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Why You Should Copy Other People’s Ideas.

People talk about the importance learning to code; I believe that learning to copy is a more pressing need for business today (if you’ve done any coding, you’ll know that writing software is all about copying).



By Mark Earls

There are many reasons why people like us love coming to conferences like IIeX Amsterdam: some come out of habit (it’s March it must be…) or, a chance to “network” and see old friends; some of it is FOMO (fear of missing out) while some come just to get out of the office for a few days and clear their heads but most of us, whether we admit it or not, come to steal ideas – other people’s ideas. We look for things we can take back and put to work in our own workplace. Things that offer hope of solving the problems our business wrestles with. New solutions to old as well as new challenges.

Which is what my work and writing in recent years has been about: I’ve been exploring how copying other people’s ideas and expertise is both an essential human skill ( our amazing ability to “outsource the cognitive load” to those around us is one of the adaptations that has driven our species’ incredible evolutionary success). It also just happens to be a central mechanic of all creative and innovation practice ( call it “competitive research” or “social learning” if it makes you feel better about being a copycat). The most innovative people all use other people’s ideas as their start point – be they artists or musicians, entrepreneurs or engineers.

The late David Bowie was able to constantly innovate because he felt no compunction about borrowing and re-purposing musical, visual or literary ideas. Poet and critic TS Eliot famously pointed out that it’s not if a poet copies that marks out his or her quality , but how they do so. Steve Jobs didn’t “invent” the smartphone or the laptop or mobile music – he and his colleagues just made it better. Indeed every time Apple do something brand new, it struggles, Facebook was not pulled out of thin air by Mark Zuckerberg – not only was the idea of a book of faces well established in US higher education but it seems some of his original roommates asked him to work on a similar idea around the same time.

Yet this is not how we see it: like so many communities gathered around innovation we often confuse what anthropologists call “invention” with the other I-word. “Invention” is having ideas on your own, without the brains or example of others; “innovation” by contrast is all about taking ideas and making them work (often a messy and confusing task). Joseph Schumpeter (the popularizer of the notion of “creative destruction” – not the inventor; that was Marx) describes this difference clearly. And we know from our experiences as self-confessed innovation fans that having the idea is easy bit – getting it to work, productizing and monetizing it is where the value really lies. Our community’s most innovative companies – people like BrainJuicer and ZappiStore – get this. These kind of businesses have no problem borrowing from other fields like academia or healthcare and entertainment; they know that it’s how you copy and what you do with with the copied thing that matters. Copying well gives you a head start on the hard yards of innovation.

People talk about the importance learning to code; I believe that learning to copy is a more pressing need for business today (if you’ve done any coding, you’ll know that writing software is all about copying). In my IIeX workshop on 3rd March I’m going to be sharing an approach to using copying specifically to setting marketing and behavior change strategies which I have developed (with the help of a number of colleagues including Professor Alex Bentley) but I’d encourage everybody to approach the whole of this fantastic gathering as an opportunity to practice stealing other people’s ideas and getting ready to apply them to your day job. Ask yourself: what 3 things are you going to steal from IIeX Amsterdam? What if we just tried these handful of hacks right now? What problems could that solve? What could we stop doing or do faster? Maybe even try finding out what IIeX old hands have stolen before and how…

Mark Earls @herdmeister’s new book “Copy Copy Copy” – how to do smarter marketing by using other people’s ideas” is out now. He will be signing free copies during day 1 of IIeX Amsterdam

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6 responses to “Why You Should Copy Other People’s Ideas.

  1. can’t wait ..always enjoy the copy copy copy story .. personally i am great believer in something we found in a global study of under 30s a few years ago : in a world where whole generations have grown up on “mixes”, “mash-ups” and “media social sharing” plagiarism is now the new intellectualism. Looking forward to chatting.

  2. Hi Mark, we are big fans of copying at house51. Our take on this is ‘everything is a remix’ which, of course, we copied from some guys we saw on a TED talk……We will be talking about remixing, complete with Bowie and Eno references, in our session at IIeX on the 4th on the Upper Track. Drop by and see what you think

  3. The cat is now out of the bag. 🙂 Seriously, as a “marketing scientist” part of my formal role has been to steal ideas from OTHER disciplines, and bring them into mr, with the necessary adaptation. I’ve found this fruitful and it has changes and (I think) enhanced the way I do mr.

  4. Thanks Mark,
    The practice of copying the ideas with pride is in fact appreciated even within companies. It has become a standard perception that if you have brought no idea, you have not learned anything from the seminar. Bottom line; it works for all stakeholders and indeed is a part of evolutionary process.

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Mark Earls

Mark Earls

Herdmeister, Herd Consultancy