Steven Johnson’s book « Where good ideas come from » details the factors that promote innovation ideas. Of all the interesting concepts that were introduced in this book, “exaptation” was the one that struck me the most. It is the process by which you redirect a technology from its initial function to a new function. It concurs with one of my recommended principles of successful disruptive innovation.What exactly is exaptation?
Both in biology and business, exaptation happens when a given characteristic or ability is redirected from its original function. For instance, feathers first appeared on dinosaurs in order to keep them warm. The Archaeopteryx then used these feathers for flying. Crucially this particular behavior had not originally been provided for by nature.The advantages of exaptation:
Exaptations give you the means to find new growth drivers and to create a sustainable competitive advantage because:
- You reduce access costs to innovation through the use of existing technologies,
- You open up new, unforeseen fields of opportunity by redirecting these technologies towards new applications and uses.
- Salomon’s Trail Running shoes were designed using technologies that Salomon had used for other sports. They are now the standard in Trail Running.
- The GPS was originally designed to guide submarine-launched missiles towards their land destination. Later, when this technology became available for use in the private sector, it was redirected towards several new uses, such as helping motorists find their way.
- Digital Sensors were invented in order to catch starlight in electronic telescopes. They were then used to invent digital cameras.
- Text messages (SMS) were originally intended for maintenance technicians working for telecom operators. They were then made available as a service for the general public.
Disruptive innovations are within reach of small businesses
Exaptations are both a simple and powerful concept. It isn’t absolutely necessary to make massive financial investments to successfully innovate. Exaptations make disruptive innovations accessible, although only if they are part of a well-designed innovation strategy:
- Be attentive to the market and especially to untapped latent needs
- Anticipate market evolutions (with the help of weak signals)
- Think outside the box of prevailing ideas in your sector.
Here is the question that you must ask yourself: Do the technologies at your disposal enable you to prosper on a different market?
Read about another exaptation example: You can order Steven Johnson’s book “Where good ideas come from” on Amazon.