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Why there's no shame in 'borrowing' your competitors' ideas

This article first appeared in Management Today

When I was at school, if you got caught copying someone else’s work – their homework or their classwork – it was frowned upon. A recipe for a detention, at least. And yet we know some of the best ideas can come from ‘stealing’ ideas from one market, and applying them to another. Innovation creeps up on us sometimes, from unexpected places.

I’m pleased to say that our schools are a bit more enlightened these days. I learned recently that in primary schools if you copy someone’s work – as long as you build on the ideas you copied and make them your own – that’s worth a credit rather than a detention. They call it the ‘magpie effect’.

As PA Consulting’s latest research into innovation shows, organisations can make a success of innovation by looking externally – for inspiration, ideas, new ways of working and cutting-edge technology. Looking outside for the widest set of ideas is something we do all the time. Allow me to explain.

Candy floss machines helped us create a new fabric

Why should candy floss machines be used just for candy floss? We were experimenting with making biodegradable materials and it turns out that candy floss machines allow us to weave the specialist fabric we had in mind. Instead of spinning sugar, we were spinning polymers.

Bird-watching microphones helped us support Justin Bieber

Our client wanted to make the experience of a Justin Bieber gig even more exciting (as if that were possible…). So we hung bird-watching microphones around various concert venues in the UK. They allowed us to measure how loud audiences were cheering, down to individual seating areas. We will, in real time, provide feedback to the crowd about how loud they were – who was the loudest. This can improve audience engagement, which in turn will drive ticket sales. Good news for everyone.

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3D printing helped us create bespoke chocolates

Like the idea of ordering personalised chocolates online? Chocolate manufacturers think you might. They’re interested in creating truly personalised products while retaining the efficiencies of mass production. 3D printing enables that. We worked on the best formulations for chocolate so you can print the chocolates instead of using a mould. Avoiding the mould means you can create a much wider range of shapes and structures – practically anything is possible – and each one can be unique.

Military communication technology helped give the UK’s America’s Cup sailing team an edge

We worked with Land Rover BAR – the America’s Cup team – leading their Technical Innovation Group (TIG). The TIG rapidly develop, prove and apply new ideas to make the boat go faster. A big challenge on board the boat was communication. Some defence companies have developed technology which uses the body’s natural ability to transmit sound through bone conduction. This allowed clear communication where there’s a lot of background noise – ideal for the conditions on a boat travelling at 80kph.

In fact, our work managing the TIG epitomised the magpie effect. We’re proud of our efforts to source advanced technologies from outside the world of sailing – technologies that enabled the team to make it to the semi-finals. 

Looking beyond your own walls is a great model for any organisation seeking to innovate. Chances are, someone has already solved a problem very similar to yours. Or perhaps they’ve already cracked a product or service solution that would fit right in to your market. Over half the respondents in our recent innovation survey believe they’re more likely to achieve success if they source innovation from outside their organisation. So it’s easy to recommend building a network for innovation.

How could the magpie effect work for you? 

Frazer Bennett is chief innovation officer at PA Consulting Group


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