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From the first days of school, we are taught that "copying others is bad." In the process of teaching students to think creatively, we create a lifetime baggage of fear that we'll be caught plagiarizing someone. The reality of today's fast paced world is that we as individuals, and as companies, can't create enough original concepts fast enough. If we struggle to constantly find the ultimate breakthrough, competitors focused on executing new wrinkles to proven processes win the race. It is always easier to edit than to create. We would do well to follow the advice of Picasso, shed the guilt of copying, and leverage the experience of others.

Reinventing the wheel is killing companies' competitive advantage

By virtue of my work as a consultant, I'm privileged to work with some of the largest companies in the world. In some cases, I've worked with these same companies across a couple different decades (yes, I'm really that old). What is surprising is the overwhelming lack of a corporate learning knowledge base, which would enable others to leverage cumulative experience, and not repeat similar mistakes. Not only are critical success factors not saved, no one is encouraged to "steal" from it. While we often learn more from fails, failure is almost never recorded.

Most of my clients fall into the "tech sector." Yet, very few effectively leverage learning history. This is the ultimate paradox given the potential to utilize today's cloud technology, to store and disseminate the accumulated knowledge warehouse of collective experience and tests across time. It is indeed alarming that when I go back several years later some major tech manufacturers and retailers, I am typically the only one that still has the original documents, processes, tests, spreadsheets and analyses on my hard drive!

Why do companies fail to innovate through leveraging experience?

The fact that many companies have little or no "knowledge store" of experience is a significant deficit, which puts them at a strategic competitive disadvantage. This failure to leverage internal expertise is probably a reflection of corporate culture, leadership and values. In many companies, to be "innovative," you must "think outside of the box," or at the very least you must steal from outside of the company. To be rewarded you must be original, and dare not admit that you leveraged someone else's ideas.

Many of todays' companies, particularly retailers, simply fail to leverage the rapid scalable path to innovation by improving incrementally. They simply do not foster or reward "building a better mouse trap." Those companies who build tremendous products through continuous process improvement are the exception. Toyota comes to mind as a leader in "innovative incrementalism" when it comes to continuously improving its automotive products.

There are a number of potential reasons for the lack of creative "copycatting," including:

1. Focus on just grinding it out to meet quarterly numbers

2. No systematic process for leveraging tests for incremental improvement

3. No formal process for measuring and reporting results, particularly for tests

4. No recognition and rewards for failing, but providing valuable insights through failure

5. No mechanism for storing learned knowledge and making it accessible to all

6. No processes or recognition for disseminating and leveraging insights used by others

7. No recognition and reward for incremental improvement on ideas or execution

Apple – Great artists not afraid to "steal" and leverage

It is sometimes easy to forget that Apple Stores just turned 10 years old in 2012. It seems like they have been around forever! Indeed Apple, and particularly Steve Jobs, have been raised to the level of innovative genius of reinventing retail. I wonder just how many articles and blogs have been written with the title "The Secret Sauce of Apple." Don't get me wrong. I too have written about Jobs' genius in innovating products and retailing.

Jobs' genius was not necessarily in coming up with new original retail concepts, but how he leveraged accelerated improvement based on the successes of all those that came before.

Just how many of Apple store's features are purely original, and now many build upon the past experience of others? Apple stores get kudos for focusing on the consumer and treating them as guests. But, perhaps Steve Jobs learned a thing or two from Disney, who was the master of engaging his guests in immersive experiences. Apple stores training manuals have recently been leaked on several sites. Many are shocked that training can take as long as two weeks, with most of the focus on relationship skills with consumers. Have you ever looked at what it takes to be trained as part of the "cast" in a Disney theme park … even if you are serving hot dogs?

It's easier to edit than create … a lot faster … and more profitable

At the end of the day, who cares what exactly was original and what was creatively leveraged? In the retail world today, it's all about the consumer! Just as Disney raised the bar for consumer expectations at theme parks, Apple raised the bar on consumer expectations for experience in technology stores. Microsoft Stores have made some very creative additions that go beyond Apple. For example, the full wall length interactive glass displays. Chairs at the Microsoft display tables to create an even more immersive and sticky experience.

The consumer doesn't care who gets credit for what … they are voting with their plastic based on who leverages the best of the best to EXECUTE personalized value for them.

If you have ever worked with me, you will know my standard line about achieving results: It's easier to edit than create. Yet, somehow many believe that it's inherently wrong to borrow or build on the work of others. In art and literature plagiarism may be a sin and illegal. In business and life we need to be a whole lot more pragmatic and realistic. I have personally witnessed amazing team and company productivity when you start with Jamie Buckingham's premise:

"Imitation is at least 50 percent of the creative process."

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Latest posts by Chris Petersen
Chris Petersen
Chris H. Petersen, PhD, CEO of Integrated Marketing Solutions is a strategic consultant who specializes in retail, leadership, marketing, and measurement. He has built a legacy through working with Fortune 500 companies to achieve measurable results in improving their performance and partnerships. Chris is the founder of IMS Retail University, a series of strategic workshops focusing on the critical elements of competing profitably in the increasingly complex retail marketplace.
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