Innovation and Punctuated Equilibrium

Dietrich Kappe

This post was previously on the Pathfinder Software site. Pathfinder Software changed its name to Orthogonal in 2016. Read more.

maaikeIn my last post about innovation, I referred to Clayton Christensen and his concepts of sustaining versus disruptive innovation. It reminded me a little bit of the concept of punctuated equilibrium in evolution.

The idea is simple: suppose you have a bunch of monkeys working in an office. You have the executive monkeys who eat healthy meals and exercise at lunch time. Then you have the office drone monkeys who go outside into the rain and cold for smoke breaks and eat gyros and fries for breakfast. The executive monkeys have nice glossy coats, get the best mates and have nice condos in desirable parts of town. The drone monkeys…not so much.

While the executive monkeys only evolve slowly, as various members drop dead of coronaries before being able to reproduce, the smoke break monkeys are exposed to much harsher conditions, evolve in some surprising and menacing ways, then stage a Bolshevik revolution (punctuation!!) and eat the executive monkeys’ brains.

They then become executive monkeys, kick the smoking habit, suppress the surviving executive monkeys into the role of an office drone, and the whole thing happens all over again.

Now innovation isn’t genetics, but the concepts are surprisingly similar. Sustaining innovation is gradual, while disruptive innovation enters the market at the low end before moving up market and displacing the incumbents.

So, the next time you’re tempted to scoff at your small fry competition, pause for thought. They may be evolving more quickly than you are.

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