Creative Imitation: A Continuous Improvement Strategy – Part I

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Editor's Note

It's true: We live in a business world that increasingly worships innovation. Why? Because it is essential to sustaining long-term growth and profits.

But before all our energies and imaginations are too one-sidedly directed at the creation of innovations, it is useful to look at the realities of business life.

Harvard's Ted Levitt, Peter F. Drucker, Tom Peters and countless others have continually pointed out "in spite of the extraordinary outpouring of new products and new ways of doing things we are witnessing today, the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all."

Rather, it is creative/innovative imitation or creative swiping.

Distinguishing Between Innovation And Creative Imitation

Generally speaking, innovation may be viewed from at least two vantage points–namely: (1) newness in the sense that something is never been done before and; (1) newness in the sense that something has not been done before by the industry or by the company now doing it.

Strictly speaking, innovation occurs only when something is entirely new, having never been done before. True innovation is rare.

A modest relaxation of this definition, noted Ted Levitt, may be allowed by suggesting that innovation also exists when something that may have been done elsewhere is done for the first time in a given industry.

Take–for example–an application by Khan Academy to patent its online education platform, which primarily focuses on K-12 education and test preparation. According to an article published in

"(Khan Academy) applied for a patent for 'systems and methods for split testing educational videos'–in other words, the method of showing students two different clips in determining which one is more effective at teaching a certain topic…"

A/B testing has been done for more than a century in many industries including direct advertising. Everything from headlines to advertising layouts are subject to split testing experimentation. Why Khan Academy believes this is a patentable system is beyond our comprehension.

In the vocabulary of Tom Peters, Khan Academy's A/B testing would seem to be a prime example of "creative swiping" not "innovation."

Innovation is creating something entirely new and different. Something that has never been done before.

The Role of Creative Imitation in Continuous Improvement

Drucker, Tom Peters and Ted Levitt constantly reminded us, before all our R&D energies and imaginations are too one sided directed at the creation of innovations, it is equally important to closely monitor competitor/non-competitor activity.

In short, they observed the greatest flow of newness that occurs in most organizations is not really innovation. It is either copycat imitation or innovative imitation. It's important to render this explicit.

Today some call this benchmarking the competition and best-in-class non-competitors. Tom Peters probably said it best years ago in his book Thriving On Chaos:

"Fighting NIH (Not Invented Here) is a tough job. NIH is marked by an endless number of denials: (1) We can't copy old rivals because if we did, (a) it would be dumb or (b) we wouldn't want to look like them…

As a manager trades in 'Not Invented Here' for 'Not Invented Here, But Swiped from the Best with Pride' … the organization leaves inertia behind and replaces it with new energy, new direction and new purpose...

…The best leaders are the best note-takers, the best 'askers' are the best learners. They are shameless thieves…

…Grocer Stew Leonard heard a great little idea from an executive in the Department of Defense at a meeting I also attended; he implemented the idea within the week….

…There was no NIH. No 'Gee, if it's DOD, it must be bad.' The only operative question was: Will it work [with a twist or two] for us?…"

Peters goes on to explain why the best have the following attitude: “Somebody, somewhere, big or small, near or far, has introduced a service, technology, product, best practice, distributive channel and the like we could copy with enhancements–today!”

What's Peters saying? "Put NIH behind you and learn to copy with unique adaptation/enhancement from the best...

Do so by aggressively seeking out the knowledge of competitors (small and overseas, not just tired old foes) and interesting non-competitors."

If an organization practices "creative swiping" it will improve quality, service responsiveness and all the rest. In short, innovative imitation is a worthy continuous improvement strategy. Make it an organized practice.

Future articles will detail how world's best-run organizations make "creative swiping" a disciplined, organized activity.