“We are like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants,” Bernard of Chartres.
“Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” Picasso, or, more likely, TS Eliot.
You’re “stepping all over Apple’s IP,” Steve Jobs.
Let’s get one thing straight. There aren’t any truly original ideas out there. Even the most astonishing scientific breakthroughs are built on the foundations of others’ work. Innovation, even great innovation, is frequently recombination of existing piece parts along with a twist or two, perhaps a different business model, core market, geographic focus.
Most of the literature on the subject, though, treats innovation as a sacred search for the truly different and unique, and diminishes the role of imitation. As such, it does a disservice to business – an audience that fails to appreciate the critical importance of not reinventing the wheel. [You could argue that reviewers and bloggers have enabled this innovation-worship, including this one.]
Oded Shenkar’s new book, “Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge,” goes in the other direction. Shenkar celebrates corporate imitation. At the outset, he describes the biological conditions that favor imitation as a survival mechanism in all species. Then he points out that most innovative products spawn several followers who become long-term successes (often at the expense of the first mover). Southwest has been spectacularly successful, but so have EasyJet and Ryanair. Wal-Mart borrowed many concepts from Sol Price’s long-gone FedMart (Price, an amazing retail innovator, went on to found another innovative concept, the Price Club shopping warehouse, only to be swallowed up by imitator Costco in 1993).
Through his case studies and skewering of the innovation-worshiping business culture, Shenkar seems to be advocating against doing anything new. But as the book goes on, his overarching theme becomes clearer. Sheer imitation can only get you so far. Imitation combined with tightly-focused innovation (a combination Shenkar calls “imovation”) is the best strategy possible. In other words, take the best of what others have done–don’t be the first into a new market, or be the first widget out there–but nonetheless add some distinctive capability.
What Shenkar advocates is more nuanced than the summary just presented. But as I read “Copycats,” and got more convinced of his point, I was unconvinced that this approach needs a new name. To my eyes, innovation (at least successful innovation) does involve this intense borrowing of existing concepts and adding something unique and valuable, whether it be integration, business model, user experience, or (as Roberto Verganti would assert) the meaning users attribute to the product.
But this is quibbling. “Copycats” goes against the grain of the current innovation literature, much to its credit. It deserves to be read by anyone trying to innovate or imitate – and perhaps those should be the same people.
Roberto Verganti – innovation via changing the meaning of a product
Various innovation-worshipping posts