Is copying the best approach to innovation?



MY general thesis on innovation is that you can start many good things by improving the basic model so that you can come out with something new out of the old. There’s no such thing as instant success. You have to go, test, and improvise on something out of something.

No, it’s not about putting new wine into an old wineskin. Our six-million dollar question remains the same—is there a better way? It’s a companion question to Mark Twain’s catchphrase: “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” Take Ford Motor’s Model T. When Henry Ford started the company in 1903, he built several car models intended for the middle class. Ford started with Model A, then B, C, D until he reached Model S—totaling 19 prototypes, until Model T was launched and became a hit to consumers for its mass appeal and affordability.

In 1999, Model T was named the world’s influential car of the 20th century by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation.

Toyota, one of the world’s largest car makers, has short-circuited the process by copying and improving the achievements of other car brands. During its first few years of operations, Toyota admitted “copying the Chevrolet 65-horsepower straight-six, using the same chassis and gearbox with styling copied from the Chrysler Airflow,” according to

Business history around the world is replete with case studies on how copying and improving on one’s basic model can become an imperative strategy. Another example is Xerox, the company that invented the photocopying machine in 1959 that its name became generic to consumers, like what you can imagine with Colgate and Coke, among other pioneering brands.

However, Xerox was beaten black and blue by Japanese brands like Canon and Ricoh, which produced their copiers much lower in cost while achieving the highest quality and delivered right on time to the customer. I don’t know how Canon and Ricoh made a coup and dominated Xerox’s market. But I will not be surprised if they used reverse engineering to disassemble and analyze the components and inner workings of a typical Xerox model toward the end of coming up with an improved version.

Theoretically speaking, you can find solace with educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy on how these global brands are making money by copying and improving one’s basic model. Dr. Bloom (1913-1999) said there are six types of learning: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating—the last one being the highest form of learning.

At the bottom of Bloom’s pyramid is “remembering,” like a simple recall of a buzzword or management principle, except that it is considered the lowest form of learning. Even if you can recall facts and define it in your own words, you can’t go places without “creating” something new out of the old, basic foundation.

A good example of this is the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) Cycle, which was copied by American genius and Japanese hero W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993), who improved the original concept of PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) which was created by his mentor Walter Shewhart (1891-1967).

Today, the PDCA Cycle has been refined several times over with the popular DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) for the Six Sigma approach of creating zero-defect products or services.

Now what? How can you test this proposition of copying and improvising? Last week, I assigned one group of students to improve the ABCD formula that is being used by teachers, facilitators, and seminar presenters on how to come up with the best possible training curriculum.

ABCD stands for Audience, Behavior, Conditions and Degree. You can check the internet for more details.

As I’ve expected, that group composed of 19-year old kids came up with a better version of ABCD using the acronym ANSWER, which stands for Audience, Needs, Successes, Weaknesses, Effort and Resources. It became clear. In producing the best training plan, it’s best to use the ANSWER strategy created by young students rather than the ABCD Formula, which was formulated by people with doctorate degrees.

Getting these ideas out in the open give you the chance to become an expert in your own right. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was right: “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery—it’s the sincerest form of learning.”

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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  1. I always think of innovation can be achieve thru team effort. The team must have a good leader that will guide the team. Look at Bill Gates, he is not an excellent computer programmer but he is a good leader with a very solid support of expert programmers. It was said that windows program was bought from another software company, Apple if I am not mistaken. Windows program is the backbone of Bill Gates software company. Bill Gates being an intelligent person shared his riches by providing funds for Aids research. He even provided funds to our country for rice research . You do not hear him bragging about these good works.