Innovate, don’t just imitate

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, wrote eccentric English cleric and writer, Charles Caleb Colton, two centuries ago. His witty observation still resonates, especially with innovation. Too much imitation and not enough innovation, Best Practices are Stupid author, Stephen Shapiro, argues. One size doesn’t – and shouldn’t – fit all.

That hasn’t stopped the copycats. For decades, global companies such as 3M (‘15 per cent rule’) and Procter & Gamble (Connect + Develop) have been held up as exemplars of innovation best practice, leading other organisations to impose a cookie-cutter approach regardless of their own circumstances. Sometimes it works (think Google’s ’20 per cent rule’), but more often it fails to achieve the desired outcomes, increasing internal frustration and stifling any genuine appetite to innovate.

“It’s no mystery why companies emulate their most successful peers,” say McKinsey directors Maria Capozzi, Art Kellen and Sven Smit in ‘The Perils of Best Practice: Should you emulate Apple?’. “Tried-and-true approaches often seem preferable to starting from scratch, whether for developing new products or running efficient supply chains … However… managers tempted to distill universal insights from what are in fact exceptional companies put their own businesses at risk for strategic or operational missteps.”

As University of Queensland Business School researchers Tim Kastelle and John Steen point out, not every organisation has to aspire to be a world-class innovator. “When we often hear things like ‘Innovate or die’, it might seem like this is a very bad place to be,” Kastelle and Steen say. “But this is not necessarily true. Some firms that don’t innovate are actually reasonably safe, at least for the time being.” Monopolies or well-established firms in stable industries, for example. However, as circumstances change, so the pressure or desire to innovate may increase. That requires a strategy, and a commitment from the top to identify and address gaps in capability.

It’s that intense leadership focus that is too often lacking, observes leading innovation blogger, Paul Hobcraft. “Although our business leaders constantly confirm that innovation is in their top three priorities, they stay stubbornly disengaged in facilitating this across their organisations,” Hobcraft says. “They are more than willing to allocate responsibility down the organisation, failing to recognise their pivotal role in managing or orchestrating innovation engagement themselves, or even ensuring the mechanisms are fully in place.”

No one could ever accuse the late Steve Jobs of being hands-off. “Apple is today’s all-purpose innovation icon”, the McKinsey team say. Yet “a unique confluence of leadership, talent, strategy, and technology has brought Apple extraordinary success and raises the question of how relevant a model the company can be for others as they chart their own innovation course”.

As the latest Forbes global innovation study found, leadership commitment is essential in driving innovative behaviour throughout the organisation. At all levels, there’s a shared understanding of innovation as a way of doing business.

“The companies we’ve found to have the strongest innovation track records can articulate a clear innovation ambition; have struck the right balance of core, adjacent and transformational initiatives across the enterprise; and have put in place the tools and capabilities to manage those various initiatives as parts of an integrated whole,” say Bansi Nagli and Geoff Tuff, leaders of the Monitor Group’s global innovation practice. “Rather than hoping that their future will emerge from a collection of ad-hoc, standalone efforts … they manage for ‘total innovation’.”

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