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March 25, 2016

Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

Sarah Pavey


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Have you ever experienced the sting of someone stealing your idea, passing it off as their own, and enjoying more success from it than you did?

Admittedly, this happens rarely in everyday adult life, where the imitators are often easy to identify and moral obligations and politeness tend to get in the way. For example, what would happen if your boss noticed one of your colleagues taking credit for your innovative new idea? In an ideal world, he or she would know what you've been working on, have the wherewithal to pick your colleague up on it, and give you the praise you deserve.

However, "borrowing" ideas like this is exceptionally common in the cutthroat world of business. For example, imagine a company comes up with an exciting new smartphone. If it isn't careful, its cutting-edge product, or more probably that product's desirable features, will be ripe for the picking by a competitor just waiting to market it as its own and reap the rewards. This is the risk that every innovative organization faces… unless it protects its ideas fiercely and is willing to invest heavily to do so.

So, which is better... to innovate or to imitate? I think most of us would automatically answer "innovate" without much thought, particularly based on the examples above. After all, who wouldn't want the satisfaction of coming up with something new, exciting and groundbreaking? Surely copying someone else's work can't be nearly as satisfying?

However, let's think about this for a minute. We've all heard that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." I think that there's some truth in this statement, but only when the imitation is encouraged. Let me explain what I mean. Doesn't imitation, whether we mean following someone else's process or using a team member's successful sales pitch (with their blessing), show that you appreciate their work and think it's worth using?

Imagine a person joining a new team or organization. She'll copy what her mentor says and does, at least at first... and her mentor will be happy for her to do this. Encourage it, even. On the flipside, though, she'll also be expected to come up with innovative new ideas, develop effective processes, and show that she can think for herself. So, innovation is important... but so is imitation, when it's encouraged.

Things are a little bit different at a competitive, organizational level, though. Companies don't want others to copy their work and build on it, they don't want others stealing their ideas, and they certainly don't want others to profit when they're trying to make a buck. Ironically, though, this doesn't apply to "borrowing" another organization's ideas to get ahead. In this competitive environment, imitation isn't the sincerest form of flattery... at least not from the innovator's point of view!

In our new article, Teece's Win-Lose Innovation Model, we explore how organizations can capitalize on innovation and use it to get ahead of the competition. When you do this, you'll be able to meet your customers' needs before the imitators step in, protect your ideas, and secure the resources you need to profit from them.

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3 comments on “Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery?”

  1. I have worked with someone for years and when she was 25 she thought that she new everything and would not listen to instruction. 15 years later she is dressing like I dress and has now taken up football which I have loved for years. She liked baseball and basketball and never cared about football. Now she is even rooting for my team. it's just kind of weird. It doesn't feel like flattery............

    1. Hi Nita,
      For me, flattery has more to do with the intention behind the words or actions. So, I can understand why this situation might feel somewhat weird or not flattering at all.

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