When It’s Too Hard To Innovate, Imitate: Should Your Firm Copycat Good Ideas?

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, one author announced, “When You Can’t Innovate, Copy.” And so, this blog is doing just that—copying that article.

At least, we’re agreeing with the HBR’s post’s premise: copycatting good business ideas can be beneficial to your firm.

It’s hard to deny that mimicry is not just a form of flattery; it’s profitable, too.

When it comes to creating a new venture, renovating a business strategy, or edging out industry competition, innovation is commonly cited as the key. However, investing in the people or resources necessary to come up with the next new idea can be daunting and costly.

What happens when your firm fails to innovate?

Some suggest—as in the HBR post—that copying an innovative idea can be (almost) as profitable as coming up with it in the first place.

“In African open markets, women will switch from selling bananas to selling yams once they notice that their neighbors are making more profits from yams. Even in developed markets like Western Europe and the U.S., companies copy—though with enough sophistication to avoid legal problems,” writes Ndubuisi Ekekwe for the HBR.

“Despite all the branding differences, Apple iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Cloud Storage, and Dropbox are imitating one another. And who can argue that smartphone manufacturers aren’t copying each other?”

Although training for first-year associates, law firm managers, and administrators should still embrace outside-the-box thinking, it shouldn’t discourage outside-the-office ideas. That means, when you hear about a competitive firm’s model for pricing or alternative billing arrangements, don’t be afraid to get all the details, then duplicate them.

Ask your corporate clients to share their policy manuals or discuss with them their short-term strategies for growth. Not only will it give you better insight on these clients’ cases, but it will also give you ideas to apply to your own firm’s business goals.

Copycatting doesn’t have to be pure or direct. You should adapt others’ ideas to the needs of your firm. It could be that somebody else’s concept for attracting new clients just gets the ball rolling for your firm to innovate in its own way.

In fact, adopting a competitor’s business model without any modification at all may backfire. Not every successful business model—even among law firms—can be successfully duplicated. And, copycatting completely certainly won’t win you favor in your field.

“Imitating others may not offer the best path to becoming an industry leader. And it’s not without risk. For instance, pioneers can command strong market loyalty that could be difficult for copycats to overcome,” warns Ekekwe.

“Still, startups need to understand that even big companies copy. Would Apple have created the iPhone if there was no BlackBerry? Entrepreneurs need to think about whether they need to innovate when there are business models that can be copied lawfully.”

In the same way, law firms should remember to keep their eyes and ears open for superior business models, strategies, or policies. The current economic recession creates a do-or-die attitude within all industries.

So, this year, if you can’t seem to innovate, imitate.

-WB

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