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Imitation Without Understanding Does Not Work

Don’t imitate large firms, just because they are large.

Large, prestigious, and successful firms are chosen not only on the assumption that following them will produce better results but also as a way to bring a measure of legitimacy, something that is especially important during times of high uncertainty.

Everything is connected.

[C]ontextualizing is about viewing imitation opportunities not as isolated atoms but as the interrelated parts of the complex system within which they are embedded and that explains, or conditions, their form and outcome. … [I]mitation without understanding the context of the product or service does not work, because it does not take into account necessary adjustments to the key environmental peculiarities that vary between the model and the imitator.

Outcome based imitation (copying whatever you think produces results) is bound to fail.

A focus on outcomes without an understanding of the means and process to produce them will lead to “blind imitation of the perceived survivors rather than a deliberate effort to construct causal theories about how to thrive”…

This means you can’t do the “grab bag” approach — you can’t just say we’re going to copy ideas from Google, Apple, and Facebook and assume that approach will lead to success. The processes or ideas you’re copying from Google likely have inherent conflicts with your company’s existing processes as well as the one’s your trying to borrow from Apple.

Let’s say you’ve just been appointed CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the board has asked you to come up with a strategy. It would be easy to come back and say we’re going to focus on three things: (1) design our products better (e.g., Apple); (2) focus on R&D (e.g., IBM); and (3) become the low cost producer (e.g., Dell). That strategy sounds great, but those things all have inherent conflicts with one another. (Still curious? Read a primer on strategy)

Trying to combine contradictory models/processes is a rudimentary form of imitation and a road towards failure. Part of the management dilemma when trying to imitate others is realizing that your internal systems likely can’t co-exist with the ones you’re trying to copy.

— Excerpts from Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge