Benchmarking and competitive intelligence are double edged swords. If used in the right context, they can produce huge benefits. Used without proper context, they can lead countries/companies/individuals on the wrong path or even to disastrous results.
There was a Mogul Emperor in India, Akbar the Great (1542-1605). One day, while on a hunting expedition in the forest, the Emperor's entourage camped in a small town. While there, the Emperor noticed that women did multiple chores in a day and wore simple clothes, and children seemed to have only one pair of clothes and no shoes. Despite all this, life seemed to go on, and they looked happy.
The Emperor sent his "benchmarking team" to study them and submit a report. This report concluded that the people in this small town were very poor, and managed their day with almost no resources.
The Emperor was very angry. Compared to this, there were a lot of excesses in his own palace. He issued an edict. From the next day, the Empress had to do all the palace chores, many servants were to be removed, and the princes' support structure was to be eliminated.
One of several learned people in the Emperor's court was a man called Birbal, who was valued for his advice, sense of humor and ability to explain different issues in a simple way. Birbal, realizing that the Emperor had acted upon benchmarking information without understanding the total picture of his own situation, decided to help the Emperor realize his imprudence.
A few weeks after his edict, the Emperor noticed that his gardens, the pride of his palace, were in terrible disarray. The grass had started turning yellow, the flowers had shriveled up, the paths were overgrown. Very embarrassed and upset, he summoned his court, and found out that it was Birbal who had ordered the prized gardeners to leave. Fuming, he asked Birbal to explain his unwise act or face punishment.
Birbal told the Emperor that he had done benchmarking with the forest and realized that there were no gardeners there, but that trees and plants grew naturally. So he ordered the same practices to be implemented in the palace gardens.
Emperor Akbar got the message.
Improvement, continuous or quantum leap, is a noble goal. Learning from benchmarking and identifying "best practices" is also good strategy. But know thy Kingdom first. What you are about? What business are you in? What does your customer expect from you? Only in that context are "best practices" really best practices. Not everything that is good for one business works well for the other.
"You can muck around with different guitars for certain bits, but you have to have your own sound.That's your benchmark...." - Dan Hawkins