Before Stephen King was one of America’s most successful novelists, he used to copy comic books panel by panel, according to his son. Before Apple was one of the world’s most innovative companies, it launched the Macintosh by adapting user-friendly computer interface concepts previously developed by Xerox. Before Chipotle was one of the country’s most successful restaurant chains, it was modeled after the Tex/Mex restaurants already popular in California.
Conventional wisdom holds that great success springs from breakthrough ideas, natural talent and/or endless practice. But when you examine how success actually happens, you often see something quite different—many massive successes are the result of taking something that already has been proven to work and using it as a springboard or roadmap.
Copying elements of prior successes is not the same as stealing other people’s ideas—it’s finding inspiration in those ideas…learning lessons from them…and/ or filtering new ideas through a framework or format that is a proven winner.
Nor does copying inhibit creativity. A 2017 study published in Cognitive Science found that the work produced by artists becomes more creative when those artists first spend time copying the works of other artists. Counterintuitively, the process of copying helps people unlock their own new and original ideas. What does inhibit creativity is getting stuck in one’s own head and ignoring outside influences.
But transforming existing ideas into personal successes requires more than imitation—it’s also necessary to dissect the source of inspiration, pulling it apart to understand what truly makes it work. Engineers call this process of carefully examining the construction of someone else’s product “reverse engineering.” And you can use this process to reverse engineer your own success…
Step 1: Collect ideas, items and examples that you consider great. This could be a collection of physical objects, such as a shelf of your favorite books if you’re a writer…or a bulletin board covered in wonderful logos if you’re a graphic designer…or a digital collection, such as a Pinterest page, featuring photos of beautiful gardens if your passion is gardening.
These collections will serve as inspirational reference tools. Having examples of greatness on hand, either physically or digitally, is much more effective than trying to recall them—the human brain isn’t as good at recalling details as people like to believe it is. As productivity consultant David Allen noted, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” What’s more, it’s surprisingly common to discover something new when you refer back to a work of brilliance, even if you already have examined it many times.
Step 2: Identify differences between the great and the less-than-great.When you see something that falls short of greatness in your area of interest, ask yourself, What’s the difference between this and the examples of greatness in my collection? Sometimes these differences are obvious. When they aren’t, here are two strategies to figure it out…
Change the format. Examples: If comparing the items on your computer screen doesn’t make the differences clear, maybe you could print them out and look at them on paper…or find images of them from different angles… or view the items in person…or take them apart…or read other people’s reviews or descriptions of them.
Quantify it. Distilling things down to numbers often makes it easier to spot differences. Examples…
Why do people find Apple’s website more appealing than Samsung’s? Maybe it’s because Apple’s tends to have many fewer words and details, something that may become obvious when you compare word counts.
Why did the book The DaVinci Code outsell so many other thrillers? Maybe it’s because it had more chapters but fewer words per chapter than most, creating a sense of pace.
What made one speech successful while another failed? Quantify the transcripts— maybe the first speaker told more stories and jokes and didn’t bog down listeners with as many facts.
Step 3: Create a template. Write a “reverse outline” based on an existing work of greatness. Outlines most often are created as frameworks for projects not yet begun. A reverse outline describes an already completed work. That reverse outline can serve as a framework for the new project you have in mind.
To create a reverse outline: Simply write out the elements or steps that together form the work.
Example: If your goal is to create YouTube travel videos, find a travel video that you consider great and break it down shot by shot. For each shot, note details such as length, camera angle, subject matter and background music. Then follow this same format, shot by shot, but with a different travel destination.
Step 4: Evolve the existing idea. Researchers at Harvard University analyzed which medical research proposals win grants. They discovered that the more novel a proposal was, the less likely it was to receive funding…but they also discovered that successful proposals usually did contain a small amount of novelty. In other words, groundbreaking originality is generally not the path to success—it tends to trigger fear or confusion—but neither is outright mimicry. As fictional advertising executive Don Draper said on the TV show Mad Men, “It’s derivative with a twist. That’s what they’re looking for.”
Exception: Outright copying can be OK if something is only for your private use. Example: If you find the living room of your dreams on someone else’s Instagram page, there’s no harm in re-creating that exact living room in your home.
Among the ways to evolve an existing great idea…
Relocate the idea to a new place. Starbucks is a Milan espresso bar relocated to the US. Chipotle, as noted earlier, found success by offering Tex/ Mex food in parts of the US where Tex/ Mex was uncommon.
Apply the great idea to a different topic or type of product. Examples: Absolut vodka set itself apart from other vodkas by calling attention to the distinctive shape of its bottle in advertisements. A few years later, the same formula was successfully used to launch a new gin, Bombay Sapphire—its bottle was an eye-catching blue. Chef David Chang’s massively popular pork buns are an Asian dish, but Chang uses flavors and textures that evoke memories of an American comfort food— the BLT—which greatly improves the odds that the meal will resonate with US customers. A restaurant featuring a completely different cuisine could follow that same strategy.
Re-create the item using different eyes and hands. Maybe the existing concept will be transformed into something substantially new and different simply because you made the new version yourself. Or maybe you could bring in someone from a different background, discipline or department to give it his/ her take. The Marvel superhero movies are formulaic, but they have remained fresh and successful in part because the producers bring in new directors who previously worked outside of the superhero genre.