Heterogamy Strategy for Innovation

Steven Johnson writing in Where good ideas come from:

The water flea Daphnia lives in most freshwater ponds and swamps. Its spasmodic movements in the water are responsible for the flea” description, but in reality Daphnia are tiny crustaceans, no more than a few millimeters long. Under normal considtions, Daphnia reproduce asxually, with females producing a brood of identical copies of themselves in a tiny pouch. In this mode, the Daphnia community is composed entirely of females. This reproductive strategy proves to be stunningly successful: in warm summer months, Daphnia will often be one of the most abundant organisms in a pond ecosystem.

But when the conditions get tough, when droughts or other ecological disturbances happen, or when winter rolls in, the water fleas make a remarkable transformation: they start producing males and switch to reproducing sexually. In part, this switch is attributable to the sturdier eggs produced by sexual reproduction, which are more capable of surviving the long months of winter.

But scientists believe that the sudden adoption of sex is also a kind of biological innovation strategy: in challenging times, an organism needs new ideas to meet those new challenges. Reproducing asexually makes perfect sense during prosperous periods: if life is good, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t mess with success by introducing new genetic combinations. But when the world gets more challenging–-scarce resources, predators, parasites –- you need to innovate. And the quickest path to innovation lies in making novel connections.

This strategy of switching back and forth from asexual to sexual reproduction goes by the name heterogamy,” and while it is unusual, many different organisms have adopted it. Slime molds, algae, and aphids have all evolved heterogamous reproductive strategies.

In each organism, the Daphnia pattern repeats itself: the genetic recombinations of sex emerge when conditions get difficult. Swapping genes with another organism is itself more difficult than simple cloning, bit the innovation rewards of sex outweigh the risks of the more stable path.

When nature finds itself in need of new ideas, it strives to connect, not protect.

I find this extraordinary in terms of the biological pattern and the connection that Johnson has made in terms of innovation strategy.

This is the classic dilemma for organisations to exploit the status quo” or explore the new” // the performance engine vs the innovation engine // efficient delivery vs efficient learning. What effort should we put in which side of the coin?

It is very true that when organisations are in challenging situations the need for innovation goes up, same as the Daphne. These are the kind of organisations who are most ready to change.


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