experiences and strengths and weaknesses. Therefore it's like saying that a Maserati engine would work on a bicycle. You would never do that, so why consider importing the operating practices of these completely different organizations into your company?
Yet, I see it happen repeatedly.
To learn from great companies, I would suggest you frame your inquiry differently. Start by asking these companies: "How did you think about building the process the way you did?"; "Why did you choose to do what you did?"; or "How did you determine to recruit employees the way you do?"
Another pitfall of benchmarking the best is that great companies learn, adapt and change frequently, so the best practice you learned weeks ago might not be relevant a month from now. I think it is a more worthy practice to find out why companies do what they do and how it fits their culture and norms, and then see if a hybrid of that might be worth testing or exploring in your organization. The key point that should not be lost is to learn from the macro success--how the entire enterprise realizes success vs. a specific practice or program in the company.
Think about what is the unique way YOU will create value.
Whenever you benchmark, be mindful of who you are benchmarking and how your company compares to the benchmark in terms of size, age of company, market space, rhythm of the business, etc.
As you think about your culture and how you want to build something special, take the time to benchmark and understand, but avoid the potentially fatal pitfall of thinking that what worked there will work in your company.
Clearly it's a great practice to learn from others, but in so doing, make sure you are looking at the full picture, recognizing how you are different.