Oscar Wilde said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. And like all sayings, it’s partly right and partly wrong. Imitation is often how we learn. As an art major, many of my entry level courses involved “copying” the works of other master artists. It was a way for us to learn various beginner techniques like preparing a canvas, mixing colors, using different brushes and strokes, to understand the process of painting without complicating our study with more advanced concepts like color balance, composition, texture, mood, and message. If you wished to become an artist (and not a forger), you had to move beyond imitating the works of others and toward establishing their own style. Progressing past imitation is incredibly hard, as it requires patience, time, and uncertainty.
There’s little incentive or reward for any company to be the first in any market and to try something unfamiliar, or precarious, or unproven. When we look around at what others are doing, it’s far easier to copy than create, to go with what seems proven than what’s unknown. And out of a fear of failure, we make easy gambles rather than take intelligent risks. “If Google is doing this, then we should do that too”.
Companies of all sizes and varieties hire the wrong people in the wrong roles, to build the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons because they are imitating the works of the others. They assume that in order to grow and compete and be significant that they have to fill the same roles, to create the same features, built into the same products, with the same purposes, that deliver the same outcomes as the most envied companies in their industry. And when they’ve finished making exactly what has already been made, they present it not as imitation but as innovation.
Interestingly enough, the Oscar Wilde quote is incomplete. The quote we most often use is cut off. The full quote is: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery … that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Well that changes things, doesn’t it? That positive glow around “flattery” turns into fawning desperation. If you’re unable (or let’s be honest, unwilling) to become great on your own merits, your copying just proves your inability to be original, or unique, or innovate.
That doesn’t mean that imitation is bad, just that imitation is a beginning, a part of the learning curve toward creating something beyond what others have already done. But if you only imitate, then you’re missing the opportunity to actually create, build, or innovate. There’s tremendous value in understanding and evaluating why others are a success, but without thorough introspection and specific application, there is no innovation. And innovation requires having a strong brand — built on a solid foundation of vision, mission, and values, and an ongoing effort to explore for valuable and meaningful solutions through processes like design thinking and brand sprints.
Mimicry limits your ability to define strategy, build substantive and sustainable growth, or discover genuine innovation. It’s impossible to not only know the research and data that drive another company’s decisions (if there is any), but also to anticipate their future decisions (and can lead to the McNamara Fallacy). By the time you’ve mimicked their strategies and outcomes, they’re likely to pivot and change and move on to something new, and those “safe” companies end up in an endless cycle of catchup. I think it’s safe to say, that unless you are Apple or Google or Facebook or Amazon or Netflix or Uber, that you aren’t going to be able to replicate what they have done.
Chasing someone else’s lead is a sure way to fall into a pit.
This is why we created Pixel Recess, to help companies navigate their biases, blindspots, and hazards, and help them find their own voice, build their own solutions, and expand their own unique brand.