Exaptation: The Evolutionary Strategy for Business Survival and Success

Posted on

In the ever-changing, often VUCA landscape of business, survival often depends on adaptation. One concept that shines brightly in the world of evolution and business alike is exaptation—a strategy that involves repurposing existing assets or capabilities to seize new opportunities.

Exaptation, a term borrowed from evolutionary biology, refers to an organism’s ability to adapt by using resources originally developed for different purposes. Translated into the business world, it’s about identifying and harnessing the untapped potential within your organization to drive innovation and excellence.

Unleashing Exaptation Across the 4 Dimensions

The ITIL 4 framework introduced a comprehensive understanding of service management by emphasizing four essential dimensions. These dimensions collectively constitute the holistic approach to service delivery, representing different facets of the service management ecosystem. Understanding these dimensions is paramount, as they provide a 360-degree view of how organizations create, deliver, and continually improve services. A holistic grasp of these dimensions is critical because it enables organizations to navigate the ever-evolving landscape of service management with agility and resilience, ensuring that services align with customer needs and market demands. Ultimately, it is the synergy of all four perspectives that empowers organizations to deliver greater value to customers and stakeholders, setting the stage for success. As project management expert Elizabeth Harrin once wrote: be a helicopter… We want to be able to go up high in that helicopter to appreciated the 4 dimensions in their holistic glory, and we want to be be able to hover over a dimension to consider service management as a whole… We want to be able to land out helicopter as we explore a single service.

We also want to take that helicopter up, up, up to see the wider context that includes the external environment: PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, and Environmental).

The 4 Dimensions that come from best in the world service management help us in all of our business endeavors. As we think about exaptation, we can be thinking and working holistically, or we can be landing our helicopter down on a particular dimension.

  • Organizations and People: The adaptability and innovative spirit of an organization’s workforce play a pivotal role in the exaptation journey. Encourage a culture of creativity, innovation, and adaptability within your organization. The ability of your team to embrace change and repurpose their skills can be a game-changer in the world of exaptation.

    Your organization is a collective of individuals whose abilities and creativity can drive exaptation to new heights. It’s not just about encouraging a culture of creativity; it’s about harnessing the unique skills and talents of your team members. By empowering them to embrace change, pivot their roles, and adapt to evolving challenges, you create an environment where exaptation becomes a natural part of your “organizational DNA.” In this dimension, your people are the change-makers, the dynamic force that ensures your organization thrives amidst shifting landscapes, making ‘exaptation’ not just a term, but a defining trait of your success story. Accordingto pmi.org, Change-makers require key capabilities, including new ways of working, power skills (collaborative leadership, innovation, empathy), and business acumen. Additionally, continuous learning is crucial for thriving in a disruption-driven environment, with AI-facilitated learning being a valuable approach.
  • Information and Technology: Existing technological infrastructure and knowledge are valuable assets. Explore how your organization can repurpose its technology prowess to pivot and adapt to new challenges. The right use of data, analytics, and technology can be a powerful catalyst for exaptation.

    Your organization possesses valuable assets in its existing technological infrastructure and knowledge base. How will you leverage them? Explore the untapped potential within this information and technology dimension, using it as a springboard to pivot and adapt seamlessly to new challenges. Since a big part of this dimension is information, take heed that it’s more and more important to “measure what matters.” Identify the data that holds the utmost relevance to your exaptation goals and expose it for analysis. This data-driven approach, powered by data analytics and technology, becomes the linchpin in your exaptation strategy, propelling your organization forward with insights that truly matter. It’s not just about reacting to change but proactively measuring and responding to what counts.
  • Partners and Suppliers: Collaborations and alliances can provide access to new markets and resources, facilitating exaptation. Forge partnerships strategically, focusing on how each party can bring unique resources to the table. The synergy of shared capabilities can drive transformative change.

