Don’t Shoot Too Low!

There’s a time to benchmark and a time to innovate

“Shoot Low, Boys—They’re Ridin’ Shetland Ponies”

—book by Lewis Grizzard

If I can be self-absorbed for just a minute. … I have a new book coming out: “Never Kick a Cow Chip on a Hot Day—Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be,” from Morgan James Publishing. When my friend Mark heard my title, he told me of Grizzard’s book title, which I’d never heard. Cracked me up!

It also made me tie together two conversations I’d had in the past week—one about innovation, the other about benchmarking. I’ve written about the potential challenges of benchmarking before, but suffice to say that it can kill innovation and just cause you to “shoot low.”

I’ve too often come across a business whose leaders chose a strategy of “me too” with no discernable difference between what they do and what their competitors do. A friend who just purchased a business with a well-known local brand told me that a gregarious founder built it but a “bean counter” purchased it, instituting all sorts of “best practices” to manage expenses. Profitability increased for a few years, but sales growth went negative and he was unable to cut his way to greatness. My friend hopes to revitalize their growth through innovation.

I’d argue that strategy requires innovation while benchmarking may enhance tactics (or execution). It’s expensive and slow to make up everything as you go, and areas such as supply chain, accounting and business insurance are where you might look for best practices, saving your innovative thought for products, services and customer relationships. (If your overarching strategy is operational excellence, e.g., Walmart, you’d reverse the last sentence.)

If you aren’t careful, benchmarking only results in a regression toward the mean. In other words, everyone ends up at the same low level. Business requires innovation not only to move ahead but also to survive. The water you’re in isn’t a lake but rather a river, and if you don’t innovate, you’ll be downstream pretty quickly.

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