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Thursday, 1 April 2010

Recession bite-back - Imitation, not Innovation. Copy, copy, copy

Grumpy old Will is on a mission - the next few blogs are all about recession bite-back through positive action.

First, the gloom
Fall-out from the credit crunch has shaken the economies of formerly strong nations and severely curtailed the confidence and future-view of businesses and citizens around the world. In America and Europe, hundreds of thousands of failed companies and millions of unemployed people are at the sharp end of a universal feeling of gloom.

The reality
Taxes are rising ominously, public services are in line for severe cuts, credit remains tight and the optimism generated by pre-crash years of growth has almost completely evaporated. Individual incomes, living standards and company profits are being savaged. Here in Ireland the recent NAMA announcements demonstrate the truly shocking state of the economy and the years of struggle that lie ahead.

The threat to each one of us
In order to survive, our early ancestors dealt with severe physical threat either by flight or hiding. Fight was the last resort and in that savage environment was seldom successful. The cornered animal will fight back, even against all odds, but will only do so when the other options are unavailable.
Today we all face severe economic threat; as individuals it is here for us in the form of falling living standards; as business executives, managers or employees it is here in the insecure future of our organisations, large or small, public sector or private sector.

Where do we go from here?
The reality is that, in the face of the all-pervading threat, our options for flight or concealement are quite limited. And with the boundless opportunities available to us due to the current massive changes in consumer attitudes worldwide, to hide or run away are pretty spineless responses. So, bite-back and fight!
Now is the time to bite back. And bite back with cool, calculated, aggressive offensives.

Innovation myopia
My first focus subject for bite-back is imitation. Yes, imitation, not innovation. Innovation is rightly being heavily promoted by governments and economic development agencies in the West, but it is being encouraged by these well-meaning cheer-leaders in a form that will lead more to bankruptcies and disappointment than to value-creating activity. Oded Shenkar at Ohio State University says that "Imitation is more valuable than Innovation" and I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Clear-sighted imitation
We need a clear understanding of what innovation for tough times really means in the context of personal, corporate and organisational recovery.
The expensive idealised blue-sky R&D that hopefully produces the next big breakthrough, however worthy, takes far too long and is far too costly.
Much more effective is the thorough, disciplined search for imitative, productive, differentiating change, from the smallest adjustment right up to reinvented business models. In the context of scarce resources it is less rewarding to focus on cash-consuming product innovation breakthroughs than to invest effort in incremental imitative development.

Innovation is seen as an honourable positive activity at a polar opposite to imitation, which is stigmatised as somehow unworthy, second-class and an approach taken by unoriginal thinkers. But innovation and imitation are not polar opposites - they are close cousins. Research shows that over 90% of the value generated by innovations is captured not by the innovators but by the despised and reviled copycats.

Scientific research on imitation
Early science regarded imitation as a low-level activity generally associated with child-like or animalistic characteristics. Later experimentation discovered it to be a complex, demanding process requiring a high level of intelligence; in the 1960's Ted Levitt of the Harvard Business School was an advocate of imitation's strategic use as a business discipline on a par with its close relative, innovation.

The mindset that largely ignored Levitt's sage advice fifty years ago still exists today. And this applies to individuals as well as organisations. I know of "Directors of innovation" but I have never heard of a "Director of imitation". I have attended many seminars on innovation but I have never encountered a conference on imitation.
Have a rethink; stop trying to innovate your way to improvement and enrichment. Imitate. Bin your innovation strategy and spend your time and money on an imitation strategy.

Copy, copy, copy
Look for existing activities and approaches that work. Tweak and copy. Look at other situations and industries and take what works there for your own use. Copy, copy, copy. Yes, it was wrong at school and you were punished if you did it. But imitation is not stealing. Get down from that ill-informed high faux-moral stance and get real about biting back.
Of course do not infringe patents or steal intellectual property, but that is not much of a restriction as most products, processes, practices and ideas are not protected in any way.
Copy, copy, copy won't win you any awards, but you will bite back at the recession with a strategic response that gives you and your business a much better chance of future success.


Anonymous said...

Evening Will. So let's copy. So we see something good and copy it. What's the USP of the "clone"? Can we make it cheaper? Probably not. So we have to make it different to avoid price competition? We need creative innovation to do this just as much as to come up with leading edge new things. Do we have this skill in sufficient quantities? I fear the answer.


Will said...

Good ol' Mouse. We don't need creative innovation. Just stay with the argument. We need creative imitation. Sometimes the USP is not very far away when you look at several existing technologies/activities/processes and then use brainpower to combine them. Think apps for example.
And it is not so much skill that is needed as imagination. And we have buckets of that. Bite back fierce Mouse!

Art Blomquist said...

Some what akin to "why re-invent the wheel". A great strategy is to imitate what works. While innovation is lauded, imitation, un-reasonably, gets classed with stealing. I think the major reason for this is that we are conditioned to look for " the next great thing" - a consequence of being raised in a disposable world. Where re-using or re-purposing items or ideas are anathema. And that is what got us in this fix in the first place.

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