It's a little disturbing to realize how much of what we do is simply imitation. If you start analyzing your business objectively, you'll probably come to the (somewhat depressing) realizing that a lot of it is simply rehashed ideas and behaviors adopted from your competitors, the way you did things at prior jobs, etc. It may even feel like you're stuck in quicksand, unable to free yourself from the fact that "that's just the way we do things."
There's a wise old saying that "The Classical Greeks were not influenced by the Classical Greeks." When we look at Neoclassical architecture--think pretty much anything in Washington D.C.--we see the architectural attempt to borrow weight and authority from the past. There's no question that the resulting buildings are pretty impressive as well, but they're still essentially echoes of someone else's former glory, which lessens the impact somewhat.
The Classical Greeks have endured not because of their adherence to the past, but because of their willingness to innovate and do their own thing. They invented architectural orders that even the Romans could scarcely improve upon. You still see their influence throughout your daily life, even thousands of years later.
That's really the kind of vision you should be setting for your business. Even imitating the very best is still just following, and it inevitably puts you behind someone else. Wouldn't you rather be the one imitated than the one doing the imitating?
This brings up a number of interesting questions that your company's leadership team should be wrestling with:
- How might you rethink your industry in a way that others imitate for generations into the future?
- How can you end the arms race of trying to out-stereotype your competitors, and instead focus your company on behaving like itself?
- How will you replace mindless imitation with mindful innovation within your company?
- What can your company offer that has never before existed on the earth?
There are certainly occasions where borrowing from the past is completely appropriate, and a sound strategic move; but in the larger view, it's the innovators, the differentiators, the people willing to take risks and stand apart from their past who we remember best.