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The following examples are not true. But please pay careful attention to them anyway.

  • Bill Gates reveals during a CNN interview that the smartest thing he does for his health is get an annual full-body MRI scan. He advises anyone over the age of 40 who can afford to get scanned to do so.
  • Warren Buffett tells the Financial Times that a new generation of easy-to-use/easy-to-train neural-net software has dramatically improved his ability to pick Berkshire Hathaway Group’s stocks. “I can’t begin to tell you how important this software is for me,” he says. “I’m surprised more hedge fund and mutual-fund managers don’t use these things.”
  • With little fanfare, Tiger Woods begins practicing his swing with a laser-calibrated haptic (force feedback) system that aligns his visor, grip, club head and hips. Both his father and his coach say Tiger credits this technology with boosting his ability to make critical adjustments during competition.

These scenarios are imaginary. But does anyone doubt there would be a tremendous global run on MRI scans, neural-net software and “haptic laser swing trackers” if they were real? Success-even the appearance of success-breeds imitation. With apologies to Fiddler on the Roof, let’s call it the “Tevye Principle of Innovation Expertise”: “When you’re rich they think you really know.” People and institutions are hard-wired to mimic the masters. The imitation heuristic exerts a powerful influence on top management worldwide.

The reality of this “mimetic management” is what so many innovators misunderstand-and it doesn’t matter whether they’re product, process or service innovators. Imitation may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery-but it is surely the route that innovation most frequently follows into an enterprise. An innovation is not successful until it is widely imitated. Indeed, successful innovators need successful imitators. “Who imitates whom?” defines the diffusion of innovation in the marketplace.

Put another way, the overwhelming majority of organizations manage innovation adoption less by rigorous analysis than by aspirational analogy. They benchmark; they compare; they envy; they emulate. But instead of asking, “What’s best?” they ask, “Who’s best?” They look at market leaders with an eye toward copying what seems to work. They want what they haven’t got.

This means it’s not enough for innovators to know what their customers are trying to do; they also need to know who their customers want to be like. Do they aspire to be as direct as Dell? Or do they want 3M’s bottom-up innovation ethic? Knowing the answer to these questions is vital to understanding how innovations should be packaged or sold so that they enhance their clients’ capacity to imitate. Since strategic vision frequently means the ability to spot whose innovating is worth imitating, selling innovation becomes selling the ability to imitate. Innovators must rigorously follow who their customers wish to copy-even if they think those wishes delusional.

Of course, the risks associated with mimetic management are enormous. A questionable “form follows fashion” quality emerges. Once upon a time, emulating Enron’s trading infrastructure was a great thing. General Electric, Goldman Sachs and Dell are still seen as enterprises with innovative processes worth emulating. But “best practices” fall in and out of favor. Didn’t everyone want to become an e-business? Mimetic managers are particularly vulnerable to the faddishness of faux innovation. Trend is confused with destiny.

However, when Jack Welch’s GE made its public commitment to the Internet, when many global giants standardized their operations on enterprise resource-planning software, and when the automobile companies and their tier one suppliers swore they would become “lean manufacturers,” then imitating those innovations became imperative.

This innovation/imitation cycle perpetuates itself. Consider the auto industry. Once zero-inventory, “lean manufacturing” took root, innovations around “supply chain management,” and associated technologies such as scheduling and logistics software, became the standard. Now, as firms in other industries seek to implement their own supply chains, they’re looking for leaders to imitate, and any innovators in the supply chain space would be foolish to ignore who their customers (and potential customers) will-or won’t-benchmark themselves against. The question those companies are asking isn’t “Which vendors have the best supply chain management capabilities?”; it’s “Whose do we want our own supply chains to be like?”

Consequently, it’s also critical for innovators to know who their customers and clients don’t want to emulate. It may be that innovation is seen as the best means for differentiating oneself from the competition (as opposed to merely conforming to industry standards). And so who organizations don’t want to be like can be even more revealing than who they do.

The result is an intriguing matrix of innovation and imitation: who organizations aspire to be like and who they aspire to avoid, which processes should be innovative and which ones should be imitative. In other words, innovators will have to study the imitation patterns and pathologies of their customers in both innovative and imitative ways.

The obvious big question: who’s doing that in a world-class manner, so that other innovators can imitate them?

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