How To Leverage Mimetic Theory For Product Innovation

What Is Mimetic Theory

I lightly covered mimetic theory in previous posts, a theory of human behavior posited by French philosopher Rene Girard. In short, the theory suggests that all conflict is based on envy – you can think about it as an expanded “keeping up with the Jones” – all of our drives and desires come from wanting what others want.

If you think about it, we learn by mimicry from a very young age, like babies in cribs. We may be born with the capability to think and move, but our surroundings pretty much teach us everything. So from the moment our senses kick in, we mimic. We copy our parents, our relatives, any other human we see. When you last smiled at a baby, did it smile back? When you babbled, did it babble back? We are the ultimate mimicry machines. We learn by copying everything around us.

This continues as we get older. We start filtering past behaviors we have seen in others and decide to construct our “personality” – we make both unconscious and conscious decisions about how to act based on how we have seen others act. We can look at our abusive father’s actions and decide to be just like him or not like him. We do the same with the behaviors of everyone around us.

What Are You?

At some point, we fall into the fallacy that our personality is has been set by us – that we consciously made most of the decisions which took us to this point, but the reality is that most of us simply mimicked the behavior we see. And the more we see a behavior, and the more people we see exhibiting a behavior, the more we think that behavior is normal.

You’ve seen this in action: the first person to order a meal at a restaurant sets the tone for the rest. Everyone suddenly craves beef if the first person orders a steak as the waiter moves around the table, taking orders. As soon as we hear that first order, we imagine that person digging into that big juicy steak, and we think, “I want that for myself.”

This is why social proof is so powerful – not only do we wish to appear to fit into the crowd, we also envy others’ lives. Sometimes this drives us to great ambition, trying to attain the same heights as others, and other times it drives us into a depression.

So let’s say that most of the world is driven by mimetic theory – that everyone wants to live someone else’s life, which they perceive as better. Sure, not everyone feels like that – some are more enlightened and actively go against the grain, but others are in a small minority. Most people have role models, models of their life who are being modeled by others, and they want those lives too.

In some cases, it leads to conflict because the object desired is unique, and no two people can own the same object. However, the object can be replicated infinitely in others, so it’s easy to share, and there is little conflict.

Innovating Desires

So what does this tell us about product innovation? First, it opens our minds to why disruptive innovation often fails. Disruptive innovation is too far out of the mainstream. If the mimetic theory is true – then disruptive innovation will almost always fail because it simply does not drive enough desire in people for others to desire it.

Imagine this: you envision a new-to-the-world product that solves a huge problem. Unless enough people who use the product spark that desire in others, the product will fail. If the product is too disruptive, too different, it will almost be impossible to drive desire, no matter how beneficial it is. These amazing products will fail unless you can capture enough of a user base who desires the product and share that user base’s desire to use the product. What needs to be shared is the desire for the product, not the product itself.

We need to sell the desire for the product more than the product. Without promoting the desire for the product, it’s unlikely that the product will succeed.

So how can you innovate in this way? Much as I hate to say it, you can’t develop a disruptive product and expect it to succeed, even if it’s a beneficial product. I know; I’m usually the guy who keeps pushing for disruptive innovation. I’m the guy who said that if you are uncomfortable, you are probably onto something genuinely innovative. I’m the guy who said that if your ideas are “creepy,” then you might be on the right track.

Don’t Disrupt

Now that I know about mimetic theory let’s apply that back to product innovation (targeted IP generation is another story). The best way to innovate in the product space is to copy.

Yes, you heard me right. You start with a copy. You find a product and a business model that works; then, you copy it. Now, you don’t copy it exactly. Instead, you take it and create a new version that is either a) better or b) more specific.

You’ve heard that meme floating around years ago that most of the most successful companies on the internet are simply more expanded versions of Craigslist services? Facebook has missed connections; LinkedIn is the job board, eBay is the for sale section, etc.

Much as I hate to say, based on mimetic theory, the most successful product innovation is not new or disruptive. It’s something old, mixed with a bit of new. Yes, that’s right, folks, successful product innovation is mashups of whatever is already out there – incremental innovation of something people already desire.

If you think about it, this falls right into line with many successful businesses that you see out there. None of them are brand new ideas – they are all the latest versions of services we have seen before, greatly improved, in others, stripped down.

Back Tracking

For most of my career in innovation and product management, I’ve been the one to push the boundaries on innovation – forcing companies to attempt to be more innovative and more disruptive in their approach. Now I feel that I may have been entirely wrong. Disruptive innovation is rarely successful from a business perspective. Incremental innovation is where the money is found – and more precisely, where new, successful products can be created.

Building a better mousetrap will always win – since everyone knows what a mousetrap is and does, and for those that need to be rid of mice, it does the job. So start building better mousetraps, and your products will always be in demand.