Imitation is at the center of an enormous amount of innovation. Rules against copying are sometimes necessary. But in many cases, they serve to slow down innovation. Copying, in short, is often central to creativity.
Quote from Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman, authors of The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation.
All creative ideas are built on what came before. Nothing is entirely original, and copying is part of being innovative. Anthropologist Robert Boyd and biologist Peter Richardson put it:
when lots of imitation is mixed with a little bit of individual learning, any person can outreach the abilities of any individual genius
Our ability to copy each other makes us more innovative than when we attempt to create by ourselves. When focusing too much on being original you can instead miss out on opportunities. Facebook was not the first social network, Google was not the first search engine, Henry Ford did not assemble the first car.
Oded Shenkar found interesting results on the topic in his research on major business-model innovations and breakthroughs. Focusing on eight scientific and academic disciplines, ranging from history to neuroscience, all cases showed that imitation was a primary source of innovation and progress. He also discovered how difficult it can be to make good imitations and therefore requires a high set of intelligence and imagination.
Also, Theodor Levit explains how imitative thinking foster creative and visionary environments. He researched the value of engaging in reverse R&D, creating imitative equivalents of the innovative products created by others. A structured strategy of imitation in companies would legitimise systematic imitative thinking as much as the innovative thinking, fostering the most innovative environment.
So how does a copied idea become an innovation? Copy the soul, don’t copy the skin of ideas and strive further than the original. Read more in our article about disruptive innovation to understand how to copy and in that way create a successful business.