What’s More Important: Invention Or Imitation?

“We ought not to be over-anxious to encourage innovation in cases of doubtful improvement, for an old system must ever have two advantages over a new one; it is established, and it is understood.”  Charles Caleb Colton (Lacon, 1825)

If you are lucky enough to work in a creative business with smart people, you will probably note that innovation is highly praised.

The biggest kudos generally go to people who come up with the breakthrough ideas — the revolutionary concepts or strategies that change the way things are done. That is certainly true of many of the businesses I work with. It’s especially true when it comes to marketing. The advertising campaigns most praised are innovative and daring — noticeably different from anything that had been done previously.

Invention is a good and necessary part of business. But when I think about all that’s involved in the growth and profitability of the businesses I’ve known, it wouldn’t be at the top of the “what’s key to success” list. Most day-to-day progress comes from imitating previous success stories.

Creative imitation, innovation’s ugly stepsister, is the most important factor in business success. That’s why I teach my proteges the art of creative emulation — knocking off the good stuff. It’s why I insist that the marketers I work with get au courant by studying (in some detail) all the successful current advertising campaigns that they and their competitors are responsible for. It’s also why the American Writers & Artists Institute (AWAI) makes its copywriting students memorize long passages of the best sales letters ever written.

In 1966, Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt argued this case compellingly in the pages of the Harvard Business Review. He warned that the business world is in danger of idolizing innovation just as the Natchez Indians idolized the sun. Both promise renewal and life, he said, but neither is scientific.

“In spite of the extraordinary outpouring of totally and partially new products and ways of doing things, by far the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation. We often mistake innovation for what is really imitation, the large and highly visible outpouring of an imitative product that was genuinely new several years previously when a single innovator launched it.”

Levitt also warned that there is a danger in favoring the innovator over the imitator: “The most unhappily negative effect may be the creation of an environment in which people who frequently suggest imitative practices get viewed as being somehow inferior or less worthy. Taking their cues from the system of rewards, people may then systematically refrain from championing the imitative strategies upon whose early implementation the continued success of their companies depend.”

Think about you and your work group. Are you prejudiced in favor of innovation? Do you find that you give the greatest praise to the rare breakthroughs? Do you tend to dismiss, as somehow less important, the more common successes that come from staying closer to the proven models?

What are you doing to encourage creative imitation? Are you and your people studying the marketplace? Looking for winners? Do you encourage your best and smartest people to adapt proven ideas in a fresh way?

If you want your business to grow steadily and surely and not be dependent on the amazing idea that comes along every three or four years, you ought to start practicing the art of creative imitation.