There are certain connotations when we discuss innovation. We think transformation, progression, revolutionary. Innovation trailblazes, carving a new path that everybody else follows.

But what if we were to describe something as an imitation? Would we hold the same level of respect? Would it be hailed as a leader in the same way?

Probably not.

In fact, the word “imitation” itself has negative associations. We use phrases such as “copycat”, “wannabe”, or a poor man’s what-have-you. It’s understandable.

After all, why would you pick imitation crab over the real thing?

Innovation is powerful. It leads to prosperity and change. Imitation, though, is weak. It lurks in the shadows of innovation, holding onto its coattails for residual success.

But what if imitation isn’t bad? What if going down a paved path is superior to creating a brand new one?

Was Steve Jobs an Innovator?

When Steve Jobs’s name comes up, many quickly think of him as an innovator. He is considered one of the greatest entrepreneurs of our era. Synonymous with Jobs is the company he cofounded, Apple.

To be sure, Apple has revolutionized technology. The company has changed the world through its user-oriented design and a dynamic approach to business strategy. Apple has unleashed product after product in response to an ever-changing market.

When we think of tablets, smartphones, and laptops, it’s almost inevitable that Apple, and by extension Steve Jobs, come up. But instead of thinking of Jobs as an inventor, it’s better to think of him as how Walter Isaacson’s biography refers to him: a “tweaker”.

A tweaker is someone takes somebody else’s idea and finds a way to build upon it. Rather than creating something from scratch, the tweaker takes something that already exists in the world and makes modifications to improve the product further. And Jobs did exactly that.

For instance, Apple is credited for releasing the first tablet, the iPad. But before Jobs first unveiled the iPad in 2010, did you know that Bill Gates launched a tablet ten years earlier? In 2002, Microsoft attempted another release of the tablet. So why did Apple get the applause, while Microsoft heard only crickets?

Because, as Gates said, Jobs “did some things better.” The engineering, design and overall package of the iPad were improved over Microsoft’s version. Compared to the Microsoft tablet, iPads were thinner, sleeker, and more cost-efficient due to overall improved technologies.

Gates described the tablet Microsoft created as almost good enough. Yet, almost good enough wasn’t enough to cross over the threshold to success. Once the iPad surpassed the critical point, the product exploded in the market and reached the masses.

In this case, the original inventor came up with an idea and turned it in a product. But it was the tweaker who took that existing product, refined ruthlessly, and transformed it into something better. In the end, the tweaker absorbed all the credit.

How to Emulate Great Work While Staying Original

They say there’s nothing new under the sun. Anything that is being done or will be done has in some shape or form been done already.

Literature, films, and other arts take inspiration from their predecessors. Since the beginning, art has circled around the same concepts of power, love, and courage. Stories follow the same plotline, albeit in a different era or location.

Yet some do a better job of it.

You don’t have to create something completely new. In fact, you shouldn’t. There are many great ideas out there waiting to be refined, improved, or altered. You can make it yours.

So how do you take something already out there while staying original? Here are three ways:

1. Take the core concept and make it better.

What is something someone is doing that shows promise? How does it benefit others? How can you make it better?

As was the case with Microsoft’s tablet, the originator of an idea often doesn’t receive the lion’s share of the rewards. Infrastructure might not be in place to support the product. Market demand isn’t there. Costs are too high to make something accessible to the public.

Then along comes someone who creates something better. That something could be easier to use, more affordable, or more useful. Sometimes, it’s the timing that puts these factors together in just the right configuration.

Taking something that exists and improving it applies to any product or service. Let’s say you want to provide a fitness service. What are your competitors doing? What do current users have to say to about the current services available? Is there anything that you personally have found lacking?

For instance, Zumba is a fitness program that uses Latin music and dance moves to incorporate cardio and toning-exercises. People are drawn to the program because they’re tired of going on the same routines, such as performing lunges or running on the treadmill. Instead, Zumba markets itself as a fun way to work up a sweat.

