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Mimicking Innovation

| On 27, Nov 2007

Cass PursellFor every Google, for every Nintendo, there are a thousand copy cats. Success breeds imitation in innovation, as in everything else. But what is striking to me about the organizations that attempt to mimic another company’s successful innovation process is how often they fail to produce meaningful innovation.

Henry Brooks Adams was a writer who died in the early 1900’s. He once said something to the effect of ’chaos often breeds life, whereas order breeds habit’. In thinking about the reason innovation copy cats so often fail to replicate the success of the innovative originator, this quote came to mind. Don’t get me wrong, though, because I’m not arguing that innovation springs only from chaotic organizations – that would be foolish. I am however suggesting that there is something inherently contradictory in the act of attempting to become more innovative through imitation.

Innovation, if not synonymous with creativity, is at least a close cousin. Creativity and imitation are opposing concepts. By beginning with a strategy of imitation, I would argue that you are in danger of dooming your innovation program to failure before it ever begins in earnest. My advice – proceed, but proceed wisely.

A recent article on Forbes.com described research performed by IBM Global Business Services, Innosight and APQC on how best to replicate successful innovators. Their research showed that successful innovation does not come simply by imitating the approach used by successful innovators. The research centered on a survey of 90 companies across a variety of industries and 14 countries, and demonstrated that the “sourcing, shaping and implementation of ideas at innovative firms tends to conform to a small number of innovation archetypes”. The key to successful innovation is marrying one of these different “builds” with your own organizational culture, to create a self-reinforcing relationship between the organizational culture and the innovation program.

So Google, Nintendo, et al are representative of those archetypes, but it’s critical to remember that there are a number of different structures to choose from. Because there is no single model for successful innovation, many companies get into trouble by trying to replicate characteristics that are not organic to their own business. They should instead identify the benefits of the innovation model they already inhabit, and compare themselves to others who are using a similar approach. They can then borrow selectively from other categories. This approach reminded me of another quote, which in the spirit of the reference I won’t attribute: “Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it.” In other words, innovation, like creativity, needs a structure in which to thrive; the measure of your success could well be your skill in selecting the right structure in which to nurture your organization’s innovation intentions.