“Selective plagiarism” — do you understand what it means?

It means taking ideas from others, then tweaking and twisting them to fit our needs. And by “others,” I mean more than just those at other software companies. You may be amazed at what we can learn and put into practice from the retail industry, design firms, architects, stodgy Fortune 500 companies, even the airline industry.

Don’t confuse this “borrowing of ideas” with a lack of innovation. Selective plagiarism is clearly part of the innovation process. Many “innovative” companies can fall victim to a “not invented here” syndrome feeling that only their original ideas and thoughts should be considered. This is a recipe for staying small and failing often.

“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”  ~ Theodore Levitt, former editor of the Harvard Business Review

Another common misperception is that selective plagiarism is for the small, not-well-funded companies that have no other options. That is simply not true. Some of the world’s largest, most successful and innovative companies depend on learning from others. For example…

  • Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, would go into competitors’ stores with a small notebook and pen in hand to document what he saw – both good and bad. He’d then take this on-the-ground intelligence to build a better retail operation of his own – in fact, not just better, but the world’s largest.

“[Sam Walton was] notorious for looking at what everybody else does, taking the best of it, and then making it better.”  ~ Sol Price, founder of Price Club (a Wal-Mart competitor)

  • Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, wrote in his latest book, Winning “…companies that win do two things: they imitate and improve.”
  • Commerce Bank, with assets in excess of $50 billion and touted as “America’s most convenient bank,” has long looked at others outside its industry such as Target, Gap, and Home Depot to create “wow” customer experiences.
  • Procter & Gamble, an $83 billion company, directly copies the way in which IDEO conducts brainstorms. Even more importantly, P&G’s CEO, A.G. Lafley, has established a mandate that half of new product and technology innovations come from outside the company – a goal they have already exceeded!

So along these lines, what could we be doing to learn from those outside the walls of our companies? What could we do to create deeper connections with customers? To develop new product innovations? To strengthen our internal culture? To implement new and effective processes?

When you meet other professionals and hear an interesting comment or idea, are you taking the time to ask the follow-up “why” and “how” questions?

Of course, these conversations won’t always lead to the golden nugget your mining for, but keep pushing. It will be well worth the effort – and not just to your company, but also to you in your own professional development.

Further, the nuggets you do uncover are rarely something you’ll want to blindly duplicate in whole. Instead, you must use your understanding of your unique situation to customize the ideas to meet our needs and those of our customers. You’ll get better at this through practice and experience.

Reading compelling business books is a good place to start, but it is no substitute for hearing from others face-to-face. Invite a peer to lunch. Attend a local user group or luncheon. Join a professional organization. Subscribe to a blog of interest. For that matter, author your own blog.

Believe it or not, you all have time to do this, and it will be well worth it. You just have to make it a priority.

So get out there and start plagiarizing…

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