You Can’t Copy Your Way to Success

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought. Seek the meaning behind their footsteps, and not upon the steps themselves. For in seeking the footsteps you shall be glancing only upon the next footprint. And you’re sure to stumble upon an unforeseen obstacle.” – Matsuo Bashō

There is a huge trend in business where companies will do something because a company others consider to be successful does that thing. It becomes part of “the formula” for success – or at least the companies copying the behavior think so.

The problem is that they’re wrong.

You will never make your way to real, lasting success by following the steps someone else took. You may have temporary success, but it won’t last long for a very simple reason – your situation is not the same as the person/company that you’re copying. You have different circumstances, challenges, assets, and customers.

At best, you’ll be copying the answer to a similar problem, but by the time you’ve succeeded in copying it, the nature of the problem has changed and the person you’re emulating will have changed strategies to deal with the changing situation. At worst, you’ll be applying tactics and strategy that have no relation at all to the problems you’re facing.

You see it with every company from the smallest startup to larger orgs trying to copy Google (you don’t operate at that scale, sorry), with everyone and their brother trying to mimic Elon (please don’t. We don’t need more narcissistic jackasses), and other examples that you can spot around you.

The hilarious thing is that they don’t just try to copy business practices (which might be at least somewhat understandable), but instead they try to copy everything. For example – how many companies try to interview like the FAANG companies today with leetcode and grilling candidates on things that have nothing at all to do with their job? (Before that, it was the Cult of the Puzzle, which was just as ridiculous and dehumanizing)

This isn’t a new trend, nor is it restricted to tech and tech-adjacent companies. Manufacturers have tried to copy Toyota for decades and never understood why they didn’t get the same results.

If you want to know the reason, it’s because for any given thing that they copied from Toyota, within a short time, Toyota had moved on.

Toyota doesn’t invent processes as an end-result tool. They create processes gradually, and change them regularly in order to progress toward a goal. Their aim is kaizen (continuous improvement) toward a long range target (reduce waste by x%, move closer to a 1 to 1 workflow, etc). That means that, for any given process, it’s only a step along the way and copying it isn’t going to give you any advantage.

In short, they’re playing a completely different game than their competitors are. The same is true of the actually successful tech companies that others try to emulate (we’re not going to get into the ones that only look successful at first glance. That’s a whole other post if I ever decide to write it).

If you want to read more about this, the book Toyota Kata by Mike Rother is well worth getting. Abstract the lessons you learn there and apply them to your approach to problem solving and strategic improvement.

The ironic, and hilarious, correlation to this is that the practices that are most quickly abandoned by the groups others copy are the ones that take the longest for the people copying to stop doing – partially because they think it’s some kind of magical incantation and partially because those wrong things are easy to do.

A prime example of this is the obsessions with puzzles in interviews (which some places still do. If you want an overview of this, go read How Would You Move Mount Fuji). The places that developed this methodology eventually realized that not only did they not have a positive correlation with high performing employees, but they actively discouraged high performers from applying because they didn’t want to deal with it.

The places copying them, however, kept doing it for years (sometimes decades) afterward.

It’s easy to copy someone else. It doesn’t really get you anywhere, though. If you insist on emulating another company, look at the things that they do as they relate to the current situation that the company finds itself in. See why that company is doing the things that they’re doing instead of fixating on what they’re doing.

That’s a much more useful exercise. Figure out the pattern and whether or not the pattern (or something like it) is applicable to your situation. You’ll need to adapt it heavily, and more often than not the reasoning behind the pattern is going to be more useful than the pattern itself – in particular, using the pattern as a way to identify the pain point that the company is trying to alleviate.

Is this pain point something that your own company has? Is it actually a pain point in your case (it legitimately may not be, or at least not yet)? If so, what steps might make sense in order to work on lessening that pain (or is it worth focusing your effort on another, more important, pain point)?

Stop trying to copy others in order to be successful. Instead, look at the reasoning behind the things that they’re doing and see if and when it applies to you.

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