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Managing Exaptation to Foster Business Opportunities

Coming up with innovative products and services is, and has been, notoriously difficult… is a change of perspective in order? Exaptation deals exactly with this problem.

The etymology of the word “exaptation” has its roots in paleontology, and refers to a process in which a biological structure, most commonly a feature, acquires functions different from what it has originally evolved for (Gould and Vrba, 1982). An easy example would be wings and feathers, initially evolved for heat regulation, later becoming a required factor for flying. By following this reasoning, the same concept can be applied to different areas, in our case the business world (e.g., Andriani and Cattani, 2016).

The exaptation mentality in business fosters innovation in a unique way, by inducing a change not in the process or product, but in how it could be employed, without any influence from new necessities or demands. This is exactly how microwave ovens came to be, the function of the magnetron tube remained the same, it was simply harnessed and put to a different use. The application of exaptation in companies follows the same principle, and it has usually been applied in the R&D departments to foster innovation, analyze it, and hopefully replicate it. This might seem like the obvious course of action, but it is easy to see how forced of a fit is, in fact yielding negligible results. However, some overlooked areas have come under study, namely data, skills, and employees’ tacit knowledge (De Sordi et al., 2019). The functional shift of these areas would be crucial to business development and sustainability, not to mention the impact which they would have on organizational structures and the whole concept of organization. Another crucial aspect is the high synergistic potential of these areas with new technologies and techniques, especially AI. The combination of these two worlds would provide benefit for more than just the involved parties, in fact it would be the testing ground of something completely new and revolutionary, affecting management itself.

Truly understanding exaptation implies the overcoming of our bias towards “aptation” and “adaptation”. In fact, these are quintessentially problem-solving mechanisms designed to give an answer to a question, in a direct manner, taking into account efficiency and efficacy. Instead, exaptation flips the whole concept on its head and actually questions these aforementioned processes, namely their terminal state; once a result has been achieved, what problem has been solved? The direct answer seems quite easy; however, if we spend enough time pondering, many more nuances will start to come alive. We are used to system-giving answers to our questions fulfilling our needs as results, but how can one deal with the opposite? What is a feasible course of action to better understand and harness this mechanism? The key to unlock the true potential of exaptation stands in understanding its logic and its reverse causation relationship between form and function, which goes against what we all have been taught and used to. Once this has been done, one gains the ability to identify these situations and benefit from them.

As good as all this sounds, it becomes worthless if not implemented, or if not implemented correctly for that matter. Managers need to be trained to exercise their minds and eyes to spot these opportunities and tackle them, but, more than anything, spot the effectuation possibilities hidden between the lines. Entrepreneurs following an effectuation logic, paired with an exaptational mindset, will find themselves very much ahead of the competition and will most likely represent the majority of entrepreneurs in the coming years.

Do you think exaptation is applicable to contemporary organizations?

Do you think managers will stray away from exaptation? If so why? Because of a lack of knowledge or fear of replacement?

What do you think about the two highlights introduced above?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you!


Suggested Readings

Andriani, P., & Cattani, G. (2016). Exaptation as source of creativity, innovation, and diversity: Introduction to the Special Section. Industrial and Corporate Change, 25: 115–131.

De Sordi, J. O., Nelson, R. E., Meireles, M., Hashimoto, M., & Rigato, C. (2019). “Exaptation in management: Beyond technological innovations.” European Business Review, 31(1): 64–91.

Gould, S. J., & Vrba, E. (1982). “Exaptation—A missing term in the science of form”. Paleobiology, 8: 4–15.

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