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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said, "There is nothing new under the sun. Everything has been done before." You've probably noticed what happens when a brand or platform star stumbles across a viral success. Suddenly everyone thinks this is the newest hot thing and they run around the cliff like lemmings.
And like Lemmingen, the results are pretty similar. Why do people have a similar preference for following this example?
Mammals (not just humans) experiment and observe throughout evolutionary development. If we find that a particular plant is bitter or the fire is hot, we must avoid it next time. These observations help us make decisions, including doubling the things that work.
When it comes to survival, the prehistoric man eventually found that it is easier to catch fish with a spear than with bare hands. Tribesmen followed this example when the idea was observed and shared among the group.
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This is the simple process of imitation. It is simple and helps us to be successful quickly by adopting successful behaviors that we observe in others. But imitation is lazy. It is an abbreviation. It's more fascinating to think about inspiration.
You could say, "Imitation, inspiration – it's all the same. You're just copying someone else's idea."
Yes and no.
Of course there are only a limited number of ideas. When Helen Keller was distraught because she was accused of plagiarism in 1903, Mark Twain wrote an encouraging note to her: "All ideas come from second hand, consciously and unconsciously from a million external sources."
Twain admits that there are only a limited number of ideas. However, the key to inspiration is how we remix, recreate and reshape these ideas to create a different and new expression. It is the essence of entrepreneurship – the inspiration that drives us.
Inspiration is the spark when we observe something that makes us think a little differently and apply an idea in a new way. What do you need to bring inspiration to life to create a marketable idea? Inspiration requires deeper thinking, alignment with strategy and culture, a well-articulated vision and the ability to communicate that vision effectively when you put it into practice.
Henry Ford observed textile factories and meat packaging and processing plants, put the ideas together and developed the flexible assembly line for the automotive industry. He was inspired, but he didn't imitate.
Looking back at these prehistoric fishermen: what made them go beyond simple spearfishing? One of them may have come across a group of fish caught in seaweed. This in turn could have inspired him to create a net to catch many fish at the same time, instead of relying on the one-time spearfishing.
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If we take others' ideas and just copy them for our own purposes, we will likely see less success. This is the lesson we should have learned from the infamous Oreo tweet "Dunk in the Dark," which was produced during the 2013 Super Bowl and is known for its blackout in the middle of the game. Every brand thought they could replicate Oreo's marketing success in real time.
Exhausted? No problem. pic.twitter.com/dnQ7pOgC
– OREO cookie (@Oreo), February 4, 2013
Managers should help their teams understand what was successful – and why.
The last part that is so important. It is easy to learn what made others successful, but it takes more reflection and understanding to determine who you are and what drives you, whether you are a brand or an individual.
If you understand yourself, you can apply your inspiration in a way that is authentic to you. And people will buy that. As Lev S. Vygotsky once said, "Through others we become ourselves."