Innovation – Who Should You Fast Follow?

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation - Who Should You Fast Follow?In a recent, and strangely unremarked post, I wrote about some reasons that firms don’t innovate. Perhaps one of the most telling is what I call the “safety of sameness”. No one ever gets fired if they:

  • Hire IBM
  • Execute a strategy McKinsey suggested, or
  • Become a “fast follower” and mimic what other firms in the space do

The beauty of the safety of sameness strategy is that we’ll allow others to take all of the innovation risk and we’ll swoop down, copy their ideas and we’ll be the winner. In theory this is a great idea, in practice there are a number of reasons why this is risky.

First, becoming a fast follower, if there is such a thing, means intentionally adopting a reactive posture. If you are a fast follower you are intentionally setting out your strategies, processes and operations to react to what others do – in fact you’ve abdicated any responsibility for uncovering new opportunities or establishing an alternative vision. Over time, any strategic capabilities you have will atrophy, and when the disruption happens, and it will happen, you won’t have the internal capabilities to respond.

Second, I remain unconvinced that there is such a thing as a “fast follower”. If a fast follower exists, it must have the most optimized decision making and product development and launch practices in the industry. It must be able to decide exactly when to enter each market, just as the early adopters are giving way to the late adopters. It must be able to re-engineer or re-architect its competitors products in such a way that customers view them as indistinguishable. In my experience, no such firm exists. There are pioneers, slow followers and laggards, but no “fast followers”.

Third, a fast follower strategy assumes that there is a relatively lengthy product development cycle. The length of that cycle allows you to gear up, copy the innovators and get into the market before the onslaught of competition, and with enough time to generate revenues and profits before the market deteriorates. While that thinking may have held water in the past, the pace of change and speed of business has increased to the point where product cycles are far shorter. Do you have the ability to shrink your product cycles and still make money?

Fourth, being a fast follower means identifying the “right” innovator to follow and hoping like crazy that that firm has good insights. Supposed you’d hitched your wagon to DEC computers in the 80s, or even Apple computer in the 90s before the iPod. These market leaders fell on hard times. DEC never recovered and Apple recovered not because of computers but because of consumer electronics. So for all of those fast followers that were pursuing Sony (Walkman/Discman/etc), you lose and Apple wins, at least for now.

Goldfish - Gapingvoid

Finally, being an innovator means setting out your own course. As they say in dog sledding – if you aren’t the lead dog the view never changes. Innovators want to be out in front, establishing their own “blue oceans” and meeting previously unmet or unarticulated needs. I often have clients tell me they want to be the next iPod or Google of their industry. What I hope they’ll become is the first “X Corp” in their industry. Becoming the next anything is setting your sights too low. I thought about differentiation when I saw the cartoon above from GapingVoid. Don’t be the “next” Google. After all, Google was just the next Yahoo. Decide to leave the safety of sameness and become the first “something”.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

No comments

  1. Fast followers are inherent in Agile. By coding very little, there is very little to copy. I was shocked to find this to be the case in some pro-agile book I browsed at the bookstore.

    If you are not a SaaS vendor, you might be a near monopolist. It’s easy to figure out who to follow in this case. If you are a complementor, where the competition is based on market spend, you might find that a consistent market leader emerges, so who to follow isn’t hard to figure out in this case either.

    You might want to think of fast followers as being your price-based competitors, rather that someone that is competing on a feature-to-feature basis.

  2. I agree entirely about the strategic intent – without aiming to lead in at least one important element of your particular market, you will soon be an exhibit in the museum of corporate history.

    The other danger of fast following is that when you make the decision to follow, either it’s so soon that you don’t know whether you’re competitor’s entry will be successful, or it’s so late that you have nothing differentiated to offer customers.

    I think examples like Google and Apple aren’t always the best – they are rare, they revolutionise markets, and it’s better to look at markets and companies which evolve, albeit at a fast pace. For the majority of situations, the principle still holds, but is a bit more nuanced. So I would say you should always aim for significant advantage in your product or service offering, even if you can’t have the revolutionary approach of e.g. the iPod, and even if you can’t beat the competitor on everything.

  3. Would the clothing manufacturer/retailer be considered a fast follower?

    One of the few I’ve heard of that does it, and does it well.


  4. Hutch’s example is a very compelling one, and may describe “fast” as much as “fast follower”. It may be that Zara is both, and most folks don’t know who it is who is being followed.

    In my days in retail innovation, I have experienced a U.S. firm that has been inspired by (emulated?) new products and retail concepts from a variety of boutiques and international sources, before these achieved broad awareness. I would still describe them as fast followers, though perhaps not in the same sense as one might ordinarily use this term.


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