Imitation Strategies and Competitive Advantage

Researchers Dr Jan-Michael Ross and Dr Dmitry Sharapov

Duration: October 2012 – Present

Market environments are often highly uncertain and subject to frequent changes. Predicting a competitor’s next move can be difficult, if not impossible. Waiting until these uncertainties are resolved may not be an option. In such settings, businesses have to make short- and long-term decisions that take competition into account, while aligning these decisions with their own internal capabilities and technological position.

This stream of research develops insights into how imitation can work as a defensive strategy to stay ahead of rivals. Using simulation models as well as data from head-to-head (match) and fleet sailing races in the America’s Cup World Series 2011-2013, our projects in this area leverage the parallels between business and sports. The strategic and tactical moves made by the leader of a sailing race can provide valuable insights for companies on how we think about the intense battle for market leadership with insights for multiple industries.

Though imitation strategies are often negatively associated with ‘copycat’ tactics, insights from this work provide managers with new arguments that illustrate the benefits of imitation as a competitive strategy. By developing mechanisms that take different type of contingencies of competitive interactions into account, this project advances theories that explain the performance outcomes of competitive dynamics.

Key Research Questions:

  • When do imitation strategies help leaders to stay ahead?
  • In settings with multiple competitors, which rival should be the focus of imitative efforts?
  • What evidence exists from different competitive contexts that can be used by business leaders in various industries?


  • Ross J.-M., Sharapov D.2015. When the leader follows: Avoiding dethronement through imitation,Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 58(3):658-679.
  • The working paper ‘Whom should the leader imitate in multiple competitor settings? A contingency perspective” was selected for inclusion in the Academy of Management 2015 Best Paper Proceedings and received the “Distinguished Paper Award” (Business Policy and Strategy division).
  • Nominated for the SMS Best Conference Paper Award at SMS 34thAnnual International Conference” in Madrid 2014.
  • Included in AoM Best Paper Proceedings 2013.