“Don’t Innovate, Imitate”


The other day I saw an excerpt from an innovation conference that read “don’t innovate, imitate”.  Instantly my Spidey sense went up when I heard “don’t innovate”. There is either a lack of understanding of what innovation is or someone wanting to be contrary knowing that that would make their message more memorable.  The statement simply lacks the context that innovation happens on a spectrum.

Innovation spectrum

Innovation exists on a spectrum with novelty on side and familiarity on the other.  I believe true innovation comes by combining the proven with the novel.   Take some of the more notable breakthrough innovations in recent history.

  • Taxis + Ridesharing = Uber
  • Hotels + Couchsurfing = AirBnB
  • Cars + Electricity = Telsa

In order for something to catch on and become a true innovation, there needs to be a frame of reference.  A point from which the customer can understand and relate to what it is and what problem it can solve. Without this frame of reference, you have things like the Segway or Microsoft’s tablet. Yeah, the iPad wasn’t the first tablet.

[Read also:  Forget Innovating, Make It Effortless (Oh really?)]

Tasty Innovation

Let’s look at world famous Ben & Jerry’s” ice cream brand.  In their labs, they come up with a whole assortment of new flavors. Then they travel the world in search of unique flavor trends. These are combined with new ones to make up to 200 unique flavors.

Finally, they survey their users with two simple questions:
(1) how likely are you to buy?
(determines how familiar it is which closely tracks its commercial viability.)
(2) how unique is it?
(determines its novelty which differentiates it from other flavors.)

Innovate your ice creamThe true winners tend to have just the right combination of familiarity and novelty.

Be Benchmarked

The “imitate” portion suggests a general discomfort with the inherent uncertainty of innovation.   Granted, there is no uncertainty when imitating others. There is also no benefit in the market.

This is not to advocate an all or nothing approach.  In some areas, you must steal shamelessly. Take Walmart founder Sam Walton who built his fledgling store on the insights gleaned from other grocers around the country.

However, to be innovative there should be some areas in which you are willing to separate yourself from the pack.  Every once in a while you must be willing to be the one that’s benchmarked.

Like most things in life, innovation truly exists on a spectrum.  One that goes from the familiar to the novel.  Existing on either end spell disaster for your business.  However,  if you’re brave enough to go from imitation to inspiration, by improving upon the existing with some novelty, you can arrive at something beautiful – innovation.