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How to Innovate Without Invention:

Learning from Darwin

By Shlomo Maital    



 Yorkshire & Lab: Pixie and Trotsky



 Our wonderful mixed-breed mostly-Yorkshire-Terrier Pixie (shown with friend, Trotsky, a Lab) teaches us something about innovation. Yorkshire Terriers were bred for speed, toughness and for catching rats in Yorkshire textile mills. Pixie’s qualities were ‘selected’ by breeders. So were Trotsky’s.

The first chapter of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species (1859)  sets the stage for showing how Nature ‘evolves’ its species through natural selection, by showing how human beings improve upon Nature by ‘domesticating’ species.  This is done, for both plants and animals, as follows.

  • ·         Nature produces small (random) variations.
  • ·         Humans notice them and choose the ones they find useful and helpful for their own purposes.
  • ·         Human select those variations for reproduction, (through seeds, or cuttings, or by mating animals),  rejecting the rest.

  Many such random variations, Darwin notes, are almost imperceptible. But the keen eye of the gardener or farmer or breeder spots them, and patiently strengthens and magnifies them, over the years.  It is not Nature, then, that selects, but human beings, in this case. 

   Chapter One suggests another tool for successful innovation, one that requires only keen powers of observation, and no innate creativity.

   *  Observe variations in how people use products and services, often in ways the producer did not intend.  *  Replicate and standardize those variations by ‘selecting’ them and adapting them.   It is ‘natural selection’, only you, not Nature, are the selector.   

   It’s that simple. 

   Car companies locate design shops in California, and designers scout neighborhoods to see how individuals ‘customize’ their cars, in paint, trim and in other ways. Fashion designers watch trendy neighborhoods.  Intuit (makers of Quicken accounting software) followed users home, to observe how they use their product (they discovered it was used not to balance checkbooks but to run businesses – a crucial discovery).   

   This is another reason for innovators to quickly get their products to market. Only when they are being used can users help you innovate, just as Darwin proposed in Chapter One.   Watch for user-driven innovations. Adapt them.  Then, observe again. You may end up with a winning product, utterly different from the one you began with.  All, through ‘natural selection’. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
April 2012