Invasive Principles #1: Start Small and United

Invasive species are the disruptive innovators of the natural world.  They share certain characteristics that can be applied to principles for innovation in the business world. In a March 2010 post I introduced this theory at greater length and promised that I would describe the invasive principles in future posts. A year later, here is the first of 8 such posts, extolling the virtues of thinking small...

Most invasive species arrive on foreign shores small in numbers and, interestingly, in physical size.  Smallness seems to be an advantage for these potential invaders as it means that they need fewer resources to survive in uncertain circumstances, and that they can stay unobtrusive, less likely to attract the attention of competitors, predators and parasites.

Small founder populations often also have far less genetic variability than the populations from which they came, typically because they all come from one or only a few females.  Variability improves the fitness of a population against disease, but similarity seems to confer two even greater benefits for invaders:  Firstly, the individuals, even plants, recognize each other as kin and are more likely to cooperate for the good of the group as a whole at a time when the group’s survival is not yet assured.  Secondly, a genetic mutation that increases the likelihood of an individual’s success is typically spread across a small population far more rapidly than a large one, making the small population better adapted as a whole.

Invasive Argentine ants in the Western United States, for example, are nearly genetically identical to one another (and we’re talking billions of ants here).  They are thought to have first come across to the United States from Argentina in the 1890s and all subsequent generations are descended from the first founding queen.  In their native Argentina they have much higher levels of variability and will attack neighboring nests, thus controlling the population size.  In the USA however an ant from one nest can live in a neighboring nest without harm.  Physically they are tiny but fierce and have displaced many local ants up to 10 times larger than they are.

Acting small in business allows you to make initial progress without committing significant resources to an unproven idea, makes it easier to adapt that idea to the opportunities and constraints presented by the business ecosystem, reduces the likelihood of unwanted attention from would-be competitors as well as critics and naysayers, and helps increase the chances of alignment within your team.

The benefits of smallness apply to product and service offerings as well as organizations.  Curves gyms need only 1,000 square feet and as few as 150 members to be profitable in some markets, which means that they can serve small, previously overlooked communities.  Once the concept was proven at its two original locations it quickly spread to more than 10,000 worldwide since its inception in 1994, making Curves the world’s largest health and fitness franchise.