You Can't Copy Your Way To Greatness

You Can't Copy Your Way To Greatness


Quick show of hands if you’ve ever heard this in an off-site, Planning or Strategy meeting.

“We want to be the Apple of X”

“Can you give me a NIKE-style version of Y?”

The reference point is always the latest envogue organization, talked-about creative piece or Fast Company magazine article.

For a while the catch-phrase was “We’re the UBER of Z” but considering the recent departure of UBER’s CFO and their VP of Global Vehicle Programs, as well as a raft of scandals, the bloom has come off that particular corporate rose quite significantly.

Just to see how prevalent this particular scenario is, I turned to my old friend Google to run a few tests. In short I wanted to test my WWSJD or WWEMD hypothesis – “What Would Steve Jobs Do?” or “What Would Elon Musk Do?”

How to innovate like Apple returned 772,000 results.

How to innovate like Tesla, 1,510,000 results.

And the lowly shark? 396,000 results. Evidently I'm missing something here.

Interestingly, or amusingly, in those searches one of the top 5 results was an article written by Realtor.com - which speaks volumes IMHO.

Trust me, I get the appeal of trying to pries the wisdom of Jobs, Ives, Bezos, Buffet, Munger, Musk, Welch, Gates, or even Kalanick, free and leveraging that for your own organization. Who wouldn’t?

Truth is, you can’t.

One of my favourite thinkers on innovation Greg Satell frequently refers to this as “cargo cult” thinking which is such a wonderful metaphor. The term comes from reports following WW2 that certain South Pacific groups had constructed elaborate runways, airport structures and even fanciful outfits in an attempt to summon the god-like aircraft they’d seen drop supplies to the US Army during the war. Essentially these villagers were blindly mimicking behaviours and actions they’d witnessed and were (erroneously) concluding that they merely needed to do exactly the same and they too would reap the same rewards.


More recently I was discussing the very hot topic of how organizations can build an innovation culture with two of my favourite Kiwis Darren Levy and Neil McGregor. Their point, made in classically blunt New Zealand fashion, was that it was impossible. More to the point, there was no magical “innovation culture” that merely required a convenient 10 step process to manufacture and deploy. Quite simple your organization has the culture it has. Your role as leaders is to determine the aspects of your own unique culture that are impeding innovation from occurring and address those. It certainly wasn’t about doing what Apple does (or did when Steve Jobs returned) or printing off the top 10 secrets for entrepreneurial success.