How often do you improve upon the original?

Today is August 25 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you improve upon the original?” American singer Cyndi Lauper and Irish recording artist Sinéad O'Connor both stood out by improving upon an original. Despite Herman Melville’s observation "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation,” navigating the chaos might involve imitating others.


This strategy runs counter to the belief that originality is the only path to success espoused by some, but the reality illustrates otherwise. Those who improved upon the original learned firsthand how such a strategy helped them navigate the chaos.

Take the song Girls Just Want to Have Fun for example. The song was written by Robert Hazard, who recorded only a demo of it in 1979. Hazard's version was written from a male point of view. Four years later, in 1983, American singer Cyndi Lauper released her own version this time from a feminist view conveying the point that all women really want is to have the same experiences that men can. The single was Lauper's breakthrough hit, reaching number two on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and becoming a worldwide hit throughout late 1983 and early 1984.

Irish recording artist Sinéad O'Connor’s remake of "Nothing Compares 2 U" was a song written and composed by Prince for The Family and the song was featured on their eponymous album The Family. O'Connor’s version was released as the second single from her second studio album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. This version, which O'Connor co-produced with Nellee Hooper, became a worldwide hit in 1990. Its music video received heavy rotation on MTV. Its lyrics explore feelings of longing from the point of view of an abandoned lover.

A Star Is Born tells a story that has undergone four adaptations on the big screen — in 1937 with Janet Gaynor, 1954 with Judy Garland, 1976 with Barbra Streisand, and 2018 with Lady Gaga. The latest effort in 2018 was directed by Bradley Cooper, who also stars alongside Lady Gaga, and has earned huge praise from both film critics and audience members.

The newest rendition joins the 1954 version as a critical darling, whereas the 1937 and 1976 efforts fell short in comparison. The critical consensus for the 2018 remake on Rotten Tomatoes reads: "With appealing leads, deft direction, and an affecting love story, A Star Is Born is a remake done right — and a reminder that some stories can be just as effective in the retelling."

The 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon starred Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez and the 1941 rendition featured Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. Although both movies were adaptations of a novel by Dashiell Hammett, the 1941 version blew critics away and earned a perfect critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. "It's all style," wrote film critic Roger Ebert wrote when he revisited the film in 2001. "It isn't violence or chases, but the way the actors look, move, speak and embody their characters."

The unique characteristics of the actors allow the new versions of each work to benefit from the nuanced performances and characteristics of each cast member. While the original version was good, the second version, or perhaps the third or fourth, improved upon the first. In the product business, being first to market is known as the first-mover advantage. Business executives from different industries hold firm to a belief that early entry into a new industry or product category gives any firm an almost insuperable head start. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise.

In their research published in the April 2005 edition of the Harvard Business Review, researchers Fernando Suarez and Gianvito Lanzolla discussed the half-truths associated with being first to market, also known as first-mover advantage and wrote:

“For every academic study proving that first-mover advantages exist, there is a study proving they do not. While some well-known first movers, such as Gillette in safety razors and Sony in personal stereos, have enjoyed considerable success, others, such as Xerox in fax machines and eToys in Internet retailing, have failed. We have found that the differences in outcome are not random—that first-mover status can confer advantages, but it does not do so categorically. Much depends on the circumstances in which it is sought.”

One example of a first to market product that failed to keep pace with competitors was the Palm Pilot. Once upon a time, 'palm pilot' was a generic term for PDAs; such was Palm's early dominance of the field. Palm made any number of mistakes, but its decisive failure was letting innovation slip when its biggest growth market -- smartphones -- was starting to explode.

Palm's Treo was one of the first major smartphones with a color touchscreen, Web browser, etc. But it was a beast. And as rivals introduced more improved products like Apple’s the iPhone in 2007, and Google’s Android in 2008 Palm failed to keep up. Palm plummeted from a 71% market share in 1999 to less than 1% in 2011. In this scenario the original product, the one first to market, meant nothing.

The companies that entered the market late quickly skyrocketed to the top two market share positions and have remained there for years. In 2020, Android had a commanding 87% market share while Apple had 12% with all others at less than one percent. In its projections entitled “Share of global smartphone shipments by operating system from 2014 to 2023” the web site www.statista.com suggests these two will remain atop the field into the foreseeable future.

The important thing to remember is the original can be improved upon. If your product happens to be the market leader, it is your responsibility to keep iterating, improving, and creating your product. If you fail to update your first to market product and make it better than the competition, understand that you could easily find yourself irrelevant sooner than you expected.

How often do you improve upon the original?