Three Potential Pitfalls of Copying Others and How to Avoid Them

As kids make their way through the educational system, they are constantly dissuaded from copying their classmates’ work. Yet across our various endeavors as adults, both at the individual level or as part of larger collectives and organizations, we tend to look at what others are doing. Businesses seek to emulate aspects of their competitors which are perceived to drive success; many people find that copying others is a quick way to get results. Doing your research to find out what others engaged in a similar field have tried and what seems to be working is certainly helpful; it gives you a baseline for reference and some established practices to follow. But imitation can also have its pitfalls – here are three possible failures to beware of and how to avoid them.

Failing to address individual needs

One of the dangers of wholesale imitation is that it misses the underlying steps and thought processes which have driven the development of the original. The routines of a veteran athlete may focus more on conditioning because they have mastered the fundamental mechanics of movement and skill; a younger athlete who imitates these practices will fail to address their unique individual needs. A company might be emulating processes which only work for established competitors that can leverage greater assets or economies of scale. In the long run, working with a specific coach to develop personalized strategies will have a greater payoff. Similarly, a business can work with IT infrastructure consulting firms to implement only the features and processes which suit their needs and allow for growth and scalability.

Copying the wrong aspects

Female lying on the floor in the living room student studying at home working with her laptop

In many fields, success can be subjective, and the definition of which factors drive a particular strategy to succeed can be poorly understood. In content marketing, for instance, it’s not uncommon for one blog to liberally borrow aspects of their competitor’s strategy, but these could in turn have been lifted from yet another source, and so on. The further you go down the derivative chain, the more likely it is that no one really knows what they are doing. Blindly copying something based on its perceived contribution to success could lead to adopting processes or content that’s just not in line with your current situation or goals. A thorough competitive analysis, and constantly tracking the effects of changes you copy and implement, will enable you to understand if you’re borrowing actual best practices.

Lacking a long-term strategy

If you’re familiar with the method of SWOT analysis, you’ll know that one’s intrinsic qualities are important, but not the only factor determining success or failure; extrinsic properties – in the form of threats and opportunities – also play a role. Few people or companies are willing to admit it, but luck is always a factor, and often a big one, in any short-term success. Imitating others can work, but it can’t emulate luck or specific, one-time circumstances which enabled a particularly good result. Individuals who adhere to a vision and core principles, or companies that build culture, take risks, and innovate, will be less prone to the fluctuations of luck and capable of relying on a long-term strategy and solid foundation which will play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

When used properly, copying others can be a shortcut to tried-and-tested practices, but it should never be the sole basis for success. Apply these tips to reduce reliance on imitation and avoid the possible errors which can be a long-term handicap on your efforts.

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Steve Jobs
co-founder of Apple Inc. and founder of NeXT
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