To Innovate – Steal Don’t Imitate

by Jorge Barba

To Innovate - Steal Don't ImitateWhen no one knows what’s going to happen we’ll naturally look at other people for clues on how to behave. This is the basis of imitation, and it’s a survival tactic. Simply said, in an environment where the world is changing, the best strategy is lots of imitation. The problem with this is we’re rarely aware of how ‘much imitation’ is necessary and outright imitation is stupid plain and simple. It’s a balancing act to decide what to copy and what not.

Practice ‘Smart Stealing’

The best strategy is to ‘steal’ from different sources, ideally ‘the best’ sources outside your industry.

Examples abound of companies who have ‘stolen’ from others. Apple stole Xerox’s musical interface and mouse ideas. Facebook and MySpace stole Friendster’s social network idea. Microsoft stole Netscape’s browser idea. Kobe Bryant has stolen moves from other basketball greats. It’s even happening in the Venture Capital Industry where one popular VC firm models itself after a Hollywood talent agency.

But, ‘smart stealing’ is rarely the case. Fast followers more often than not practice outright imitation. In other cases a fast follower tweaks the original idea and makes it better and as a result, the originator of the idea never becomes the dominant player in the long run. Often, the innovation is too ahead of it’s time (see Google Wave). And most cases, it needs to be tweaked further until it becomes a hit (See Facebook).

Even Steve Jobs accepts that Apple has been shameless about stealing great ideas:

Point: You steal from the best. The best in other industries that is.

How do you go about stealing ideas?

Systematic approach to stealing from the best

Here, I’m going to steal an idea from GE on how to steal the best ideas and then implement them: The ‘What Works Matrix’ or Trotter Matrix.

Named after Lloyd Trotter, the GE executive who pioneered it. The story goes that in the 90’s, GE CEO Jack Welch wanted a way to find and combine what works across the company. Jack Welch’s assumption was that someone, somewhere has a better idea. And the operating compulsion is to find who has that better idea, learn it and put it into action fast.

The intent of the tool was to identify best practices within the company and then implement them everywhere else.

New ideas are combinations of other ideas

Stealing to innovate requires piecing together different elements to create something new. For the purpose of generating creative ideas that might lead to innovation, this tool can be used by identifying ‘what works’ outside your industry. And since the elements are new, by putting them into the matrix you can visualize new combinations of ideas .

Below is how the tool looks:

What Works Matrix

How to use it

  • State your understanding of the situation or problem, hypothesis or goal.
  • Ask yourself: Has anyone solved this problem elsewhere?
  • Identify where you will look for ‘what works’.
  • Start searching.
  • Record what you find on the matrix.
  • When you find a combination that seems to solve your problem, study it further to see exactly what your source did in order to succeed.
  • Do this alone or as a group.
  • Make sure to include or get the support of whoever will have to implement what you find.

Remember: New ideas are a combination of old ideas from different sources. The What Works Matrix helps you find different combinations in a practical way.

This tool is covered in William Duggan’s book Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement. Strategy+Business Magazine has an introductory article about ‘How Aha! Really Happens’, which is the basis of the book.

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Jorge BarbaJorge Barba is an Innovation Insurgent and is the Creative Strategist at Blu Maya, a San Diego based Digital Marketing Firm that helps organizations build their online business with strategy development for new products and services. He’s also the author of the innovation blog Game Changer. And lastly, you can follow him on Twitter @jorgebarba.