Clicky

albatrosses v. salmon | The Discipline of Innovation

albatrosses v. salmon

I think that last Friday’s post on ideas being cheap ended up being less clear than I had hoped. Ironically, it’s because I tried to tackle too many ideas at once – which supports my main point, but which detracted from my ability to make it! So I’m going to have another go at just part of it…

albatross_and_chick_400

That part is the contention that we often overvalue our ideas, especially if we only have a few. In many cases, we treat our ideas like albatrosses treat their chicks. Most species of albatross breed only every two years, because the process of raising a chick is so resource intensive. They travel thousands of kilometers on feeding trips to get enough protein to bring back to their quickly growing kid. And after months of nurturing and caring, eventually the parents take off and don’t come back. When the chick gets hungry enough, it eventually tries flying for the first time so that it can head off looking for food on its own. Unfortunately, not all of the young albatrosses are that competent at flying, and if they don’t get too far off shore, they run into a group that gathers every year for the first flights of the albatrosses:

tiger-shark-attack450

Tiger sharks!

And this is the risk with a lot of ideas – if they’re not sound, they don’t fly. This is fine if you are in a stable environment that requires little change, and consequently little variety. How many businesses are in that situation these days?

salmon-spawning

That’s why I say we have to be more like salmon. Salmon generate lots and lots of eggs, and out of the thousands laid, a couple with good genes and lucky circumstances are fortunate enough to grow up to be adults. The odds are pretty low, but once they make it, things are generally pretty good. This is a good strategy for situations where the environment is unpredictable, and you consequently need to generate a lot of variety.

So when we’re thinking about innovation one of the key questions we have to think about is how turbulent is our environment? If the level of uncertainty is high, we need to try a wide variety of ideas. It’s too dangerous to pick just one idea and sink all of our resources into it. We need to try out many ideas, and sink the resources into the ones that show the most promise once we’ve executed.

In a stable environment, it’s fine to be an albatross. But in uncertain times, we need to be salmon!

About Tim Kastelle

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

22 Responses to albatrosses v. salmon

  1. Sam MacAulay 19 May 2009 at 9:35 am #

    Another way to think about this is the problem of searching across a fitness landscape (thought you posted on the fitness landscape stuff earlier, but couldn’t find it…). I like Dan Levinthal’s treatment of this in his work on adaptation on rugged landscapes, but Eric Beinhocker also address this in his book on the origin of wealth. In stable environments (landscape with low ruggedness) we should try to act like an albatross by invest our resources into specialisating in a small number of strategies (e.g. product/ service offerings). But when the environment becomes more rugged and turbulent it pays to move away from the albatross ‘business model’ and shift towards being a salmon. This means investing in broader experimentation (e.g. launching a greater variety of products).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitness_landscape

  2. Tim 19 May 2009 at 9:46 am #

    That’s pretty much exactly what I was getting at Sam! Just wasn’t sure how much I should belabour the fitness landscapes idea. But the more I think about it, the more useful I think it is…

  3. Sam MacAulay 19 May 2009 at 10:14 am #

    For sure! Hmm now all we need is a graphic with two different fitness landscapes and a salmon and an albatross over their respective contexts… :P

  4. Tim 19 May 2009 at 10:18 am #

    That’s EXACTLY what we need Sam! I have the next followup post to this already written and set to autoload at 7 tonight, but I still need a picture for it…. :-D

  5. Sam MacAulay 19 May 2009 at 10:54 am #

    nice!

  6. Amber 20 May 2009 at 8:45 am #

    While I see now how I mistook your original point, it still had me thinking on forcing new ideas when when husband and I went out to a reading by George Pelecanos from his new book. During the questions period, someone did ask how he dealt with writer’s block and he just said that he keeps writing, no matter what. Just putting words on paper made him productive. I thought that matched well with your conclusion that the more ideas that you put out, the more ideas you have. I think that proves true for all fountains of creativity.

