Imitation vs Innovation: The Power of the Copycat

24 Apr

Drake Bennett has a nice piece in the Boston Globe that questions whether imitation really is the ugly couisin to innovation:

But invaluable though innovation may be, our relentless focus on it may be obscuring the value of its much-maligned relative, imitation. Imitation has always had a faintly disreputable ring to it — presidents do not normally give speeches extolling the virtues of the copycat. But where innovation brings new things into the world, imitation spreads them; where innovators break the old mold, imitators perfect the new one; and while innovators can win big, imitators often win bigger. Indeed, what looks like innovation is often actually artful imitation — tech-savvy observers see Apple’s real genius not in how it creates new technologies (which it rarely does) but in how it synthesizes and packages existing ones.

What some are finding is that it is a strategy that works much better than we think — whether for businesses, people, or animals competing in the wild. At its best, copying spreads knowledge and speeds the process by which insights and inventions are honed, eliminating dead-end approaches and saving time, effort, and money.

This idea may be counter-intuitive, but I also think its tremendously insightful. It reminded me a little of my favourite definition of creativity (which, funnily enough, is from Apple founder Steve Jobs): “Creativity is just connecting things.When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

In light of Bennett’s article, perhaps some creativity is just well packaged imitation? It’s a flattering thought.

[via PSFK]

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