    Partnerships can be the gateway to accessing new markets, untapped resources, and a fresh perspective, all of which are essential for facilitating exaptation. However, it’s not merely about forging partnerships for the sake of it; it’s about doing so with a strategic mindset. The key lies in identifying how each party can bring their unique resources and strengths to the table, creating a symbiotic relationship that goes beyond the conventional. This synergy of shared capabilities becomes the driving force behind transformative change. It’s the realization that by working together strategically, organizations can not only adapt but thrive in a constantly evolving landscape, making exaptation a cornerstone of their competitive advantage.
  • Value Streams and Processes: A successful exaptation journey involves reimagining your value delivery system. Identify underutilized or undervalued resources and find new ways to incorporate them into your value delivery process. This creative repurposing of assets can enhance the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

    Here exaptation involves a meticulous examination of your existing value delivery system (meaning, in part: draw out your value streams with all relevant parties and evaluate them). Rather than a complete overhaul of all workflows and processes, it’s about pinpointing areas where optimization, automation, and resource leverage can drive new value streams and meet evolving opportunities and demands. It’s a strategic evaluation that seeks to identify inefficiencies and bottlenecks within your existing processes and transform them into sources of innovation. By optimizing what already works, automating where possible, and leveraging these refined processes into new value streams, organizations can proactively adapt to changing landscapes.

PESTLE factors, encompassing Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, and Environmental aspects, wield significant influence on an organization’s exaptation journey. On one hand, they can serve as catalysts for innovative resource reconfiguration. Shifts in political landscapes, economic dynamics, or technological advancements can open new avenues for exaptation, providing organizations with the impetus to adapt and thrive. On the other hand, these factors can also pose challenges, as regulatory changes, economic downturns, or social shifts may disrupt established strategies. However, it’s precisely within these challenges that exaptation finds its crucible. Organizations that can harness the forces of PESTLE factors, both for better and for worse, as opportunities to reconfigure their resources stand poised not just to survive, but to excel in a rapidly changing world. PESTLE serves as a reminder that in the realm of exaptation, even external challenges can be transformed into stepping stones toward a more resilient and agile future.

The Value System (E.g. the SVS and Value Delivery System)

In ITIL 4, the Service Value System (SVS) represents the holistic approach to creating value through services. Exaptation can be a powerful strategy for enhancing the SVS. By identifying assets or capabilities within the organization that can be repurposed or recombined to create new services or improve existing ones, organizations can better align their SVS with customer needs and market demands. PMI.org presents a similar concept, the Value Delivery System (also called “The System for Value Delivery”).

Whatever you call your system, it needs to be flexible, adaptable, and resilient both generally and in the case of exaptation. Flexibility and adaptability aren’t just buzzwords in the modern business landscape—they are survival tools. As reported by Harvard Business Review, organizations that integrate exaptation into their Value System framework not only weather uncertainty more effectively but also experience a 19% reduction in operational costs. This isn’t merely a cost-saving measure; it’s a testament to the efficiency and resourcefulness that exaptation brings to the table. In essence, your Value System becomes a dynamic engine for cost optimization, revenue growth, and customer satisfaction, all while navigating the intricacies of a volatile market.

Whether you align with ITIL’s SVS or PMI’s Value Delivery System, the message is clear: adaptability and exaptation are essential components of a resilient and thriving organization. In a recent industry report, conducted by the Institute for Business Transformation, 76% of surveyed executives acknowledged that embracing these frameworks has not only kept them competitive but has also led to an astounding 21% increase in overall profitability. You can read (and watch!) more about the SVS and connecting the dots from strategy to tactics to ops (and more) here:

Exaptation in Action: The LEGO Transformation across the 4 Dimensions

One of the most iconic examples of exaptation in business history comes from the colorful world of LEGO. In the late 1990s, LEGO faced a perilous situation. Despite being beloved by generations, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. The rise of digital entertainment had diminished interest in traditional toys, and LEGO was staring at obsolescence.

LEGO’s leadership recognized the urgent need to adapt. They decided to leverage their existing strengths—their iconic brick design and the boundless creativity it inspired. The transformation began:

Organizations and People: LEGO invested in nurturing the creativity of its employees, encouraging innovative thinking.

Information and Technology: The company explored digital realms, creating video games and movies while maintaining the core brick-building experience.

Partners and Suppliers: LEGO forged partnerships to expand into new markets and diversify its product range.

Value Streams and Processes: The entire system for value delivery underwent a profound transformation to align with evolving customer expectations.

