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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’. 

How to Land Planes – And Why America (as always) Lags

By Shlomo Maital   

 air traffic control radar – obsolete?

    It is human nature to want to do things the way they’re always done, because, well, doing things different (and better) means change, and change is often uncomfortable and requires some thinking. 

   Take, for instance, the way planes land.  With expanding air travel, and zero infrastructure investment in America, airports are congested and delays pile up. 

  The old way to land planes uses radar-based air traffic control.  Radar sweeps the air every 6 seconds.  Air controllers watch radar screens and tell pilots what to do.  A jet aircraft can go a long way in six seconds. (At 600 mph, it travels a mile in six seconds).  So air controllers keep wide buffer zones between flights.  Planes get ‘stacked’ and descend in ‘steps’, wasting expensive jet fuel.

   There is a better way.  Use satellite technology (GPS), which tracks position to within 10 meters.  Would you feel safer if your flight were tracked to  10-meter accuracy, rather than 1 mile accuracy?  Using GPS technology to land planes means far less congestion, less fuel wastage, less delay, and better use of airports and landing strips.  Planes simply reach the airport and land directly, guided precisely by GPS.  America’s Alaska Airlines will begin using GPS for landing  at Seattle-Tacoma Airport starting in June.  [Global New York Times, April 4, 2012, p. 17]. 

   Why, then, isn’t GPS landing technology adopted?  Well, of course, money.  It will take huge sums to replace radar-based air control with GPS air control – by one estimate, $42 b. by 2025.  The thing is, if you compute the rate of return, on fuel saving and safety, it’s worth it. 

   GPS landing technology is a strategic operations innovation.   Alaska Airlines is pioneering in it, because it has to land in very bad weather in small Alaska airstrips nestled between mountains.  The GPS “NextGen” technology is a battleground between Federal regulators and airlines about who will foot the bill.  New planes have this technology.  But older ones need retrofits that cost $340,000 per plane.  For fleets of thousands of planes, that’s a fortune.  As airline losses mount, reluctance to spend that cash grows. 

    Perhaps consumer pressure can help.  GPS technology is far safer, and less prone to errors, than air controllers’ radar.  Let air travelers ask their travel agents, is the plane you are booking me on GPS-equipped?  Why not?   Consumer pressure can perhaps accelerate operations innovation,  when the federal government lags.

                                            Crowd-Sourced Businesses: Innovating HOW, Not What!

By Shlomo Maital   


Threadless T-Shirt Designed by User


How do you create great innovative new products?  With a dynamic (and hugely expensive)  (and inevitably expansive) R&D department, right?

●  Not according to, an online-only furniture retailer. It has no inventory, and no warehouse.  Products are crowd-sourced. Visitors to its website submit designs.  The best become prototypes and are posted. Registered members then vote.  The most popular furniture pieces are then made in China, shipped in containers, and delivered to buyers directly from the Port.

●  Founders Jake Nikell and Jacob DeHart launched a “thread”, asking people to post T-shirt designs.  The designer gets cash and some free T-shirts, the best of which can be made.  Ten years later, has nearly $30 m. (2009) in revenue, 1,200 designs a week are submitted, and winners get $2,000 plus $500  in vouchers.

● Fluevog, a Canadian shoe company, launched OpenSource footwear in 2002.  Customers (known as Fluevogers) upload designs.  Winners have shoes named after them. 

   Is this cheap exploitation? Is it destroying the jobs of R&D engineers and designers?  Or is it a new wave of management innovation, one that focuses on the ‘how’ things are done, rather than on the ‘what’ is done? 

    Innovator – can YOU crowd-source a product or service, not currently designed in this way? 

    And, would you WANT to? 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
April 2012