“Never try to sell a meteor to a dinosaur. It wastes your time and annoys the dinosaur.”
One of my friends tagged me in a tweet with the above quote a few weeks ago, and my mind has continued to consider its broader meaning. Herein some quick thoughts on radical innovation as related to existing organizations and organisms…
Ideas are like genes. There are some differences between my particular genes and yours (called ‘alleles’), but we both have all the same basic genes for the necessary function of humans. Now there is some cross-species swap-ability (remember the researchers who created a glow-in-the-dark cat?), but even that is limited to variants of non-essential functions of what a given species has evolved to do.
Thus it is very important to understand that genes exist in the context of a whole organism. Genes do not work in isolation, but as a highly evolved and tested set of combined genetic attributes that go well together to the specific benefit of the species carrying them. Gills are pretty useful on a fish, but would NOT be very useful on a buffalo.
Why is this relevant? Yes, don’t try to sell a meteor to a dinosaur, but don’t try to insert fur genes into its genome either.
I see too many people and organizations wasting time trying to insert counter-self-interest genes into an incumbent host. A better alternative is to experiment with fur genes in a new species of cute little things you can call mammals. Then expose these full genomes to reality, and let the environment (i.e. market) ‘select’ for the combinations worthy of scale based on how useful they actually are in combination with other genes of the organism.
Although every startup has at least one unique idea, it is surrounded by a whole host of genes in other technologies or business model elements that allow that novel gene to best express itself. Even better, to the dinosaur, the furry little startup creatures are laughable and not even annoying… at first anyway. This allows startups to test and perfect their genes before having to fight off dinosaurs. They may get stepped on, but they will rarely get chased (until later).
Now it makes complete sense for the dinosaur to go the gym, and even develop genetic innovations that complement its existing phenotype (i.e. ‘sustaining’ innovation). It can even be an excellent evolutionary strategy to disrupt your neighbors or competitors. But I have yet to see a natural or synthetic species that was actually successful in eating itself (i.e. self-disruptive innovation). Hopefully the metaphor makes it clear why that might be.
When the meteor does hit, the dinosaur is going to have its work cut out for it trying to cope with cold weather – at which point it may indeed be annoyed by all those furry little animals scurry around under its feet… only to watch them ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as he takes his last breath.
So if you’re trying to create truly disruptive innovation in your human organism…
Do invest in and nurture fur genes in a portfolio of small mammals. It’s a whole lot less work than trying to sell the dinosaur a meteor. The coolest thing is that the dinosaur won’t even notice, and you’ll get a few de-risked growth options if and when the weather changes. Later, you might even be able to make some nice cash selling fur coats to the dinosaurs - as long as you don’t mistake that opportunity for a long-term growth business ;-).