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Excellence, Imitation, Innovation: Which do You Choose?

Business owners, entrepreneurs are inundated with sage advice about being innovative from those who’ve gone before and prospered, like:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius. ~Emerson

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. ~Steve jobs

Stick to your vision and tune out the naysayers. ~Mark Zuckerberg

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. ~George Bernard Shaw

Yes, it’s all great advice if you have the financing to be truly innovative and weather the tough times that are sure to come. Sure, it’s easy, if you’re a genius.

What I’d like to suggest is this: yes, innovation is a big part of business success, but don’t dismiss the other key ingredients: excellence and imitation.

What do we mean?

Okay, excellence is simply doing things as well as it can be done. For example, Malcolm Gladwell (The Outliers) reminded us about the amount of hours, 10,000 in fact, were required to become a “master” at something (after years of performing at local clubs, night after night, the group known as the Beatles was masters of playing music and writing songs). They were not, as we were led to believe, an overnight sensation.

I’m reminded of a class exercise decades ago that featured a mix of students in Ph.D. and MBA business programs alongside experienced business executives. The topic of recruiting talent came up, and after listening to numerous academic theories, an executive said, “When we need talent, we just hire people who have been well trained but are frustrated at (other companies). We get the best people, (and) they are dying for greater opportunities.”

Similarly, innovation is not as easy as it seems given the genius or special skills of these innovators.

We’re also too proud to acknowledge our own limitations, and may believe that our amazingly new idea may not seem so to the buying market. And, since business is typically a collaborate enterprise, desirable qualities like “teamwork” and “cooperation” can inhibit the innovative mind.

And, let’s not knock imitation.

Many business successes have arisen from the franchise method. Compare the notion of opening up an established pizza chain with your own original pizza parlor with recipes gathered from family, friends and maybe cable TV shows. Or, would it be easier to open up your own hamburger palace from scratch, without an apparent “identity,” versus a well-known name?

  • Reinventing the wheel: sometimes you shouldn’t when tried and true methods are available. Areas like accounting, legal matters, quality of product, customer service, marketing and operations.
  • Aim for excellence in all business matters: Ben Franklin said,” A great idea without execution is hallucination.” Striving for innovation may mean losing sight of excellence. How can you achieve excellence, if you’re still learning the nuts and bolts of your business? Losing sight of customer service, for example, while you’re being a “pioneer” in your field, may be the biggest blunder you could make.
  • I also argue a company and in particular small companies can differentiate in other areas other than simple product characteristics. The most evident example is internet retailing accompanied with international sourcing that has revolutionized many industries.
  • In summary, while innovation is clearly the backbone of growing a business, increasing market share and profits, it needs the support and inclusion of imitation and excellence where it matters most. And, knowing when to focus on each of these qualities, is where true business wisdom lies.