A fascinating new study explores, in exquisite detail, the hidden secrets of innovation. Rampant copycats, the authors find, are a surprising key to discovering creative solutions. Imitators must, however, be supported with diverse teams and transparency of success.
“You benefit when other people imitate you because they help you explore multiple variations around your solution that you couldn’t possibly pursue on your own,” the authors from Indiana University conclude.
To put the causal path of innovation under a microscope, they did what any good university researcher would do: bribe undergraduates with easy college credit to perform a task. The game — which is described as similar to fantasy football — gauged how well students could rack points up in-game..
Unexpectedly, the researchers found that imitation was beneficial. Or, in academic speak, “the substantial proportion of imitation present in improvements shows that imitated guesses were often the basis for further productive exploration.” In other words, imitation is never identical and the micro-experiments help increase the possibilities explored, ultimately leading to better performance.
Notably, if performance scores were hidden, “participants searched more broadly and randomly, and both quality and equity of exploration suffered.” That is, when we hide our successes, imitators have to experiment blindly.
As ScienceDaily explained, “the longer people played the game, the less they imitated others. The more players there were in a game, the higher the scores. The diversity of solutions decreased over the rounds, and scores increased.” Networks of innovation do learn, and unsuccessful strategies fall off like a vestigial limb.
As our friends at TechDirt note, this has crucial policy implications, because the government has an interest in promoting copycats. Open source-friendly innovation policies help the wide variety of radically transparent imitation that has helped make the foundations of the Internet so pervasive.
For more info, read the full study here (pdf).