Innovative Imitation

Strictly defined, innovation occurs only when something is entirely new, having never been done before. Innovation, new product development, extending the lives and expanding the markets of existing products by adding new features, styles, packaging, pricing—all these inexorably belong in the arsenal of devices by which a modern company competes.

In spite of the extraordinary outpouring of totally and partially new products and new ways of doing things that we are witnessing today, by far the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation. Imitation is not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits.

Copying others’ ideas is good business. Sometimes it’s great business. And it happens more often than people think. IBM got into computers as an imitator; Texas Instruments, into transistors as an imitator; Apple itself is a serial imitator (first ideas adapted from Xerox), McDonald’s imitated a system pioneered by White Castle; Visa, Mastercard, and American Express, all borrowed from the efforts of Diners Club to introduce the plastic card.

In addition, though on a lesser scale, we see every day that private brands are strictly imitative, as are most toys and new brands of packaged foods. In fact, imitation is endemic. Innovation is scarce.

Invention, using the term most broadly, and imitation, are the two legs, so to call them, on which the human race historically has walked. Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery – it’s the sincerest form of learning. Acquiring knowledge is a form of imitation. To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

Summing-up: Imitation is underappreciated. It can be more important to business growth than innovation is. Imitation is not mindless repetition; it’s an intelligent search for cause and effect.

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