I recently heard Mark Earls, author of Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing our True Nature speak at the School of Life about what he sees as the “cult of originality.” Western culture is, says Earls, too infatuated with the pioneer and the intrepid inventor, our love of uniqueness leaves us blind to the value of copying.
Earl makes the case that this fetishization of ‘originality’ is quite a new development in culture. In fact, copying, not innovation, is the skill that carried us to the moon and back. Earls has all sorts of convincing evidence for man’s more lemming-like tendencies. Copying decreases cognitive load and is a tremendously efficient way of solving problems.
Not surprisingly, the birth of our addiction to originality comes tightly wrapped up in the arrival of capitalism. Our drug of choice? Innovation. According to the 2012 Global CEO Survey conducted by PWC, _ of CEO’s are planning to innovate this year. In their anxiety to find the next ‘new idea’ businesses can often forget about the value of doing old stuff better.
So how do we marry these two opposing drives? How do we bring the efficiency of smart copying in line with capitalism’s desire for novelty? First, let’s allay the idea that the two are mutually exclusive. As stated, copying is an extremely efficient way to innovate. At its best, smart copying represents an incremental form of innovation akin to mutation in Darwinian evolution. Small, iterative changes to a copied design can yield big results.
Copying certainly has its dangers. Slavish replication is no fun for anyone and can land you in court. As T.S Eliot pointed out a good poet takes something that exists already ‘and makes it into something better and different’. Why not take copying as your creed next time you go into a brainstorm: Don’t try and create the world afresh on a post it note, steal things, create a patchwork from stuff that exists already, take an old idea and make it better, copy loosely, copy badly, but copy freely and save your energy in the process.
Earls closed his talk with a crib sheet of his own. Anyone interested in innovation would do well to take note (or copy mine):
1) Don’t underestimate copying
In the business world like the biological one, copying has shown itself to be an extremely cost-effective way to solve problems
2) Love the network
Copying means that you are never alone, but also means that you can’t afford to be. The reason copying decreases cognitive load is that you are able to store information in other people’s brains.
3) Beware innovation- sometimes it can keep you from simply doing the old thing well
The imperative of the new is a sly temptress. New for new’s sake can feel like progress, but make sure you perfect what you are already doing first
4) Copy, but don’t do it too well
We’re after mutants, not clones. Loose copying gives space for errors, and planned errors create novelty.
Copy? Over and out.
Written by: Ian LaPoint, Cultural Insights, Added Value UK