Emulating others’ ideas is an underappreciated learning tool. Many creative innovators set forth as remarkably astute mimics of others. “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” prods a creator’s maxim often misattributed to Picasso.
Imitation is a leading pathway to business innovation, even if being an imitator is anchored by a sense of derision. Ever more businesses are nicking great ideas wherever they can obtain them—in their own industries or beyond. Hospitals have adapted safety and efficiency procedures from the military and the airline industry. Aircraft manufacturers have adopted the car industry’s lean supply chain management concepts. Ritz-Carlton, the luxury chain of hotels and resorts, runs the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center that has helped trained its legendary cult of customer service and employee empowerment best practices to managers from companies across industries.
Creativity by Taking Existing Ideas: Applying Them in a New Context
The most prominent example of innovating by imitation is Ford’s development of the automobile assembly line—a system Henry Ford copied (and improved) from the Chicago meat processing business.
Henry Ford’s relentless ambition to build his Model T a high-volume-low-cost automobile, together with his engineering knowledge and manufacturing experience provided the leadership and creative environment that nurtured the development of the moving mechanical assembly line. Today, the moving assembly line is the epitome of manufacturing. Almost everything that is now industrially manufactured—automobiles, aircrafts, toys, furniture, food—passes down assembly lines before landing in our homes and offices.
The genesis of the moving assembly line is in the American agricultural products industry. During the late 18th century, the movement of grains changed from hand labor to belts and later moving hoppers.
Innovation by Imitation: Many Innovations Come from the Outside
By 1873, Chicago’s meat-processing industry adapted belts and hoppers to transform beef and pork production into a standardized, mechanized, and centralized business. After cows and pigs travelled to their fate in train cars from farms throughout the Midwest, they were dropped into hoppers and killed. Conveyor belts then moved carcasses past meat cutters, who progressively removed various sections of the animal, cut them into appropriate sizes, and repackaged and dispatched processed meat across the United States.
The meat processors’ task was disassembly (as opposed to putting together automobile parts in Ford’s plants.) Each worker had a specific, specialized job. Production moved swiftly. The American writer Upton Sinclair famously described this industry’s ghastly working conditions in his acclaimed novel The Jungle and said, “They use everything about the hog except the squeal.”
Chicago Slaughter Houses Were the Pioneers of the Moving Disassembly Line Before Henry Ford Started His Assembly Line
In the early 1900s, when Henry Ford wanted to keep Model T production up with demand and lower the price, Ford’s team explored other industries and found four ideas that could advance their goal: interchangeable parts, continuous flow, division of labor, and cutting wasted effort. Ford’s engineers visited Swift & Company’s Slaughterhouse in Chicago and decided to adopt the “disassembly line” method to build automobiles.
The introduction of the moving assembly line process in 1913 enabled increased production up to 1,000 Model Ts a day and decreased assembly time from 13 hours to 93 minutes. Additional refinement of the process, thanks to reliable precision equipment and standardized shop practices, shortened production time radically: within a few years, a new Model T rolled off the assembly line every 24 seconds. First produced in 1908, the Model T kept the same design until the final one—serial number 15,000,000 rolled off the line in 1927.
Sadly, just as Henry Ford copied the Chicago meat processing and perfected the moving assembly line, the Nazi apparatus copied Ford’s methods of mass production to massacre six million people. While Midwestern butchers processed the livestock carcasses, the Nazis systematically handled corpses of the victims of the Holocaust. Nazi operatives removed victims’ hair, clothing, shoes, gold teeth, hairbrushes, glasses, suitcases, and anything of value to be repurposed for the Reich. The atrocities of this inexpressibly shocking disaster are on display at the train tracks and the museums of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland.
Formal Strategic-Benchmarking Programs
Smart businesses have formal strategic-benchmarking programs to achieve significant efficiency improvements: they pinpoint the strategic capabilities that matter most to their businesses, seek out companies or businesses that currently manage those capabilities best, and try to copy and deploy those capabilities as rapidly as possible. But time is of the essence for the success of these undertakings, as the management guru Tom Peters warns,
I hate Benchmarking! Benchmarking is stupid! Why is it stupid? Because we pick the current industry leader and then we launch a five-year program, the goal of which is to be as good as whoever was best five years ago, five years from now. Which to me is not an Olympian aspiration.
Imitation is a Key Characteristic of Highly Creative People: The Case of Steve Jobs Copying from Xerox
One of the key characteristics of highly creative people is their exposure to and experience with working in several related domains. They are very good at crossing domain boundaries, relating their creativeness in new and perhaps unexpected ways, and adapting knowledge into new domains. The following case of one of history’s most famous innovators illustrates this distinguishing characteristic.
Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the revolutionary Lisa computer in 1983. It featured such innovations as the graphical user interface, a mouse, and document-centric computing. Jobs had taken—and refined—all these inventions from Xerox’s PARC research labs and introduced by Xerox on its commercially-unsuccessful Alto and Star computers in 1981. The biographer Walter Isaacson writes in his best-selling Steve Jobs: “The Apple raid on Xerox PARC is sometimes described as one of the biggest heists in the chronicles of industry.” Isaacson cites Jobs: “Picasso had a saying—‘good artists copy, great artists steal’—and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas… They [Xerox management] were copier-heads who had no clue about what a computer could do… Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry.”
Idea for Impact: Borrow Ideas from Others and Combine Them with Your Own Creativity
Interestingly, many “benchmarking” exercises in the world of business—even academia—do not come “top-down” out of strategy. In other words, innovations by imitation are typically not driven from the top down. Instead, they materialize from everyday operational challenges—those painful experiences that send managers scuttling for solutions in a hurry.
Look outside your industry. To improve your creativity, try spending time researching other smart companies—even those outside of your industry. Learning directly from other companies is a useful, underutilized form of research for finding ways to improve performance.
Attend to developments at your competitors and in other industries. Look for potential opportunities that have been discovered elsewhere. Avoid the “not invented here” syndrome—don’t reject other’s great ideas. Keep an open mind.