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IMOVATION = Imitation + Innovation (gain strategic edge)

Written by: on  May 25, 2011

Search INNOVATION in the business book section and you’ll find 43,113 results; including a book on why most companies fail at innovation, that we reviewed on EW last year. However, search IMITATION and you get 3,300 books, roughly 13 percent of innovation’s results. This is our interview with Oded Shenkar, the author of Copycats, the number one book that comes up when searching the uncool, unpopular side of going to market, imitation.

So why is it that innovation is so sexy to talk about in the workplace while it is unpopular to copy and imitate others? Is being an excellent copycat, a connoisseur of proven business ideas, bland? Oded starts off the five minute interview saying: “If innovation is cool, than imitation is worse than the opposite; to many people this is an insult.”

Oded is no slouch with the message he is spreading. As Ford Motor Company Chair in Global Business Management and Professor of Management at the Fisher College of Business he deals with challenging the stigma attached to imitation. “Leaders need to go on record saying imitation is something they support and make sure this is diffused through the company. Imitation is welcome, appreciated and rewarded.”

“How often is it that you see a plaque on a company wall that says Imitator of the year“?

Western culture frowns on celebrating the copycat, unlike the East where improving or evolving an existing idea is considered smart business. Imagine your company begins to promote learning from your competitors and seeking out to emulate the good parts while innovating the weaknesses?

One company working hard to promote a balance between imitation and innovation is P&G with their “open innovation model” which actively learns from competitors and innovates at the same time, a hybrid coined imovation. It rewards employees for smart market ideas regardless if they are an imitation of a competitors product or an innovation.

What about companies that frown on employing and rewarding copycats? “You’ll quickly get into trouble.” Oded points out that natural selection is all about imitation.

Historical example:

The demise of Japan’s Samurai is directly a result of their refusal to imitate rifle technology that was introduced to them by the west.

The Samurai decided it was a bad idea to use rifles because it threatened their monopoly on the technology behind swords and was considered dishonorable because untrained warriors could use rifles. When barbarians arrived to pry open Japan, the Samurai could not defend themselves because they didn’t imitate this foreign technology.

This lesson still applies, if you’re not going to imitate you are going to fall behind. It is impossible to innovate everything.

Experiment with the power of imitation in your workplace: ask ‘what do other organisations do really well that we could learn from?’ the innovation will come by adding your own enviable quirk.

Image source: Wikipedia



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