Imitation Isn't Just The Sincerest Form Of Flattery; It Can Be An Important Business Strategy

from the if-done-right dept

Just recently, we discussed yet another in a long line of studies suggesting that imitation is often the most successful strategy for businesses to take. It appears that this topic may get a lot more attention soon, which is a good thing. Copycense points us to a fantastic Boston Globe article that discusses “the imitation economy” and the “myth” that copying is a bad thing. It’s based on a forthcoming book, called Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge that tries to dismiss the myths about copying being automatically “bad.”

The article mentions — as we’ve pointed out for years — that for all of Apple’s success, it’s really mostly been good at taking existing ideas and packaging them up nicely. But that’s incredibly valuable. There’s very little that’s new in the iPhone or the iPad — but the way they’re put together and the way they’re sold is what has made them a success and made them so valuable. It highlights the value of the process of taking ideas and making them useful, rather than just assuming that the idea is the most important part.

As a part of that, the article highlights how the common argument against copying is effectively a myth. The idea that if you have a good idea some big company will just come along and copy it, rarely works:

That means when companies copy they often do it clumsily. Shenkar offers the example of the legacy airlines in the United States and their response to the low-cost threat of Southwest Airlines. Most set up copycat airlines of their own: United with TED, Continental with CALite, Delta with Song. All quickly failed.

The problem, Shenkar argues, is that in their scramble to copy Southwest, the bigger airlines failed to see the ways that central pillars of Southwest’s strategy — lower pay, short point-to-point flights, a fleet of identical smaller planes — were incompatible with the union contracts, hub-and-spoke route structures, and larger craft the traditional carriers were saddled with.

Indeed. We’ve pointed out this kind of “cargo cult copying” in the past as well. Copying is not nearly as “easy” as some make it out to be, because those doing the “copying” often are only copying the superficial aspects, without recognizing the underlying reasons why something works. It’s why IBM failed at copying Microsoft years ago. It’s why Microsoft failed at copying Google. They tried to directly imitate on the surface, rather than understanding the underlying aspects of what’s happening.

That’s why copying, by itself, isn’t as “dangerous” as some make it out to be. And, in fact, it’s quite beneficial in many cases. And, it turns out that this hatred of imitation is a rather recent phenomenon:

Shenkar traces our innovation fetish back to the late 18th century. Before that — for most of Western history, in other words — copying was valued just as highly as creation, and sometimes more. “In the Roman Empire, where imitation was used to align the diverse cultures and institutions of the far-flung empire under a single umbrella, it served as the official pedagogy,” he writes in his book. Centuries later, Adam Smith wrote that imitation should be given “the status of a creative art.” But the Romantic Age, with its celebration of the sui generis and the solitary genius — philosophers like Rousseau, poets like Shelley, and scientist-inventors like Humphry Davy — began to change that. Copying came to be seen as disreputable, as a refuge for the unimaginative.

The book sounds great. It points out that there are benefits to allowing copying — since it allows for more actual innovation in the form of taking what others have done and improving on it, while pointing out that pure copying usually isn’t enough to be effective. In other words: allowing copying is good because it drives innovation, but the actual practice of innovation goes beyond just a straight copy. So we shouldn’t be so against copying at all. We should be encouraging smart copying that drives innovation forward.

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Comments on “Imitation Isn't Just The Sincerest Form Of Flattery; It Can Be An Important Business Strategy”

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26 Comments
Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: See also...

The NUMMI joint project between GM and Toyota, in which GM tried to figure out how to get some of the benefits from the Japanese auto-making methodology, is also instructive. GM seemed to mostly ignore the important parts in making its copy, because those parts were too difficult, or too different.

Yeah. As Dark Helmet pointed out, if you click the link in the story above that says “cargo cult copying” it goes to this story: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100331/1538058817.shtml which is all about NUMMI.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

But we can copy and then innovate on top.

The result is stronger than if we had to start from scratch.

Gosh, that round wheel simply works no matter how much I try to invent something better. Maybe I can spend my time more effectively by just copying the darn thing and then adding innovation on top.

That’s the advice I tried to follow when I joined this subthread. Unfortunately, just about every single component of this reply is a copy of something already stated somewhere by someone. Nevertheless, I am helping advance society an itsy bit more through this comment than by wasting time trying to outdo the round wheel.

Nick Coghlan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Whether or not the grandparent poster sounds sensible depends on which point of view you take.

If you look at it from the point of view of society *as a whole* (which is what lawmakers should be doing), then the article is saying that society is better off overall when there is a free flow of ideas and hence it is easier to make incremental improvements.

