Why Imitation Is the Fastest Way to Lasting Business Success

The “innovation management” industry is expanding at a 10.2% compound annual growth rate. By 2026, it will generate $1.7 billion in global revenues (MarketsandMarkets).

Here’s the irony. Introducing an innovative product or service is NOT the best long-term business growth model.


Research done by Gerard Tellis and Peter Golder indicates that 47% of “pioneer businesses” — those that develop innovative approaches to a market — fail. In addition, they only capture a mean market share of 10% before they do.

Instead, Golder and Tellis noticed that “fast second imitators” have a minimal failure rate. They go on to capture three-times the market share of the original pioneer.

Why are we spending so much time on innovation with imitation is a better business strategy?

In her book The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul says this comes from imitation getting a bad rep. That is another irony, because it was our traditional — and most effective — approach to leaning.

Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t force students to passively sit in their equivalent of a classroom and absorb information from a teacher. Immediate imitation of someone who had mastered a topic was the way to go. This also was true of the apprenticeship approach to learning a trade.

Paul mentions the four benefits of imitation:

  1. Copying allows imitators to filter out unsuccessful strategies tried by others, saving time and effort
  2. Imitation can draw on lots of possible solutions rather than focusing on just one (which may not work)
  3. Imitators can avoid mistakes already made by others (something innovators can’t do)
  4. Copiers can skip being unduly swayed by the secrecy or deception that can trip up innovators
  5. Imitators save time and resources — their costs generally are 60-75% lower than innovators

Find this idea intriguing? Then consider using the three-step innovative imitation approach created by Oded Shenkar summarized in this video.


Every intellectual property attorney you know will caution you about purloining someone else’s ideas. Rightfully so. But you don’t have to steal something to effectively imitate it.

In addition to the Steve Jobs story about the invention of the mouse (mentioned in the video), there are other ways to do this.

For example, in 1999, 98,000 Americans in hospitals were dying each year because of preventable medical errors — mostly from mistakes made in the drugs they were given.

A graduate nursing student, Tess Pape, looked at another field — commercial aviation — where errors could cost lots of lives. She noticed that the introduction of onboard checklists before takeoff significantly reduced pilot and equipment errors. She applied the same approach, and the average patient death rate dropped 40%.

Before you invest lots of money supporting the innovation management market — hoping to improve your business, department or area — consider following in the footsteps of other smart people.

Innovation is not only the sincerest form of flattery. It’s the best way to create s shortcut to lasting business success.