Beyoncé and the Risks and Rewards of Imitating Innovation

Written by Lisa Hrabluk

Best-selling author. Award-winning journalist. Purpose-led entrepreneur. Find me hanging out where culture, people and ideas collide.

February 17, 2023

Grammy voters just might break your soul if you’re a long-time Beyoncé fan.

Earlier this month, Beyoncé, arguably the most influential person in music, broke the record for most Grammy wins, earning her 29th, 30th, 31st, and 32nd Grammy awards for Renaissance, an album of celebration, both for the end of lockdowns and the original Black queer artists who created the dance genre in the 1970s.

Like 2016’s Lemonade, Renaissance was the album of the year with the greatest reach and influence.

What it wasn’t was the Grammy’s pick for Album of the Year (best production) or Record of the Year (best performance).

In retrospect, we shouldn’t be surprised because Beyoncé, the great innovator, doesn’t lose to just anyone. She loses to a particular type of performer: master imitators.

This year it was Harry Styles and Lizzo, two talented and popular artists – I offer no shade to either – but in whose music you can hear the direct influence of other artists, including Beyoncé, who Lizzo thanked in her acceptance speech.

Beyoncé is open about her influences, too; however, she takes those influences and mixes and mingles them together to create something new.

That’s the definition of innovation, and it is a rare talent.

According to evolutionary biology, in all societies across history, imitators far outnumber innovators because that’s how humans learn: we copy.

Most human advancement comes through making incremental changes to our collective body of knowledge; those big bangs of disruptive innovation are the exception, not the rule.

Humanity’s success comes when we work together, creating innovations and building on them.

Rarely do we find all these talents in one person, hence the need to collaborate.

We don’t need to choose between Beyoncé, Harry, and Lizzo; we need all of them.

But there’s a catch.

For us to build up rather than tear down innovations, we need to agree on what we are working towards.

We need to identify our shared values and then put them to work creating economic and social value.

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet understands that.

Back in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, he succinctly stated how good innovation goes bad courtesy of what he calls the three ‘I’s: innovators, imitators and idiots.

Innovators see what others don’t, imitators copy the work of the innovators, and idiots drain the original innovation of its value through their greed and self-interest.

The changepoint lies in the middle with the imitators. If they and the original innovators have a shared set of values, the imitators’ work will build on and improve the original innovation. That’s how we travelled from Marconi to Lazaradis, from trans-Atlantic telegraphs to transglobal Blackberries.

However, if the imitators are driven by a different set of values and purpose, they risk diluting the original innovation either with intent or not, making it easier for the idiots to strip the innovation of its original value and impact through greed and self-interest.

We see this clearly in the products we buy, the difference in value between the original and the cheap knockoffs. We also hear it in our music, in the difference between masters of their art and the idiots who seek to capitalize through poor imitations.

In organizational, economic and societal systems, the absence of shared values is reflected in systemic failures.

When we can’t define our shared values, we expose ourselves to two significant threats.

First, we risk power shifting to external forces that dilute, usurp or corrupt the original innovation in service of their self-interested goals. That’s Buffet’s misaligned imitators and idiots at work.

Second, that inability to identify shared values and purpose can lead to disillusion, apathy and powerlessness, and into that values vacuum steps larger self-interested forces to define and reframe the story through their self-interested lens. This is how history is written by the victors, and some people get marginalized.

Like those Black queer artists in the 1970s, creating a new sound in underground clubs in New York City that reflected their values but which was overtaken by the larger culture in service to its larger straight, white story.

Until last year, when Beyoncé created Renaissance.

An album influenced by Black queer artists and co-created with them, merging and mixing their original values of freedom, confidence and self-expression to create something new that we can all share, recognize and value.

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