Mimicry Is Not Strategy

Quick show of hands if you’ve ever heard this in an off-site, Planning or Strategy meeting.

“We want to be the Apple of X”

“Can you give me a NIKE-style version of Y?”

The reference point is always the latest envogue organization, talked-about creative piece or Fast Company magazine article.

For a while the catch-phrase was “We’re the UBER of Z” but considering the recent departure of UBER’s CFO and their VP of Global Vehicle Programs, as well as a raft of scandals, the bloom has come off that particular corporate rose quite significantly.

Just to see how prevalent this particular scenario is, I turned to my old friend Google to run a few tests. In short I wanted to test my WWSJD or WWEMD hypothesis – “What Would Steve Jobs Do?” or “What Would Elon Musk Do?”

How to innovate like Apple returned 772,000 results.

How to innovate like Tesla, 1,510,000 results.

And the lowly shark? 396,000 results. Evidently I’m missing something here.

Interestingly, or amusingly, in those searches one of the top 5 results was an article written by Realtor.com – which speaks volumes IMHO.

Trust me, I get the appeal of trying to pries the wisdom of Jobs, Ives, Bezos, Buffet, Munger, Musk, Welch, Gates, or even Kalanick, free and leveraging that for your own organization. Who wouldn’t?

Truth is, you can’t.

One of my favourite thinkers on innovation Greg Satell frequently refers to this as “cargo cult” thinking which is such a wonderful metaphor. The term comes from reports following WW2 that certain South Pacific groups had constructed elaborate runways, airport structures and even fanciful outfits in an attempt to summon the god-like aircraft they’d seen drop supplies to the US Army during the war. Essentially these villagers were blindly mimicking behaviours and actions they’d witnessed and were (erroneously) concluding that they merely needed to do exactly the same and they too would reap the same rewards.

More recently I was discussing the very hot topic of how organizations can build an innovation culture with two of my favourite Kiwis Darren Levy and Neil McGregor. Their point, made in classically blunt New Zealand fashion, was that it was impossible. More to the point, there was no magical “innovation culture” that merely required a convenient 10 step process to manufacture and deploy. Quite simple your organization has the culture it has. Your role as leaders is to determine the aspects of your own unique culture that are impeding innovation from occurring and address those. It certainly wasn’t about doing what Apple does (or did when Steve Jobs returned) or printing off the top 10 secrets for entrepreneurial success.

That’s just not Good Strategy

Richard Rumelt, affectionately referred to as “the Strategists’ Strategist”, is even more direct in his classic book “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy”. In it he derides most strategic plans as nothing more than laundry lists of desirable outcomes. For Rumelt, good strategy means a willingness to recognize and define a challenge and having an executable and realistic plan to address that. Sounds straightforward and remarkably obvious but Rumelt’s point is that so few organizations are willing to do that and rely more on CEO charisma and vision than a honest evaluation of challenges and building a coherent plan to tackle them.

To quote him directly, “A good strategy defines a critical challenge. The purpose of a good strategy is to offer a potentially achievable way of surmounting a key challenge.”

Quite simply it’s unlikely, even impossible, that the critical challenge facing Apple or Tesla or UBER or Facebook is not the same critical challenge facing you. Even if you are miraculously grappling with a huge war chest of cash you need to spend, plans to integrate your solar business with your car business, an imploding unicorn or the ire of brands and businesses over viewability and appropriate content, chances are your business is not a cookie cutter of those titans.

Your leadership isn’t the same. Your partners, suppliers and vendors aren’t the same. Your contracts and negotiated deals aren’t the same. Your employees, your culture and the levels of employee passion and engagement certainly aren’t the same.

Let’s be honest, even those organization’s principal competitors don’t face the same critical challenges as them. WalMart’s challenges in beating Amazon in the online space aren’t the same. What Ford and GM need to galvanize within their employees and their culture is day and night from what’s required of Elon Musk and his marauders over at Tesla to win in the arena of electric-powered or autonomous vehicles.

Trust me I get the appeal.

These organizations and CEO’s have created enormous wealth, global prestige, accolades and fawning customers. Which CEO or leader wouldn’t want their name whispered with the same reverence and envy?

You still have to do the work.

On your own unique organization.

On your own unique critical challenge.

On your own unique achievable way to surmount that challenge.

The poster below hangs in my daughter’s bedroom.

She’s entering those delightful (dreadful?) teenage years where peer pressure, fitting in and running with the cool kids become the next chapter in her rite of passage. As we try to ingrain in her the benefits and wonders of individuality, I wonder if Oscar Wilde’s immortal words aren’t as prescient for leaders and organizations too.

Be yourself.

What say you Dear Reader?

By: Hilton Barbour
Strategist and Marketing Provocateur

Hilton Barbour, Freelance Strategist & Marketing Provocateur. Hilton’s has lead global assignments ranging from Coca-Cola, IBM, Motorola and Enron to Ernst&Young and Nokia. Working as a freelance strategist allows him to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about business, people and trends. An avid blogger, Hilton’s personal mantra is “Question Everything”. 

First published on Bulldog Drummond.