You can provide superior service by providing additional resources, such as reference materials. You can take something bland and make it fun for people. Or, you can develop a tailored approach that caters to an individual’s needs. Simply following-up on someone’s progress can make you stand out.

Whatever field you’re in, there’s room for improvement.

2. Use insights from others and incorporate them into your own work.

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This quote is especially applicable to Watson and Crick, who were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for their discovery of the DNA structure. This was one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century, since it marked the beginning of modern molecular biology.

Watson and Crick may have received the credit, but it was largely with the help of their predecessors. DNA was first discovered in the 1860s by chemist Johann Miescher. Two decades later, biochemist Albrecht Kossel identified the four nucleotide bases present in DNA. Over half a century later, Erwin Chargaff discovered DNA is arranged in pairs.

Finally, there was Linus Pauling, a contemporary and competitor to Watson and Crick, who discovered that some molecules have helical shapes. Afraid that Pauling would beat them, Watson and Crick, along with their fellow researchers Wilkins and Franklin, raced to find the answer. Based on past experimental results, they successfully put together the puzzle pieces and showed that DNA has a double-helix structure.

In order to arrive at their discovery, the four scientists built upon the foundation created by others. They connected the seemingly unrelated pieces of information through a combination of logical deduction, dedication, and some luck. If it hadn’t been for the previous succession of discoveries, it would have been nearly impossible for them to arrive at that final, significant finding.

You too can build upon what others have created. Look at the work of someone you admire. What aspects of their work do you like? How can you take those similar qualities to inspire your own process? While it doesn’t mean copying exactly what someone else has done, you can emulate their style and approach to develop something that is unique, something that is your own.

3. Gauge whether or not there’s an untapped market that can benefit from a product or service.

You’ve heard of the car brand Chevy, but what about Chery?

Chery is a state-run Chinese automobile manufacturer founded in 1997. The company produces passenger cars, minivans, and SUVs for both domestic and international markets. Since 2003, Chery has consistently been the top exporter amongst Chinese automobile companies.

So why then, is Chery so rarely mentioned or seen in North America and Europe? The answer: they don’t sell there.

In 2004, GM (which owns Chevy) sued Chery, accusing the company of copying its Daewoo Matiz in Chery’s QQ model. GM claimed that the QQ had a remarkably similar body structure, design, and components to its Daewoo Matiz. Eventually, the lawsuit was settled.

Chery’s QQ cars sell for $4,000 to $7,000, while GM’s Matiz costs $10,000. Chery sells the model in China and Latin America, but it doesn’t market the brand in the United States, where GM is based. Instead, Chery focuses on developing markets, offering similar products at much lower prices than GM.

While traveling in South America, I noticed there were numerous Chery dealerships, yet no Chevy dealerships. This makes sense. Chery caters to the local developing market by offering products at lower prices and avoids legal liabilities by focusing on countries that aren’t within Chevy’s main market.

Without a doubt, Chery’s strategy is a controversial one. Yet, it also speaks to a wider truth on the importance of catering to unmet needs. There may be grey area to what Chery does, but it works.

Whatever you offer, you need to consider where the gaps are. Are there untouched markets that could benefit from a product or service offered elsewhere? Some people might not be getting the service they need due to price point, geographical location, or because the current offerings out there don’t cater to them.

Adapting a proven concept from one market to another can be the safest, most effective method.

To Innovate, Learn to Imitate

Innovation has become a buzzword of sorts. It’s promoted by schools, workplaces, and businesses as the key to prosperity. When you learn to innovate, you get ahead of the game.

But there’s a difference between innovating the right way and innovating for the sake of innovation. In order to progress, you need to know what’s out there already. It means understanding how things work before taking the next step.

To move forward, you need to look back first. What direction are things moving? Why does one concept work, and not another? By emulating the winners, you learn what it takes to succeed. Eventually, you learn what it takes to innovate.

Originally published on Medium.

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