Make imperfect copies

Copying is an underrated business skill says Drake Bennett in Boston Globe’s The Imitation Economy. However, you have to be careful what you copy and from whom:

For example, while it’s tempting to copy direct competitors, especially when they’re doing well, it’s often more helpful to look for models in far-flung fields: It’s ground less likely to have been mined by competitors, but where unfamiliar ideas have already been tested. Shenkar points to how the toy firm Ohio Art has borrowed from the automotive industry and how the medical supply firm Cardinal Health copied the methods of food distributors, but there are plenty of examples beyond the business world: Today weapons designers imitate video game designers, traffic engineers borrow from particle physics, mechanical engineers copy the intricacies of plant structure, architects mimic airplane design, and psychologists use techniques perfected by magicians to design research studies.

In looking at organizational structures for complex environments we could learn something from how nature deals with complexity through copying. Natural selection is basically making multiple copies, with slight variations, of which only the best-suited survive; and then repeating this process over long periods of time. Perhaps organizations need to incorporate the creation of adaptations (slightly imperfect copies) into their business processes. A culture of encouraging the identification of and experimentation with emergent processes would be part of this.

Look at these recent web projects: Twitter is not that different from Jaiku, though only the former is hugely successful. However, Jaiku is now open source and may grow into something else, under Google’s umbrella. Meanwhile, Yammer started making some headway in business micro-blogging, but it’s a proprietary platform that could go the way of Ning and suddenly change its pricing model. perhaps sees this weakness as an opportunity and has launched open source as an alternative for organizational micro-blogging. All of these are variations on a basic theme: short, mostly public text messages, with links & attribution.

When I work with clients I often bring the perspective of other fields to the organization. Like the copying cited above, you can learn from different disciplines but you have to understand the underlying patterns and structures and see how they can be used in your own context. The lesson from The Medici Effect is that old associative patterns must first be broken down and then new combinations can be found. Author Frans Johansson suggests [I suggest]:

diversifying occupations [abolish standard job competencies]

work with diverse groups of people [make everything transparent to as many people as possible]

Go intersection hunting [encourage reading outside one’s field and regularly “straying off the path”]

These are simple changes, made at the lowest levels of the organization, that when applied consistently and over time, can have major influences on the business. In dealing with complexity, we don’t need to add more complication to our business models, we need to make small, but fundamental changes to how work is done.

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