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…


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 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?


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!

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

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22 thoughts on “albatrosses v. salmon

  1. 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).

  2. 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. 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… 😛

  4. 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…. 😀

  5. 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.

  6. 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…

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