Following as a design strategy

When you’re ahead one of the best strategies can be to follow. It’s one of those things that took a while to sink in but has affected my thinking ever since:

Sailboat racing offers the chance to observe an interesting reversal of a “follow the leader” strategy. The leading sailboat usually copies the strategy of the trailing boat. When the follower tacks, so does the leader. The leader imitates the follower even when the follower is clearly pursuing a poor strategy. Why? Because in sailboat racing (unlike ballroom dancing) close doesn’t count; only winning matters. If you have the lead, the surest way to stay ahead is to play monkey see, monkey do.

The Art of Strategy

If you have a lead and the the same wind and water as your competitors the best way to stay ahead is to make the same decisions as them. If their decisions are good you stay ahead, if their decisions are bad you stay ahead. Because you make the same decisions as them there is no situation where their decisions can be better than yours. And so you stay ahead.

When to lead, when to follow?

It’s not very a very glamorous strategy to say we’re going to copy our competitors. We want to be cutting edge innovators pulling the future kicking and screaming out of our brains, heroes.

Original innovative design is hard work, expensive, and most teams don’t have unlimited supply of it. Teams should identify where original work will make the most difference to the product and focus on that. The rest, copy (carefully, sensitively, and properly researched).

We probably do this anyway but call it ‘being inspired by market research’ or something that saves designer pride. Owning up to what it actually is will allow teams to create more efficient processes and get the designs to market quicker. We don’t always need to design everything from first principles, we don’t always need both diamonds. With limited design brains it makes sense to prioritise original creativity in some places and efficiency in others.