This column will change your life: Is it really a case of innovate and die?

Among business gurus, few things are as unquestioned as the notion that innovation is the route to success. "Innovate or die!" goes one mantra, usually followed by a hackneyed reference to everyone's favourite innovator, Thomas Edison, whose persistence resulted in the invention of the lightbulb. (What appeared above his head when he got the idea?) Yet if innovation was a surefire way for companies to achieve dominance, the world – or consumer capitalism, anyway – might look very different. If you're British, you're unlikely to have eaten a burger at White Castle, the chain that invented fast food; it's even less likely you've drunk RC Cola, the first cola, or paid for either with a Diners Club card: all were innovators, now long eclipsed. Nor, if you're wondering, am I writing this on a Remington Rand computer.

The cult of originality isn't restricted to the world of business, but that's where it's at its most acute: all that much-mocked talk of "blue-sky" thinking ism an ode to innovation. And it's in the world of business where one scholar, the management theorist Oded Shenkar, has begun to point out the elephant in the room, which is that innovation often simply isn't the key to success. McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Mastercard were all, to borrow the title of his new book, copycats – not primarily innovators, but imitators. There are countless other examples: Apple and Microsoft, for starters. Shenkar wants "to change the mindset that imitation is an embarrassing nuisance". Rather, it's a "rare and complex" capability, one we could all do with cultivating. Which is – yes – a rather innovative viewpoint on the matter.

The upsides of unoriginality are clear: imitators let others make the costly mistakes, and if they're clever enough, can incorporate the lessons learned into a far better product. (Exhibit A: the iPod.) Across history, Shenkar notes, this is how societies have developed: civilisation-altering inventions, such as the waterwheel and the compass, were invented only once or twice across the globe. Mostly, they spread through imitation. Humans actually didn't reinvent the wheel, or at least not very much.

The phenomenon is generalisable, surely, beyond corporate life. What one economist called the "God of innovation" is present in every political speech promising "new ideas", in every exhortation to "live an unconventional life", and in everyone who's ever vowed to do things differently from the previous generation. The implication is that newness is inherently good, but often the opposite is true, because the passage of time acts as a filter, getting rid of what doesn't work. There's a parallel with the film critic Anthony Lane's argument that the ideal cultural diet consists of "trash and classics" – works that have stood the test of time and works that were never intended to. By this standard, new literary fiction or arty films don't make the cut: they haven't yet proven themselves.

Put like this, the idea that newness and innovation aren't always indicators of merit begins to seem obvious. But it's striking how often we seem to forget that there's no automatic benefit in being unconventional. (Anyway, aren't people who strive to be unconventional as controlled by convention as conventional people?) As the psychologist Paul Watzlawick put it, with pungent brilliance: "Maturity… is the ability to do something even though your parents have recommended it."

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