Evolutionary Innovation: How We Transform

Innovation is often portrayed as dramatic, disruptive processes and outcomes. That perception might be keeping us from making real transformations.

We need to talk about innovation differently if we want to make it accessible, practical, achievable, and transformative. Much of the current discourse is not helping us get there.

Innovation’s PR issue

Innovation is a maligned, confused term – often associated with invention, technology, disruption, and talent among other positive words. Great ‘innovators’ are described as geniuses, leaders and visionaries while the idea of failure is held in this curious role of serving as a risk to be avoided and an outcome to be celebrated (but not really).

All the while the real benefits of innovation — the learning that comes from creating new things and putting them out into the world — gets dismissed as simply a byproduct on the way to some outcome rather than value on its own.

The language of most of what is popular and published on innovation leads us to believe that innovation is dramatic, often disruptive, and requires special talents and abilities beyond normal people. While a close read finds this to be a gross misrepresentation of what innovation is in practice, the perception is still there.

Changing our language

Disruptive innovation is among the most popular terms describing the process of developing and launching new products or services that change the way an industry operates. While not every innovation is disruptive (most are not), this is held up as a kind of ‘holy grail’ for change-making.

Moonshot is the latest ‘buzzworthy’ term to capture the discussion on innovation and transformation. The anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has . Moonshot isn’t appropriate for what our current challenges are, but then that never stopped anyone before.

By using these concepts to describe innovation we are speaking of a very narrow band of ideas and concepts and consequently set ourselves up for ‘failure’ in a bigger sense — we don’t try, we don’t try wisely, or we inflate and distort the expectations of what we can do and could achieve by using inappropriate models to represent how innovation works and what we can expect from doing innovation work.

Game-changers (another innovation buzzword) are few and far between. Dick Fosbury is one of the few who actually changed the game with his approach to the high jump in athletics in October, 1968. Other than the Fosbury Flop, it’s hard to find many truly game-changing (literal and metaphorical) examples.

Why? Because they are exceedingly rare.

If the bar 🙂 is so high for change, then how likely is it that we are going to leap over it?

From Revolution to Evolution

When we look at the evidence behind how change happens, what we see is that big, transformative changes often happen because of sustained progress that mimics evolution. Like evolution, sustained change isn’t smooth and steady, but spiky, messy and progressive — which is how many natural evolutionary systems work.

Evolution is part disruption, part game-changer, and always in motion. The dynamics of change in evolution make sense for human service organizations that need to adapt and innovate on-the-fly most of the time. What most healthcare, social service, government, and non-profits have to deal with is changing while moving and using design principles that match.

Look at nearly any course on innovation and you’ll see it gets approached as a planned out, largely linear process with some back-and-forth moments, directed at a goal. What the concept of evolutionary innovation does is frame change as less about an explicit goal and more about aiming to sustain, survive and thrive.


Evolutionary innovation recognizes that the goal might not be clear, agreed upon, or is changing rapidly and so the focus is on the survival of the organism (i.e., person, organization, enterprise). That might mean doing something that gives us a great advantage, but at the minimum it helps us keep alive. This is where so many of us find ourselves.

The butterfly is often held as the image of radical transformation. While there is a perceptual leap from one stage to the other, the life cycle of a Monarch butterfly (pictured above) is one of spiky — sometimes literally — evolution between stages. It’s tempting to focus on the big transformations between stages while neglecting the many transformations within stages where so much of the work takes place.

See things differently, talk about them differently, and you may find yourself transforming what you do and not worrying what stage you’re at.

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

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