Often, the best way to learn how to perform a task is by imitating the tactics and techniques of others who were successful at it. Sometimes this pays off gloriously, other times it leads to embarrassing failure. You can improve your odds of success by first striving to understand why something was successful before you try your hand at copying it.
Professional development in business seems largely built on the aphorism ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ White papers, YouTube channels, business school case studies, and articles (just like this one!) all love to formulaically extol the virtues of how some Business Hero overcame a challenge using an unorthodox solution. Humans respond well to stories; that’s why the best way to propagate a valuable business lesson is through an approachable, resonant, and (hopefully) concise summation of an inspirational event. I’m obviously a huge fan of this approach … most of the time.
I do believe strongly in the utility of emulating more successful people. Back when I was a military cadet, our professors repeatedly advised us ‘if someone else has a better way to accomplish the mission, you’re a darned fool if you don’t steal it.’ Learning from others is far more effective than trying to innovate without experience. That said, merely imitating others without truly understanding what made those others successful is usually a path to failure.
That being said, sometimes an honest impersonation is the best way to learn. There’s an inherent contradiction in the idea that you have to already be an expert in a field in order to successfully learn from an expert in that same field. Often, the only way to discover just how little you know (thereby learning where to study) is to get the gist of a proven idea and dive in head-first.
As evidence to support my claim, I offer Hollywood. Specifically, the film industry’s practice of swiftly flooding theatres with low-budget, middling quality ‘knock-offs’ of blockbuster films. Every time a film breaks expected box office returns, studio executives rush to cash in on whatever trend or feature they believe made the blockbuster a hit with a hurriedly-produced imitation.
What’s amazing to me is that modern YouTubers produce far higher quality videos with better scripts, lighting, pacing, and editing that entire studios did with professional equipment back in the 1980s. The state of the craft seems to have advanced by leaps and bounds.
To be clear, I’m not talking about so-called ‘mockbusters’; those exploitation projects that mimic a real blockbuster’s title to deliberately confuse viewers into thinking that they’re seeing a different production. No, I’m referring to honest imitations: films that may be produced for cynical reasons, but whose cast, crew, and director genuinely want them to be successful in their own right. Sometimes this results in a lacklustre or laughable product because of lack of budget or time, more often because the creators didn’t understand why the film(s) they’re emulating resonated with audiences. Sometimes, though, the imitation game works precise because the imitator understood enough to create a decent (if underwhelming) copy.
As an example of this practice, consider 1986’s martial arts adventure movie (and unintentional laugh riot) No Retreat, No Surrender. Don’t remember it? You’re not alone. The movie was a flop at the box office and didn’t go over well with critics. The only reason I know about this film at all is because it was the feature eviscerated by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 comedy troupe during their recent live performance in Dallas.
The story behind No Retreat is … honestly, kind of inspirational. A guy named Keith Strandberg really wanted to make a martial arts movie. Seasonal Film Corporation’s head Ng See-yuen seemed to admire his enthusiasm and asked him to write a script (even though Strandberg had never written a screenplay before). The result was a mashup of tropes, themes, and scenes derived from more successful films, including:
- The entire plot and violence-is-wrong theme of 1984’s The Karate Kid.
- The Cold-War-by-proxy-via-sport theme of 1985’s Rocky IV.
- The young martial artist’s quest for a mentor from 1985’s The Last Dragon.
- A completely out-of-place rap-and-breakdancing scene from 1984’s Breakin’.
- The superior and more popular love triangle rival from 1985’s Better Off Dead.
- The hero training montages from all of the above.
You just can’t do a 1980s martial arts movie properly without both a physical fitness montage and fighting skills montage. In this respect, No Retreat delivers.
No Retreat was a pastiche film, no question. There were probably more – let’s call them ‘homages’ – that I missed on my first viewing. This wasn’t an original hero’s journey story; it was a retelling of a comfortable and popular tale that audiences already loved with minor modifications.
Was it a bad film? Eh … No. True, the script had serious plot, theme, and continuity issues. Its most egregious issue came from the running conflict between the protagonist and his father about how martial arts should only be used for self-defence. After five (maybe six?) scenes showing the protagonist ‘learning his lesson,’ he abandons all of his character growth in the last ten minutes to become a violent avenger character. None of the story’s subplots get resolved. If anything, the hero’s ‘victory’ made every other part of his story meaningless. That said, the filme ends on the classic ‘underdog hero borne aloft by his previous rivals’ scene and cuts to the credits. Sure.
That said, No Retreat was an absolute hoot to watch. The lead actor, Kurt McKinney, carried the film with aplomb. The villains were cartoonishly evil, just right for a 1980s feature. Director Corey Yuen did a solid job with the martial arts choreography and training montages. It wasn’t a blockbuster, sure, but it was fine. I enjoyed it.  I also learned quite a bit about how not to copy story elements from one screenplay to another by watching how Keith Strandberg did it.
As an imitation effort of more successful works, it earned passing marks. If Keith Strandberg decided to change careers and get into management, he’d likely do a decent job of imitating the leadership lessons espoused in Harvard Business School white papers. Just like he did with No Retreat, Strandberg seems to have had the ability to recognize what made his benchmark examples successful. He might not completely succeed for any number of reasons: inexperience, budgetary constraints, internal resistance, etc. He would, however, try. That’s what’s important.
That’s a darned sight better than a lot of Strandberg’s contemporaries. The 1980s saw a ton of low-budget martial arts films and most of them were awful. That’s the same way it is in business: some Business Hero achieves notoriety in the press. Soon, a legion of ambitious managers attempt to emulate the Business Hero’s success by aping his methods without ever understanding the context that made the Business Hero’s methods successful (assuming that his success wasn’t simply the results of dumb luck and/or unrepeatable circumstances).
Beware attributing to brilliance what can be adequately explained by dumb luck
Some of this can be blamed on us writers: when we present our readers a complicated business problem, we often have to summarize a complicated and nuanced story beyond the point of usefulness in order to fit our allotted word count. Sometimes, we’ll misunderstand our topic, drawing conclusions or highlighting factors that were completely wrong. Other times, we’ll fail to recognize that the subject of our story misrepresented their story to avoid embarrassment or increase their stature. Finally, some business success pieces are lies from the start: marketing drek dressed up as fact.
This is why it’s important for leaders to read lessons-learned business stories with a sceptical eye. Dig into the meat of the tale to determine how relevant and practical it is to apply Successful Person A’s inspiring solution to your own challenge in your unique environment. What’s different about their situation? How might differences in time, distance, market conditions, and technology might make the referenced best-practice less effective (or even impossible) in your organization? Finally, consider that the entire tale might be either wrong, or else so misrepresented as to be effectively useless. It happens.
To be clear, I believe strongly that it is okay to emulate other people’s successes. Even partially; you don’t have to replicate everything that some Business Hero else did in order to succeed in your unique environment. You only have to do enough to achieve your objectives. To accomplish this, however, you need to approach every blockbuster success story with a clear understanding of your own circumstances, limitations, and desired end-state. Then ensure you have a solid lock on what it was that made the other person’s work a success before you attempt to copy it.
Pop Culture Allusion: Keith Strandberg, No Retreat, No Surrender (1986 film)
 Admittedly, I enjoyed it more thanks to the biting commentary of the comedians roasting it, but every joke was delivered with affection.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.