If you copy people, you don’t learn

Sharing a lesson from school to those who now work

This is the story from a memory (as I remember it).

Back at school

When I was at school, I started experiencing issues seeing what was on the blackboard (yes, I’m aware that dates me!). I wasn’t aware at the time, but I was due some much needed glasses.

That’s me in my secret agent costume (around the same time)

To ensure I didn’t fall behind, I remember asking my friend for help in the maths lesson. We had quite a strict teacher and I wanted to ensure that I was doing as I was told, so I did this as discreetly as I could.

I resorted to copying my friend’s maths work in that lesson and a few others.

As a result, I never really learned how to do maths well. I scraped through with some average grades.

I think it was a consequence of not using my brain and not understanding the problem.

Interesting that.

Fast forward nearly thirty years

As a digital product designer, I spend my working time solving business problems. There is no one to copy from because each problem is from a unique business with unique circumstances.

Sure we use frameworks, some exercises and dip into inspiration where needed, but we leave copying to everyone else, because a lot of what we deliver is the learning. In fact, the learning is often more important than a prototype.

The job of the prototype, in my view, is as a vehicle to enable users to test out our assumptions so we can learn and adapt before committing and investing.
A Design Sprint we ran last week where we make decisions quickly

Passing on that knowledge

It seems that I’ve learnt my lesson on copying. I’ve shared this with my children, but they actually don’t need it. They’re doing just fine.

It’s the grown-ups that need to know.

I’ve heard so many times first-hand that businesses want to be more like Amazon. They want to succeed like they have done.

Well, I’ve got news for you. Your business or digital product or feature can’t copy what Amazon does.

You don’t have the resources that Amazon has and most of all, you don’t have the same strategy. If you do, you should probably look at that again.

Also, the thing about copying how others do things has a fatal shortcoming. You’ll rarely know why they did it the way that they did. You don’t know their motivations. Copying others negates any chance to discover and learn for yourselves.

What can you do?

I get asked about best practice a lot. Unfortunately, it’s not a solution that you can add in (or copy). It’s more about setting some principles, enabling experimentation and starting the two way conversation between business and customers.

From what I can see though, the businesses that are growing are those that (and I accept the generalisation here):

  • aren’t copying everyone else
  • are embracing the unknown
  • are working fast, making decisions and using time well
  • use feedback loops to learn e.g. testing assumptions with users
Use time as an asset by timing EVERYTHING!

Learning is one of the greatest assets in business. Learn the most and execute upon it, and you’ll reap the benefits.


I learn every week with businesses. I’m a product designer at Etch and I run Design Sprints with teams who have critical business problems to solve, can’t deliver quickly enough or can’t decide on what they should work on next.