There are people today who find the current relationships between imitation, invention, and innovation disturbing. They don't want to improve the Cheetos® product, nor do they want to create an imitation Cheetos product, they must come up with a category changer, something that will blow the doors off Cheetos as we know it today.
There is an ethic, or set of values, that I've run across, guiding some folks with the notion that imitation is somehow bad, lame, or for losers. The feeling is that creativity and imitation are at odds, that there is a tension between the two that must be balanced. I want to call into question this ethic, and make sure we don't fall subject to its many forms.
Until the mid-eighteenth century, imitation was presented as a positive practice, not one that was distrusted. Throughout the middle ages and renaissance, artists struggled to show that creativity was part of their imitation of nature. It wasn't that anyone felt imitation to be wrong, but imitation itself required a certain amount of creativity to get it right. They recognized imitation as a method for teaching, where nature was the model, or exemplar.
To Francis Bacon, one comes closer to real knowledge of nature by imitating nature.As he described his experimental method in Magna Instauratio: "these things are quite new; totally new (...), and yet they are copied from a very ancient model, the world itself and the nature of things and of the mind."
In more recent history, R. R. Nelson and S. G. Winter (1982), in a classic of the literature on technological innovation, suggested imitation as one of two strategies available to firms, the other being innovation.As early as 1966, T. Levitt from Harvard Business School suggested the same idea: “because no single company can afford even to try to be first in everything in its field”, a company is compelled “to look to imitation as one of its survival and growth strategies”. In fact, to Levitt “the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation”. He was referring to the fact that when “competitors in the same industry subsequently copy the innovator, even though it is something new for them, then it is not innovation, it is imitation.” A company creates “its own imitative equivalents of the innovative products created by others”. Not only is imitation a good practice, but imitation has often been portrayed as being invention itself.
Consider the life-cycle of an EXCITEMENT requirement, where a market requirement is defined in such a way as to cause excitement in the market segment. Soon enough, the entire market is asking for it, when just a little while ago, no one had heard of it. Of course, when customers start asking for it, it's no longer an EXCITEMENT requirement but a PERFORMANCE requirement. Still further in time, the PERFORMANCE requirement becomes a BASIC requirement that no one is asking for, but just expecting. The automatic transmission in the automobile comes to mind as an example of the life-cycle.
It's at the point when an EXCITEMENT requirement becomes a PERFORMANCE requirement that the innovation team would do good to remember Levitt's ideas, "a company creates its own imitative equivalents of the innovative products created by others”. It's not always good or necessary to be the first in a segment.
Many times, the innovative component to innovation isn't technology invention, but innovative ways to take your concepts to market. I know that it hasn't always been the case, but in these modern times, invention and imitation are the two strategies of innovation. Most of the time, imitation is the most profitable to the market and stakeholders.
Even in the middle ages, imitation was seen as a way to give access to luxury goods (decorative goods, clothing, household wares) to the people, through “semi-luxuries”. In the case of the decorative arts, imitation lowers the costs of original products. Briefly stated, imitation is taken for granted and is a common practice. Imitation brings advantages to the people; it represents economic opportunity.
*Cheetos is a registered brand of Frito-Lay, INC.