“Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change… these are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.” (Thomas Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Chapter 8, The Response to Crisis).
Invasive species in nature are, literally, outsiders. They travel from their native habitats, often hitching a lift from our global transportation, trade and tourism networks, to arrive in an unfamiliar place possibly thousands of miles from home. In the USA alone, killer bees from Africa via Brazil, kudzu from Japan, hydrilla from China, the gypsy moth from Europe, argentine ants from, well, Argentina are among hundreds of alien species that have become invasive. Of course the traffic is not all one way. The rosy wolf snail, native to Florida, is now found in nearly all Pacific and Indian Ocean island systems and is classified as one of the world’s 100 most invasive species.
Now, being an outsider is as tough in nature as it is in human societies. In fact it is estimated that only about one in a thousand alien species become invasive. And that’s because outsiders face significant obstacles all along the way, including:
a long, arduous journey often experienced under inhospitable conditions;
an unfamiliar and potentially hostile climate in their new “home”;
unfamiliar and potentially poisonous food and energy sources;
new predators, competitors, parasites and diseases (eventually).
But they also have three major advantages over the natives whose ecosystems they invade, if they are bold and hardy enough to exploit them.
Firstly, they have no co-evolved relationships or affinities with any of the native species and thus have no commitment to the status quo. They are not bound into the complex web of interactions that lead, over time, to a dynamic but stable ecosystem.
Secondly, when invasive species leave their native land they also usually also leave behind their own predators, parasites, competitors and disease vectors. For a while then they often have no one to protect themselves from and can focus all their energies on offensive, rather than defensive, strategies.
Thirdly, the natives often have no defenses against them or the diseases they carry with them. It’s a reasonable enough assumption that you can’t defend against something of which you have no prior experience, knowledge, or immunity, and in fact experiments have shown that fear of predators in prey animals is a learned behaviour, not an innate one.
In business, as well as in other human pursuits, these advantages translate into “outsider” prescriptions for innovators:
Challenge the status quo and orthodoxies that exist in your company and industry to find its blind-spots. Often the greatest opportunities for innovation exist precisely in those areas where no one’s looking;
Refocus on competing with the new rather than protecting the old. No one’s job should be protection. Everyone’s job should be improvement, addition or replacement;
Be informed and be prepared. The chances are that the greatest threat to your long term success will come not from the usual suspects but from something small and not very threatening. Yet.
About all of which, more to come…