Dave Snowden

Exaptation & managed serendipity: II

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In this second of three posts on exaptation I am going to continue to build on reporting discussions and ideas that came out of the Durham conference.  In the final post I'll pick up on what I presented (and what I wish I had thought of presenting at the time) on managed serendipity.

Probably the most difficult thing for people to grasp about exaptation is that it means that many things did not evolve for a purpose; survival of the fortuitous not survival of the fittest (which goes a long way to understanding the British Class system, but I will leave that for now).   There is also a different between exaptation in biology, in culture and in technology although they overlap.  Of course in a purist sense technology as a tool is a part of culture.  However here I am making a distinction between ideas/values/myths and tools.

Michael O'Brian (Anthropology, University of Missouri) made two interesting distinctions between on the one hand adaptation of hitchhiking, and then between invention and innovation.  

  • Understanding if a trait is an adaption to meet circumstance or something that has simply picked up a ride is obviously important.  Crohn's desease for example can be seen as a result of a dietary adaption when Humans first grew crops which then pulled along other less desirable genetic changes in its wake.  I can see several cultural analogues for this, including examples in organisational change and strategic intent.  
  • Invention, O'Brian argued, is a physical thing involving mutation, while innovation are a change in the way we think.  The first is easy, the second more difficult.  nbsp;It links with Moore's idea of crossing the chasm, creating something is easy compared with getting it adopted.  Ironically I would argue that its also difficult to stop something getting adopted.  Think of fashions, fads etc.   There is no rhyme or reason to this, it just happens then with the benefits of hindsight the popular management writers create recipes for the naive.

Another important point made in different ways of Paolo Saviotti (Grenoble Economics) and Peter Allen (Cranfield Complexity Management Centre) was that there is adaption to the external environment and also adaption (of humans in the main) of the external environment.  Peter talked about “bundles of traits that have emergent properties” and he and I were both arguing strongly for a recognition that his is non-causal but dispositional.   That is to say you can understand possible patterns but there is no cause and effect chain.  This is key to understanding innovation and one of the reasons I decided not to join Pfizer by the way – they were creating a process to repeat the viagra moment, they had not realised the criticality of serendipity and had been seduced by one of the large consultancy first into implementing the sort of KM system I despised then and detest now.  Paolo produce a nice list of innovation types:

  • Discontinuous, paradigms, trajectories
  • Radical, incremental
  • Diversity, variety
  • Structure change
  • Co-evolution
  • Efficiency, creativity

Peter made the strong point that symmetry breaking is key to innovation – something by the way that we have developed as a capability within SenseMaker® – and that no one can know what will happen when you break it.

There were some new terms for me at least.  Jamie Tehrani (Anthropology, Durham) introduced the ideas of skeuomorphism as a parallel process to exaptation.  This happens a lot in architecture where a decoration is derived from an original structural purpose, the form persists after its utility is no more.  The definition is that the form has little or no purpose in the new material but was essential to the object in the old material.  Now there is something that we can talk about in slow moving companies.  Interestingly skeuomorphs may not degenerate in the way that vestigial traits do which gives rise to one of the other cultural/biological differences.

The final discussion/presentation I was able to listen to, before the need to hike to the station intruded, was from Greger Larsen (Archaeology, Durham) on exaptation and domestication.  He referenced Belyaev's experiments on breeding foxes for tameness.  With 15 generations he developed a generic set of traits.  The adaptionist would look at specific traits to argue the utility of its development.  However it would appear that there are generic features of domestication which challenge this. One of those is diversity and we can compare the number of forms of a wolf with those of dogs (hence my opening picture).  Domestication means we select for novelty, and this seems to be a human trait, to look for things which are different.  Synanthropes (presented by Gary King as I was leaving) are species of wild animals that live near to or are dependent on humans.  That relationship can be facultative, typical or obligate; and that again gives us a fertile metaphor.

So that is it on my reporting of what I picked up, again the summary is my responsibility, the originality that of my colleagues at the event.  In my next and final post on this I will summarise not only what I said, but also some of my thinking of how this feeds into new methods and new uses for SenseMaker®.   A lot of this will get its first outing at the new advanced course :which does not require prior attendance on the basic by the way if you are prepared to do a little advance reading.