If you look at it from the point of view of individuals and companies with a myopic zero-sum view of the world (“if the other guy makes any money, that must mean they’re cutting into my potential profits, not that they’re growing the market for both of us”), then the article is saying that you must protect your imaginary property as aggressively as you can in order to preserve your profits.

This is why Mike hammers on about “growing the market for everyone” so much. The misguided belief in a zero-sum game is the key difference between IP protectionists and those favouring a more permissive imaginary property regime – it’s an underlying assumption which significantly affects the way one interprets various situations.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

it is the old cause and effect. if there is no way to reward an inventor or first mover beyond a very short period of advantage, they may not even both. picture a society where everyone waits for someone else to make something and then immediately copies it and does nothing else. there would be no impetus for inventors, no advantage for innovators, but solid advantage for replicators. you cannot just cherry pick parts of the system you like and then ignore the parts that feed that very system

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

there is this amazing thing called high speed communications, telephones, internet, high speed air travel, and so on. in the pre-patent days it might take a month for a news story to travel from one side of the us to the other. it might takes years for fashion to shift or for people to see a new fangled product. they might never see anything from then foreigners in asia. so looking far into the past isnt relevant to todays society.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Faster communication still doesn’t explain way anyone would stop creating.

Innovation still happens with those who allow their works to be openly shared. Package managers are one example. Open systems had this way before Microsoft even thought of funding it.

And for music which is even easier to copy, there’s plenty of new works released under CC-BY/CC-BY-SA or public domain.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Faster communication means innovation happens faster by a larger number of people. No one invents in a vacuum. We all get “inspired” because of things we see around ourselves. The more we see and the faster we see it the more we create and innovate… at least until some saturation point is reached.

What makes things like software patents so stifling is that everyone can participate. There is a very large opportunity cost to monopolies in such an open and accessible field.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Do you think people invent stuff just for the sake of it?

People invent something because they needed a solution for a specific problem,
and no viable solution was available (or easily accessible at least…If a good
solution was already available, well, no point in reinventing the wheel right?).

Now what? You want to give them special privileges on that idea?
For solving a problem they probably were going to have to solve anyway?
When there are probably THOUSANDS of people in the world with the knowledge
and the tools to solve the very same problem, but just hadn’t bothered doing it yet? Really?

People will keep inventing because people will always have new problems to solve…with or without patent systems.
Patents just make it a lot harder to invent by putting up crazy barriers around something that should be inherently free: KNOWLEDGE.

I guess that, ultimately, patents are just a way of controlling the free flow of ideas.

You know: Knowledge is power…hide it well…

KaiserSote says:

Re: Re:

Wow don’t think you understand at all. Copying creates incentive to get better. If a design or process is good it will be profitable but without copying it will become stagnant. Copying creates the incentive for the original “creative minds” to find the next thing. This is where innovative companies excel and consumers win.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Microsoft has trade secret based monopolies on a very strategic set of products/markets very important to society. They also have had an unethical staff and their share of luck. None of this is good.

Their fortune might have changed had more patents been taken out and been used against them much earlier in time…

However, the moral of the story isn’t that chopping off the president’s head is a healthy way of dealing with distasteful executive decisions. We’d probably all agree that promoting head chopping to resolve disagreements does not promote the progress of science and useful arts.

Similarly, there are much better ways of dealing with certain types of monopoly abuses than by supporting the creation of even more problematic monopolies.

Would it have been better if AT&T used their monopoly powers to end up ruling 20 or 30 industries (including desktop operating system)? No.

Note that Microsoft is now using patent monopolies to try to reinforce their existing market position and spread out further. Apple is doing something similar. IBM certainly has not had clean hands either.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Innovation happens when we experience a lot of things and we meet the level of motivation necessary to get ourselves to nail down the details.

Many people don’t require too much or even any money to innovate. We might innovate to save money or time in a task. Much innovation has a low bar.

Now, we might not innovate in steel production because almost all of us lack the motivation to figure the details out and make some use of the innovation afterward (though we might innovate if we knew the secrets of steel-making and had a project assigned for college credit and maybe even had access to a proper laboratory and funds).

For writing software, literature, or conducting business, most people do not need much to motivate themselves to do something that results in improvements in tasks or brings extra utility or entertainment. In fact, innovating is one way to help relieve boredom; variety is the spice of life.

In any case, there is a cost to doing anything at all, but many people meet that level for many of the things just mentioned.

If there is ever any case where a 20 year monopoly (ie, a patent) would be a near minimal requirement in order for even a single person to reach the sufficient level of motivation necessary to realize innovation, then a patent might still not be deemed acceptable if the damage of blocking off everyone else that might also be motivated sufficiently in this case would be a greater liability than the gain from that innovation.

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