Copying is a great strategy — but be careful!

Copying is not usually viewed favorably. Business books emphasize creativity, originality and innovation; companies that create, shape and lead their own markets like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are raised to the pedestal of fame and success, while their followers are viewed with far less prestige. Strategists celebrate frameworks, tools and levers that break new ground and explore blue oceans, that aim to generate sustainable strategic differentiation, but almost those that simply copy and follow a great rival.

This is a mistake! Copying is one of the core foundations of human learning. Our mirror neurons are specially dedicated to copying what other people do, we grow and develop by copying our parents, and after learning to copy and have a reference can we become truly original. Even the iPhone, a revolutionary product, innovated on a few key elements — screen, interface, app store — and still kept a foundation of technologies, operations and go-to-market shared with or ‘copied’ from other manufacturers. Finally, copying allows us to execute great leapfrogs by learning from the mistakes and successes of others, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel all the time and falling into the ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

However, one should be careful because copying poorly can be worse than inertia. In my experience, companies that are able to copy well share five key characteristics, in the following order:

  1. Humility — copying requires humility to recognize that competitors do some things better than our companies, and that it is worth looking at them and learning from outside. Many successful organizations are also arrogant and fail in this regard, particularly those that once led their markets or, even worse, those that are still leaders but have disruptive competitors quickly capturing market share
  2. Selectivity — companies that try and copy everything from competitors run the risk of replicating characteristics that should not be imitated, diluting their brand and, instead of reclaiming the space they lost, losing even more by becoming a worsened version of their competitor. One should know how to differentiate what to copy and what to keep in order to maintain a unique identity
  3. Cunning — copying does not mean doing everything in the same order through the same means as the competition, making the same mistakes so as to achieve the same successes. Copying requires cunning to differentiate which steps are necessary and which are expendable. The key advantage of being a follower is learning from others’ mistakes and replicating their successes more quickly and cheaply — don’t waste this advantage!
  4. Speed ​​- it is not enough just to copy fast, it is necessary to copy at a speed that reduces the gap from the competition There are companies that try to follow in the footsteps of rivals, but do not invest enough to make the necessary leapfrogs and the competitive gaps continue to widen. If your organization doesn’t or can’t invest enough to close the gap, it’s important to reflect on whether it’s worth continuing to follow a leader it will never be able to reach, and for how long
  5. Anticipation — organizations that copy well through the four characteristics above and finally reach their rivals face a new reality: when they become leaders, copying is no longer enough. Companies like Uber and Facebook were not the first in their markets, but they discovered both how to copy established competitors and how to maintain momentum after reaching leadership, complementing can-copy attitude with other levers such as innovation, M&A, organizational efficiency etc.

In short: fast-following is an excellent strategy to recover a competitive gap and quickly reach the market leaders, demanding discipline but yielding great results. However, the more successful the more perishable it also becomes. Companies that manage to copy well need to anticipate the moment when they will have to bear the costs of market leadership: originality, innovation, being attentive to disruptions, long-term strategizing…

What about your organization? Are you copying everything you could or should be copying? And are you anticipating and preparing for the moment when you will need to have, and communicate to employees and the market, your own long-term differentiating strategies?

Cheers, and until next time!

Originally published at http://bovolon.com on October 26, 2020.

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