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Three innovation metaphors from Jardin des Plantes in Paris

20131201-190537.jpg On a quiet Sunday afternoon, I roam the gardens and exhibition halls of Jardin des Plantes in Paris. In the glasshouses, I stumble on three statements about the evolution of ancient forests and life in today’s ones, which instantly resound in my ears as three innovation metaphors.

1. As plants first emerged from the sea in the Silurian and Devonian periods (440 to 350 million years ago) and started to spread on land, which by definition was desert at the time, they had to develop a strategy to resist the over exposure to sun and heat, and avoid dessication. Such strategy consisted in the development of:

– a cuticle, a waxy layer that slow down evaporation;
– stomatas that enable gas exchanges (O2 and CO2) with the atmosphere;
– an internal vascular system, a water circulation system that reaches out to all parts of the plant.
Likewise, the innovation leader knows that all members of the innovation team requires watering and nourishing, which comes from constantly exchanging with the external environment – the innovation team’s ecosystem – as well as circulating knowledge internally. But for all its openness, the team also needs to develop something of a thick skin to resist over-exposure to the inevitable short-termism of business.

2. In the late Permian period, 250m years ago, as climate got drier, the coniferous forest gradually replaced the cordaitales and more ancient species growing in carboniferous swamps (from which coal and oil originate). The coniferous species developed a new reproduction concept – the nut – whose ability to let the seed live in slow mode for a long time is key to enabling long distance transport (by water, wind or even animals) and colonizing far lands.
Today, the innovation leader knows about nuts in more than one way. First the innovation team needs a few ‘nuts’ amongst its members to foster creativity and the emergence of wacky ideas. But it also needs to protect new ideas and let them incubate, that is to say, live in slow mode until they reach the right place and time to crack open and grow. As I wrote a few years ago, you do not grow a plant by pulling at it

3. In our lifetime, we do not get to observe evolution on geological scale of course, but we can still observe how the forest regenerates itself. As a tall and ancient tree is thrown by storm and crashes spectacularly amongst smaller trees, destroying many of them in its path, a large scar appear in the forest. But this scar enables the sunlight to reach the soil. Dormant seeds of various species – some similar to the dead tree, others entirely different – respond to this sudden increase of sunlight and germinate. Other plants that had already germinated but whose growth was limited by lack of space and light enjoy a sudden burst of growth. Eventually, the scar disappears as a new mix of species fills the place where the old tree fell.
In economics, Schumpeter popularized the concept of creative destruction to explain the first phase of the innovation process. The innovation leader knows that new life will not only replace what has been destroyed, but, more profundly, that destruction is needed for new life to emerge.

As I enjoy the Belle Epoque surroundings of Jardin des Plantes and its Natural History Museum, that last lesson sounds almost prophetic: the country is in the throws of an economic crisis from which it will eventually emerge, but not before it has let some of its outdated social and economic models and organisations crash to ground, however painful that may be in the short term. Whatever timescale we may use – geological or human – evolution is a never ending story of demise of old species and rise of those whose time has come.

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