Where Science Meets Muse

At Least 12 Lessons in Innovation From Flowers

Posted by Plish on November 13, 2010

I was reading an article yesterday, don’t even remember what it was about, but my mind went to when I was a kid and I became fascinated with cross-pollinating my mom’s African Violets.  I was constantly trying to come up with cool color combos of white and purples – something new: Innovation, African Violet Style…

Usually when people speak about innovation and plants, the metaphor is one of seeds and planting.  I like that metaphor, but one that is even more rich is the metaphor of pollination.  After all, pollination is the process by which flowers reproduce.  It’s how flowers survive (and have survived for millions of years!).  The mixing of genetic material results in new fruit, new flowers that have  the best (and/or worst) of the parent plants.  It’s just like ideas.  Different ideas commingle and the result is often a fantastic amalgam of the parent ideas.

Not surprisingly,  the innovation/pollination metaphor can be taken much further.  But, before we do, let’s do a quick primer in plant reproductive biology.

Pollen (see the diagram below), which originates on the Anthers of the Stamen,  gets carried via various mechanisms, to the Stigma of the Pistil.  Once Pollen lands there, a tube grows down the Style so that the sperm nuclei can be conducted to the ovules.  That’s it.   Fertilization occurs and a fruit is the result.   

To flesh out some more ways in which innovation is like pollination, I made a simple mindmap describing  various types of flowers and the processes by which fertilization occurs.  Here it is:

Click for a Larger Version

So, how else can we learn to innovate by looking at the pollination metaphor? Let’s walk around the above mindmap starting at the lower right and flesh this out.

  1. Wind.  It’s effective for some plants, but not for all.  Plants that use the wind usually don’t rely on much else and they usually don’t have fancy flowers.  The wind does all the work and the rest is up to chance.  You probably don’t want your innovation to rely on chance encounters and gusts of wind.
  2. That being said, unintentional pollination isn’t necessarily bad, especially if it wouldn’t happen any other way.  In nature this happens with passing critters.  In business it can happen through two ways.  First, by bringing in ideas and people from a totally unrelated industry and making them part of your idea generation processes.  The second way is to fill your mind with unrelated information from disparate fields.  Both ways work.
  3. Many flowers aren’t passive in attracting bugs and animals into their reproductive process, and neither should you be – make innovation intentional.   Flowers use color, scent, food and deception to engage bystanders.  What does this mean for us?  Some colors are more conducive to idea generation and group dynamics.  Scents can inspire and revolt and even bring people together.  Don’t believe me?  Pop some popcorn in a microwave and see what happens.  Which brings me to food.  Food, groups and idea generation go hand in hand in hand.  What about deception and mimicry? What I don’t mean is to tell people they’ll get $10000 for the best idea and then give them nothing in return.  What I do mean is that when ideas come at us head on, we have a tendency to a) think the solution is obvious, or b) become overwhelmed.   To avoid these problems, disguise problems as originating in a different domain and then solve them.  The change in framing can work wonders.
  4. Intentional Human Pollination- Some people have honed their abilities to come up with creative and implementable ideas more quickly. There’s nothing wrong with using them.
  5. There are specialists in similar and in disparate fields – again, nothing wrong with using them.
  6. Proximity.  For pollination to occur there needs to be other flowers in the area that can receive the pollen. These can be on different plants or the same plants, or even in the same flower!  While innovation can occur over longer distances, there’s something to be said for stacking the deck in your favor by creating opportunities for interaction of ideas.  Look at number 3 again.
  7. Volume. Plants create a lot of pollen.  To innovate you need to have a lot of ideas.  Just as most pollen isn’t used for fertilization but instead goes back into the ecosystem as nutrition for future generations, so too, the majority of ideas won’t make it, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful for future projects or other businesses.
  8. Stamens protrude and the Anthers sit on thin, flimsy Filaments.  This is so they can be pushed and prodded and increase the chances of pollen being liberated.  How flexible are your innovation processes?  Is the system biased towards the liberation and exchange of ideas?
  9. The Pistil also protrudes and the Stigma is often sticky.  Giver and receiver work in tandem in the plant world and it should be that way in innovation as well.  The Stigma wants to receive pollen and it’ll receive it and go to work with what it gets.  Are people in your business open to receiving?  Are they just waiting for an idea so they can run with it and make wonderous things happen?
  10. Some flowers are called, ‘imperfect’ – they are either male or female.  It’s like that in a culture of innovation.  Not everyone is giver and receiver, some can only be one or the other.  That’s okay!
  11. Perfect flowers are those that have male and female parts.  Yet, many of these plants have elaborate  Pistil/Stamen arrangements so as to prevent self-fertilization.  What about our innovation efforts?  Sometimes it might be better to keep some internal differentiation within a group to prevent self-pollination.
  12. There are other plants that do self-fertilize and are amazingly efficient at duplicating themselves.  The dandelion is a prime example…’nuff said.

These are just 12 ways we can use the pollination metaphor to improve upon our innovation efforts.  What others can you think of?

3 Responses to “At Least 12 Lessons in Innovation From Flowers”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Plishka, Alltop Innovation. Alltop Innovation said: At Least 12 Lessons in Innovation From Flowers http://bit.ly/aZ0YpN […]

  2. Brilliant innovative thinking, as usual and as expected.

    Glad to read this.


  3. Plish said

    Thank you, Dibyendu!

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