Alan’s corner: Imitation versus innovation
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Alan’s corner: Imitation versus innovation

Alan’s corner: Imitation versus innovation

An essential ingredient for delivering your strategy is an effective organisation structure


Up to a few weeks ago, I had never heard of the name Larry Tesler. But when I read his obituary recently, I now tip my hat to him. You and I benefit enormously from his work, as it was he that invented the ‘cut/copy and paste’ commands on our various devices.

Tesler was also the man who had the counterculture vision that computers should be available to everyone. Steve Jobs ‘discovered’ him in 1974 and the rest is history. A specialist in user experience he also invented the scroll bar and mouse-click, where the cursor could be placed anywhere on the screen with the help of a mouse.

Although ‘copy and paste’ was a revolutionary concept back then, we all ‘copy and paste’ ideas and business models all the time. Let me share some examples that you might like to ‘copy and paste’ into your business.

People: An essential ingredient for delivering your strategy is an effective organisation structure. You need a structure with clear reporting lines and accountabilities. If you haven’t revisited your structure chart recently, it might be worth refreshing it now and ‘copying and pasting’ the best bits from others. Are there any changes to your model that might prompt a restructure? Have you any acquisitions or divestments in your pipeline? Do you have any pending changes to your customer target market, your product mix or route to market?

Product: I was working recently with a convenience chain retailer, to help them develop a new strategy. During the initial discovery phase, I felt that their stores were quite mundane and almost boring. Each one was pretty much a ‘copy and paste’ of a centrally designed model, which of course is typical for any large chain.

Over and above the ‘copy and paste’ strategy, we also encouraged each store to examine its competitive positioning in its local market. We challenged each one to reconsider its product mix and to ask what it could ‘own’ in its locale. What would make them become the ‘go-to-guy’? In one retailer’s case, it now prioritises flowers and has a USP of offering the ‘best fresh flowers’ in the area. That gives that retailer something different to shout about and exploit as a footfall driver.

Route to market: I recently met a very ambitious young person who has a passion for fashion. She has developed a beautiful range of tote bags made from various materials, that can be personalised with all sorts of motifs. She ‘copied and pasted’ from the traditional industry route to market and has managed to sell directly to independent retailers. The challenge for her now is to scale up and to get her products listed in larger international department stores. The problem is that because she’s a small business, she’s just not relevant enough to warrant the buyer’s time and the cost of setting up a new supplier account.

This presents two options in my view. One is to find distributors to service big accounts on her behalf, provided she has enough margin to allow for them to make a profit. Alternatively, a different route to market is to sell directly on-line. This will achieve higher margin, thereby giving her money to spend on marketing.

Brand development: There is so much hype and activity today on social media, that businesses feel enormous pressure to have a strong online presence. Yes for sure, it’s worth checking out the competition and ‘copying and pasting’ some norms in your industry. But don’t forget that ‘likes’ are a vanity play unless they convert to sales.

I do understand this digital drive but don’t forget there is value in traditional marketing. It hasn’t gone away you know! Whether it’s paid or earned, advertising, sponsorship, promotions and PR are still very strong pillars of the marketing mix.

Margin: Another negative example is a food company that continues to operate with a ‘copy and paste’ approach to margin. Margin of 25 per cent has been the established norm in this industry for years and years, but costs continue to grow at a steeper trajectory than margin. Insurance costs, payroll and supply chain all take bigger chunks than before. I have challenged this client to aim for 27.5 per cent margin. I know it’s an odd number but I’m making a point. Why do we always have to work in round numbers? After all, with sales of fifty million euro, every half percentage point of margin equates to a quarter of a million euro landing straight onto the bottom line.

The last word

Plagiarism is an unfortunate outcome of this ‘cut/copy and paste’ technology, so be careful. What I’m describing here is about being sensible and appropriate. But more importantly, don’t forget that one of the other great advantages — and probably the best part of Larry Tesler’s breakthrough, is the ability to edit after ‘copying and pasting’. Use the edit function wisely as you select ideas and business models for your business.

Alan O’Neill is the managing director of Kara, change consultant and speaker

Read: Alan’s corner: How to achieve innovation through collaboration

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