I read a post today over at 15inno.com listing 5 Reasons Not to Use Apple As a Role-Model for Innovation. While it's hard to argue with the points made in the article (You're not Apple, You don't even know Apple, People don't think you're as cool as Apple, You don't have Steve Jobs), it comes off as a little to Fanboy-ish - even for me.
But, it did get me thinking... Is there any point in imitating a company like Apple, even if they're really good at what they do?
My background is in design and technology as a marketing platform. I have always tried to push my employers to get out ahead of the curve in those areas. However, when you propose disruptive approaches to things, the question invariably comes up, "What are our competitors doing? Who's doing it well?" The subtext to that line of inquiry is, "Let's just find out who's successful in that area and do what they do."
To me, that sounds like a ridiculous proposition. I mean, just because you decide to write standing up doesn't mean you'll produce The Sun Also Rises or the Declaration of Independence. In fact, if writing standing up doesn't come naturally to you, chances are that whatever you do will be crap. What you need is to clear the obstacles keeping you from writing your own masterpiece.
Let's face it... "Innovation" is just another name for your enterprise's creative process.
Another way to look at this is through the lens of being a band (in full disclosure, I'm a musician so this analogy is near and dear to my heart). One approach you could take would be to say, "Who's been successful at music? Let's just copy them." The Beatles were arguably the most successful band in rock music. You could go out and buy the same instruments as the Beatles, wear the same clothes as the Beatles, even learn to speak with a convincing Liverpudlian accent... But, you will never be as successful as the Beatles by doing so. Best case scenario, you become known as a "genre band." More likely (if you work hard enough), you end up a competent tribute band playing street fests throughout Mid-America during the summer months.
An approach that will bear more fruit will be to find your own "sound." You may begin this process by learning covers of other people's music, but as you learn, you will put your own spin on those classic tunes. You will learn what works for the specific personnel you have in the band and will start to create original pieces of music that play to the strengths of each player. Only then will you start to find your voice as creators and begin writing music that is unique to your band.
The same is true of an enterprise. It may be okay to start out doing innovation "cover songs" to get the process going, but you should quickly look to find your enterprise "sound." This requires being courageous enough to embrace failure and learn from it. If you're imitating others, you will most likely not get the desired (or even expected) result. You need to figure out why and adjust your process to make the result stronger.
Also, there's a distinction between imitating someone's process and imitating their product. Creating an "iPhone killer" may seem like a good idea, but you've put yourself in second place from the outset. It's more interesting to look for the iPhone of toasters, or the Facebook of client services. No matter what your goal is, the result will be much better if you understand what you bring to the innovation jam session, and play to your strengths.