Innovation vs. Imitation

With every development, an organization either innovates or imitates.  Too often the second is confused for the first.  Let’s define the two…

Innovation is any organizational development, created by your organization, that meets your own specific context.

Imitation is the adoption of another organization’s development that meets that other organization’s specific context.  [Also, the adoption of another organization’s own innovation.]

The key difference between the two is the context for which the development is created.  It is not a development alone that determines success.  The context in which that development is made is just as contributing.

How often does your organization feel like it is innovating when actually it is only imitating?  Think about everything that comprises your organization.  It’s programs, structure, systems, strategies, methods, etc.  Now ask, how much of what you are doing was already being done by another organization before you started doing it? The answer should provide a fair estimate of the levels to which you are imitating and innovating.

So am I supposing that imitation is a poor practice?  Absolutely not.  Imitation is completely acceptable but only when the development of another organization best meets the specific context of your own organization (including its needs, location, culture, resources, etc.).  Uncritical imitation that ignores your own context in the simple adoption of a development created for another context will not best advance your organization.  It does not meet your organization’s needs appropriately and ignores other critical components of your context.

I fear that too often we choose imitation over innovation for a number of reasons:

  • Imitation requires less effort than innovation.
  • Imitation seems less risky.  The adopted developments have been “proven” by another organization.
  • We lack confidence in our ability to innovate and create.

It is easy to look at larger, more successful organizations and have greater confidence in their innovations than our own.  After all, they are the best at what we do.  But we must recognize that it was these larger organizations’ ability to innovate with respect to their specific context that made them successful.  And to achieve that same success, we must pursue the same level of innovation with respect to our own specific contexts.

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Ryan Stigile

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