Analogy of a Flock of Birds to Innovation and Intellectual Property Challenges6 min read
Have you ever sat in amazement watching a local flock of birds as they make quick and abrupt directional changes and the flock follows? When watching local bird flocks you can see right away that they are much different than migrating bird flocks, as the migrating birds fly in a straight line. It’s hard to say why the birds fly together in formation in local flocks and seem to challenge each other for who will lead the formation, but it seems that is what they are doing. With long-distance migrations it’s obvious they do this for the aerodynamic advantage.
Now then, I’d like to take this analogy and propose a thought to you. I’d like you to sit back and think about it for a moment as I compare this to the innovations and changes in any given industry, as the industry leaders jockey to position with new innovations, research and development, and other companies follow them. Occasionally, the industry has a pretty good idea where it is going in the future, but it does not know exactly how to get there – or the exact intended destination – only that it will eventually get there.
Let’s take a look at Apple and their latest iPod, iPhone, and iPad – you’ll have to admit that this is a lot of innovation for a single company in a short amount of time. It seems just like when you think there can be no new innovations Apple comes up with something new. They are definitely innovators in the industry of personal tech, personal computers, and who knows what else in the future? Each time they innovate the flock follows. Some of the other companies or birds follow very closely and try to imitate them almost exactly.
Other companies hang way back, they take it easy without trying to fight for pole position, or keep up with them. Rather as the flock makes a hard right turn, they may merely adjust slightly in their trajectory vector to catch up to them. In essence the following companies, the imitators, and the copiers of their innovations, patents, and intellectual property expend a lot less energy, although you could loosely say they are still part of the flock (industry).
Older or weaker birds do this most often, especially if they cannot keep up with the stronger younger birds, which are perhaps showing off to potential mates, or competing for pecking order. One could ask which strategy is better? Flying in the wake of the leader, and thus in their slipstream like Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France, or hanging way back in the “Peloton” and flying less distance each time the flock turns a different direction, it still getting to the indie destination with the rest of the birds.
If we look at Apple and its market cap, or a company like Google, or even Microsoft back in the day, we see the innovators that if they can keep innovating do tend to win the game. In a flock of birds, the leading birds probably get to mate with the other birds of their choice, and they remain at the top of the pecking order. Because of all that fancy flying and hard work they are probably also stronger birds, more physically fit, and that too is a benefit.
There will always be leaders in any industry or field, and there will always be leeches attaching themselves along for the ride. Some would say that the best strategy is to be the lead bird, or take advantage as often as possible using the “first to market theory,” and yet, I would suggest to you in this day and age of rapid prototyping, ferocious personal tech branding and marketing rollouts, that being first to market may not be prudent or even safe. Okay, but we note that many of the first movers of new technology do enjoy somewhat of an advantage – but not always.
For every Apple, Google, or Microsoft there are tens of thousands of companies, startups, venture capital funded innovative firms that are no longer with us. They too were first in their market, they spent lots of money branding and marketing, setting up distribution channels, only to have the older birds, copy their methods, innovations, and imitating their prototypes – thus, capturing most of the market share in the end.
After all, they too landed at the destination, although less tired, with less money expended, and they had plenty of energy to partake in the profits, worms, or food available at the destination in the marketplace.
Lately, we have been watching lots of lawsuits between Apple and other competing, imitating companies. Many of these companies have been overseas and they have either ripped off proprietary information, stolen patents, or outright copied Apple’s products.
In China most of the consumers believe that it is crazy to pay the full price for American products, when you can buy an exact replica or imitation for a 10th of the price. In fact you would be considered unwise, stupid, and not prudent if you decided to do the right thing and buy the original rather than the fake copy.
This means if you are working in a company and you buy a legitimate Microsoft program, or Apple product you would be considered stupid, and perhaps not a very good manager with money and therefore you wouldn’t get promoted in your company – other employees would actually laugh at you for your unwise decision to do the right thing. There is an inherent problem in the culture differences between Americans and Chinese in that regard.
When we get into the debates of pharmaceuticals we see the same thing. In the United States it costs a huge amount of money to buy certain types of drugs, but in places like Africa they buy knock-offs from other places where they have broken the patents produced the same chemical compound and use those instead, in fact in Africa they demand the drugs for free. This means that the company that spent the research and development, invested in the patents, and went through the onerous process by the FDA, and in the meantime spent hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases loses out.
The copying company is rewarded for cheating, stealing, and ripping off the intellectual property. Nevertheless, if we take this back to the “flock of birds analogy” we can see that this is very common in nature. Therefore, one could reason that imitating is a perfectly natural thing to occur. And even if we have laws of patents and intellectual property in the United States, those companies, business owners, and other cultures don’t understand what we are talking about.
Of course, as soon as we start borrowing their technologies it is amazing how quickly they rediscover why patents and intellectual property rights are important. In many cases if you can innovate, and constantly stay on the leading edge of technology and keep moving fast you can lead the flock and become the winning bird. Yes, it takes a lot of energy to do so, and it is practically the American way to do it, but we will find that in the end the rest of the flock also reached the rewards, even though it was just a few of the most innovative and strong birds that got them there.
If we want stronger birds (Eagles) we are going to have to rewards successful innovation, not to the point that they get lazy, but to the point that they can benefit from the research and development, without attracting a giant flock of followers. If we fail to do this we will find fewer companies innovating and we will slow down the technology progression. If you are against technology you might favor that concept, but if you are for the advancement of mankind you can see why this is so important.
I would submit to you that next time you watch a flock of birds flying locally as they twist and turn, you might think about the dynamics of innovation in the marketplace, all the challenges that we face in our world, and what we need to do to make sure that the game stays fair for all concerned. We must reward the leaders of the Flock if we are going to continue racing around the innovation clock. Please consider all this.