  7. Tim 20 May 2009 at 10:43 am #

    I think that’s probably right Amber. Like (I think) I said in the comments last week, for me writer’s block is a case of too many ideas not too few – and just not knowing how to make the ones I’ve got work. So just plowing ahead actually is a really good way to address the issue then…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. talks - invention, innovation & business models « Innovation Leadership Network - 26 May 2009

    [...] related to the posts I’ve made here about the relative importance of ideas (first post, second post). The key takeaway point is that it is not enough to come up with a good idea. From an evolutionary [...]

  2. but that was MY idea! « Innovation « Innovation Leadership Network - 12 October 2009

    [...] generation of variety. So new ideas are important. However, I also think that we frequently place far too much emphasis on the idea part of that process, when in fact selection and replication are the parts that are often more important. They are [...]

  3. implementation « Filter « Innovation Leadership Network - 13 November 2009

    [...] I keep saying – ideas are cheap, and implementations are valuable. We need to find better ways to cycle [...]

  4. the hardest part of innovation « Innovation Strategy « Innovation Leadership Network - 28 November 2009

    [...] John and I have talked about the dangers of over-focusing on idea generation at the expense of execution, so [...]

  5. You Don’t Need Any More New Ideas! « Innovation Strategy « Innovation Leadership Network - 2 January 2010

    [...] so did Braden Kelley on Blogging Innovation. I’ve tried to tell you about it too, using both analogies and statistics. The secret idea of innovation is [...]

  6. You’re too Scared to Innovate « Book Riffs « Innovation Leadership Network - 18 February 2010

    [...] Try a lot of ideas at once so that you don’t get too attached to them – if you only have one idea, the stakes are much higher, even for a cheap and quick [...]

  7. Tweets that mention albatrosses v. salmon « Evolving Economic Entities « Innovation Leadership Network -- Topsy.com - 7 May 2010

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Tropea. John Tropea said: albatrosses v. salmon by @timkastelle – example + metaphor for safe-fail experimentation #adapt #agile #uncertainty http://icio.us/nxf3pi [...]

  8. Library clips :: Enterprise 2.0 : Pilot or experimentation? :: May :: 2010 - 11 May 2010

    [...] The decision-making doesn’t have to be bottom-up, perhaps management agree with a no-cost Proof of Concept as part of the strategy, this is a win for them as they are able to experiment and fail for free, something that was not possible in the enterprise tool arena a couple of years ago. Free hosted sites like Yammer for micro-blogging, and others for blogging, wikis, bookmarking, etc…make all this possible…a move from the Albatross to the Salmon. [...]

  9. Blogging Innovation » You Don’t Need More Innovation Ideas! - 18 January 2011

    [...] so did Braden Kelley here on Blogging Innovation. I’ve tried to tell you about it too, using both analogies and statistics. The secret idea of innovation is [...]

  10. How many new ideas do you need to be innovative? | AMIconsultancy - 20 January 2011

    [...] so did Braden Kelley here on Blogging Innovation. I’ve tried to tell you about it too, using both analogies and statistics. The secret idea of innovation is [...]

  11. Hoeveel nieuwe ideeën heb je nodig als organisatie om innovatief te zijn? | Organisatieverandering-blog - 20 January 2011

    [...] so did Braden Kelley here on Blogging Innovation. I’ve tried to tell you about it too, using both analogies and statistics. The secret idea of innovation is [...]

  12. Don’t Push Rocks, Roll Snowballs « Innovation Leadership Network - 9 March 2011

    [...] is an illusion. Instead of betting everything on one big idea, we’re usually better off trying out a lot of smaller ones – especially if our environment is [...]

  13. A Seven Step Program for Innovating RIGHT NOW! - Innovation for Growth - 9 December 2012

    [...] successes. Try a lot of ideas at once so that you don’t get too attached to them – if you only have one idea, the stakes are much higher, even for a cheap and quick experiment.  And remember what English [...]

  14. A Seven Step Program for Innovating RIGHT NOW! @Medici_Manager @timkastelle « Carlo Favaretti - 8 January 2013

    [...] successes. Try a lot of ideas at once so that you don’t get too attached to them – if you only have one idea, the stakes are much higher, even for a cheap and quick experiment.  And remember what English [...]

Leave a Reply