Managing Innovation and the California Poppy
Congratulations. Your organization has produced a game-changing innovative product. Customers are buying it in droves; you can hardly keep up with demand – but there are wolves at the door. Competitors might be bigger than you, have more resources, or be more nimble. This is not the time to rest on your laurels.
Invasive plants, and their evolutionary history, can shed a lot of light on such challenges in human organizations. The California poppy is native to western U.S. and Mexico, but was introduced to Chile in the 19th century. For any individual poppy lineage to be successful in its new range, it needed:
1) Be flexible enough to thrive in all sorts of novel conditions and/or
2) Change (genetically differentiate) to take advantage of new opportunities.
Truth is, when you’re the only game in town, you might not notice if you are poorly adapted to your marketplace. When California poppies first arrived in Chile, they began colonizing all that unoccupied space. There was room enough for everybody. But then some poppies produced twice as many seeds as others. Eventually, less fecund lineages had nowhere to grow. The population as a whole in Chile evolved to make more seeds than plants back in North America.
There are many ways plants can adapt. For example, they might hybridize (produce offspring with traits from two species) – can your organization collaborate to produce something unique?
Plants might specialize (become really good at a narrow range of environmental conditions) – can you be the very best at a certain aspect in your marketplace? Or plants can be flexible.
Once the open space is used up, the most successful strategy might not be to make the most seeds anymore but to compete for scarce resources – can your organization switch strategies as the marketplace changes?
Like plants, human organizations are engaged in a race without a finish line. Only by keeping moving can you stay ahead.
For more reading on this subject, I recommend Rafe Sagarin’s Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease.
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