Innovation or imitation?

In rock & roll, and in commerce in general, we love to argue about who’s innovating and who’s imitating.

The Beatles vs. The Monkees (if you’re old enough to remember). The Grateful Dead vs. Phish. Apple vs. Samsung. Starbucks vs. Caribou (or Dunkin’ Donuts).

But what IS innovation?

The usual definition of innovate is “to introduce something new.” But a second definition is “to make changes in something established.” In that sense innovation includes some imitating—i.e., working on something that others have originated. So being an innovator does NOT mean you have to be the first to market. Your idea, product, service, or business model can be an improvement on something that already exists.

Professor Oded Shenkar, in his book Copycats, argues that we overlook the strategic value of imitation and that our innovations usually include a “strong dose of imitation.” He cites Apple as an expert at “assembly imitation” that uses creativity in its “novel recombination of existing technologies.” (Apple, as all techies know, has always copied features from other products, beginning with their first Macintosh computer that used the graphical visual interface of Xerox’s PARC computers.)

This sheds light on a famous quote of Steve Jobs:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

In the music world, no band invented rock & roll. The Beatles, for instance, developed their sound by borrowing copiously from others, especially in the beginning: the harmonies of the Everly Brothers; the electric guitar chops of Chuck Berry; the lead vocal styling of Little Richard (a Paul McCartney favorite) or Smoky Robinson (a John Lennon favorite). A whole lot of imitating going on. They also copied a hairstyle that was emerging in Europe at the time: the now-famous mop-top hairdo.

But through their “novel recombination” of elements (connecting and synthesizing), The Beatles produced a gestalt that was truly innovative—and in the process changed rock & roll (and pop culture) forever.

There were many other innovative recombinators: Sly & the Family Stone cooked up a stew of rock, funk, and soul and performed it with the first integrated, mixed-gender band. The Grateful Dead combined improvisational live shows (common to jazz but not to rock at the time) with a give-it-away-free customer service model (free concerts + free taping) to launch a new rock & roll business model—and lay the foundation for the internet business model years later. KISS added makeup, costumes, and pyrotechnics to basic party rock to produce rock & roll theater.

Of course there are other examples of rock & roll innovation, of which I’m sure you’ll remind me.

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  1. Yeah, what I loved about Cobain is how freely he admitted they were a "ripoff" of certain bands, though Nirvana's recombinative formula was certainly unique, and beyond reproach. (One of the perks of having a blog is being able to make up new words — which, come to think of it, is a recombinative act.)

  2. Some consumers might question that Samsung is just an imitator here, as implied in your graphic. Likewise with Phish. Or even Dunkin' Donuts.

    A band that copied everybody in thier early early days but came out an innovator would be U2.

  3. Good blog. Clearly you love the history of popular music.

    Can you say more about business innovation in areas such as:

    -What's coming (robotics, space travel, gene therapy)
    -What's leaving (personal computers, gas-engine cars)
    -What's needed (renewable energy, warfare, food, etc.)

    The idea that the patent office should close because everything's been invented has been shown to be ridiculous, but I'm concerned we are literally using up the world's natural resources at this point.

  4. David: answering your questions would require another book, but if you’d agree to buy a sufficient number in advance, I could get started soon.

    Hank, there’s a lot of mutual imitation going on throughout the hand-held market — as well as “novel recombination of existing technologies” by all the major players, including Samsung. Phish is considered by some critics to be an imitator by virtue of jumping on the jam-band-wagon (sorry!) and the Usenet newsgroup. But they do have their own sound (an eclectic bag of styles). My basic point is that imitation is fine (and probably necessary) IN PURSUIT OF INNOVATION. Dunkin’ Donuts — which all readers may not be familiar with — has had a boring but locally profitable brand as your basic doughnut & coffee shop for the white working class. But in recent years they've used Open Innovation, crowd sourcing, and social media to get customers involved in food offerings, etc. So traditional coffee shop meets innovative product development & marketing — resulting in an exciting international brand, with younger appeal. (I wouldn't recommend DD for healthy-minded consumers, however, who seem to frequent this blog.)

  5. I love how Dylan has started writing songs which use other people's titles (Workingman Blues #2, anyone?) or which are just wildly mangled versions of classic blues or folk.

    It's when the innovator's vision and voice are clear enough that we remember them. Sometimes, second to market gets the nod. Piano nocturnes: virtually anyone familiar with classical music thinks Chopin. He learned the form from Irishman John Field. But Chopin didn't just copy, he expanded and refined.

    Not exactly a business lesson from rock, but wait 'til I formulate my thoughts on Procol Harum.

  6. Hank, I forgot to comment on your U2 observation...

    U2 has been an innovator in more ways than musical. In addition to their anthemic, atmospheric brand of rock, they displayed an earnest social consciousness (exemplified by Bono’s philanthropy) that created a kind of humanitarian model for rock bands.

    BTW, U2's favorite band starting out was The Who, another innovator. The Who in the mid-60s merged loud, white R&B with a terrifying (at the time) live show, complete with autodestruction, that created a new rock & roll performance model.

  7. Joel, thanks for the info. I loved Chopin's Irish ballads (though he couldn't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow).

    Dylan started out as a master thief — in the best sense — with his traditional folk melodies. But once the stream-of-consciousness lyrics started coming, delivered with that VOICE, he became as distinct a singer/songwriter as the world had ever heard.

    1. I love this one. But l have a question about it. If everybody is imitation, how about the
      innovation? l am a student of shanghai university, china. thank you!

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