When we think about innovation, we often think about uniqueness. The one-of-a-kind invention that leaves everyone speechless. But the history of innovation teaches us that uniqueness is more accident than design. And channeling Anne of Green Gables, business teaches us that imitation is the purest form of innovation.
Just look at the big digital winners of the last decade or two. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent the concept of a social network, he improved on existing models. Sergey Brin and Larry Page didn’t invent the search engine, they also improved on existing models. The list goes on. In fact, the list is extensive.
What is interesting, is that in many ways, what these innovators did was to reinvent. They copied. But their copying was imprecise. They copied the best of the elements and left what was superfluous to their needs. They created evolutionary – and in some instances – revolutionary – changes in the formula of the invention they were aiming to improve. What is interesting about this is not whether there was something new created, for no doubt there was new value created. The real insight revolves around whether that value was created in error.
I have a feeling that Mark Earls, author of Copy Copy Copy, would argue that these innovation were not only created in error but that it is those errors which made technologies like Google or Facebook great. Take a look at this video of Mark showcasing just how copying can lead to creativity and innovation. Watch the live experiment with audience members at 14:28.
And then think about your focus on innovation and uniqueness, go back to your desk, and copy someone else’s work. Think about the problem they are solving, and look to see just where your version deviates from the original. Seek out your own errors. In that deviation, you may just find the disruption you are looking for.