In the quest for competitive advantages, we often strive to find the novel idea that will set us apart, thus propelling us to the top of the food chain. While this is a worthy endeavor, is success bequeathed upon innovators? Internality it may feel rewarding to create something new, but is originality actually rewarded?
Recently, Facebook announced a new function, Facebook Camera. This “innovative” feature will allow users to post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours. Users will also have the ability to add filters and fun overlays to the pics. If this sounds familiar, it may be because Facebook introduced something similar on Facebook Messenger (Messenger Day), WhatsApp (Status), and Instagram (Stories), not to mention there’s another social networking site, Snapchat, which does exactly what these four Facebook-owned products do. In fact, Mike Murray, a reporter at Quartz, points out that Facebook’s five most recent product announcements are eerily similar to designs from other companies.
- Facebook Camera = Snapchat
- “Live location” in Messenger = “Sharing your location” in Apple’s Messages
- Reactions and Mentions in Messenger = Reactions and @-mentions on Slack
- Streaming videogames live = Twitch
- Messenger Day = Snapchat
We can judge Facebook for repackaging past ideas, but considering they have two billion monthly users and generated $9 billion in revenue last quarter, maybe we need to judge ourselves for being so reliant on uniqueness. Just look at the movie industry.
Movie studios have grown resistant to new concepts that require a large investment. Instead, they are opting for sequels, remakes, and reboots that already have brand recognition. Why gamble with unknown actors playing unknown characters in an unknown story when you can develop a live action Beauty and the Beast, a re-imagined Spider-Man, or a continuation of Pitch Perfect (all of which I saw and enjoyed).
The plethora of movie sequels clogging the multiplex can make you feel as though your life were stuck on spin cycle. But if the movies don’t change, we do, and that’s a blessing.—Joshua David Stein
It’s a simple sales theory: Selling something original is much more difficult than selling something that’s familiar. Different, in itself, is not a selling point. People need to be able to relate what you are peddling to what they already know; otherwise you are in the defensive position of convincing, not promoting.
As much as we need new ideas, in Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen makes note that the “new and exciting” companies that disrupt their industry are founded by ex-employees of the “traditional” companies. These individuals did not attain success by creating something from scratch; their “originality” emerged from the idea that they could do it better, not brand new. They did the groundwork at the previous company—experiencing the necessary trial and error, thought experiments, and systems planning—and were able to implement in the new environment.
We all want to be innovators, and I’m not suggesting we abandon this endeavor. However, innovation does not require re-invention. There is something to be said for not consistently creating the wheel. It’s why we study best practices and scrutinize over our competition’s lessons learned. Plus, it lowers risk and is cheaper than paying for mistakes. Let others discover the potholes; we can follow their lead, enhance it, and make it our own.
In the end, there may be self-satisfaction in saying we thought of it first, but think of how self-satisfied you can feel by thinking of it second while enjoying the riches of victory? After all, you are trying to lead your team to long-term success, not win a first-place ribbon.