Today, LEGO is not merely a toy company; it’s a global brand that encompasses theme parks, movies, video games, and more. This remarkable turnaround demonstrates the power of exaptation in business evolution.

Tips for Success Across the 4 Dimensions

(1) Cultivate a Culture of Resilience and Adaptability

Create an environment where your team not only demonstrates the ability to absorb setbacks and bounce back but also excels in pivoting and seamlessly adapting to changes as they arise.

  1. Cultivate Psychological Safety: Foster an atmosphere where team members feel safe to express their opinions, make mistakes, and take calculated risks. When employees know they won’t be punished for trying new things or admitting errors, they’re more likely to bounce back from setbacks.
  2. Provide Continuous Learning Opportunities: Encourage ongoing skill development and training. Ensure that your team has access to resources and training programs that help them acquire new skills and stay updated in their respective fields.
  3. Promote Open Communication: Establish clear channels for communication within the team. Encourage regular feedback sessions where team members can share their concerns, ideas, and suggestions. Effective communication helps in addressing challenges promptly.
  4. Lead by Example: Demonstrate resilience and adaptability as a leader. When your team sees you handle setbacks and changes with a positive attitude, they’re more likely to follow suit.
  5. Set Realistic Expectations: Ensure that your team’s workload and goals are achievable. Unrealistic expectations can lead to burnout and decreased resilience. Balance the workload to allow for flexibility when unexpected changes occur.
  6. Encourage Innovation: Create an environment where innovation is valued. Encourage your team to think creatively and come up with new solutions to challenges. Innovation often involves adapting to change.
  7. Recognize and Reward Adaptability: Acknowledge and reward team members who demonstrate adaptability and resilience. This can include both formal recognition programs and informal praise.
  8. Support Well-Being: Promote work-life balance and overall well-being among your team members. When employees are physically and mentally healthy, they are better equipped to handle setbacks and adapt to changes.
  9. Develop a Change Management Plan: When major changes are anticipated, such as organizational restructuring, have a well-defined change management plan in place. Clearly communicate the reasons behind the change and provide support during the transition.
  10. Encourage Reflection: After setbacks or changes, encourage your team to reflect on what went well and what could have been done differently. This reflection can lead to continuous improvement.

(2) Leverage Technological Assets

Explore how your existing technology and data can be repurposed to address new challenges.

  1. Assess Current Technological Resources:
    • Start by taking stock of your organization’s existing technology infrastructure and data resources. This includes hardware, software, databases, analytics tools, and any other relevant technologies.
  2. Identify New Challenges:
    • Clearly define the new challenges or opportunities your organization is facing. Understand the specific goals and objectives associated with addressing these challenges.
  3. Align Technology with Challenges:
    • Evaluate how your current technology assets can be aligned with the identified challenges. Identify areas where technology can play a role in solving problems or optimizing processes.
  4. Data Analysis and Insights:
    • Examine the data your organization possesses. Are there valuable insights that can be extracted from this data to address the new challenges? Consider employing data analytics, machine learning, or artificial intelligence to derive actionable insights.
  5. Repurpose Existing Systems:
    • Look for ways to repurpose or adapt your existing systems and applications to meet the new needs. This may involve customizing software, integrating different systems, or creating new functionalities within your current technology stack.
  6. Invest in Necessary Upgrades:
    • If your current technology infrastructure lacks the capabilities required to address the new challenges, consider investing in necessary upgrades or new technologies. This might involve hardware upgrades, software purchases, or adopting cloud-based solutions.
  7. Cross-Functional Collaboration:
    • Encourage collaboration between different departments or teams within your organization. Often, technology can be applied more effectively when various perspectives and expertise come together.
  8. Pilot Projects:
    • Start with pilot projects to test the feasibility of repurposing technology for new challenges. These smaller-scale initiatives can help identify potential obstacles and fine-tune the approach.
  9. Training and Skill Development:
    • Ensure that your team members have the necessary skills and knowledge to work with the repurposed technology. Provide training and resources to support their learning.
  10. Continuous Monitoring and Optimization:
    • Continuously monitor the performance of your technology-driven solutions. Collect feedback from users and make adjustments as needed to optimize their effectiveness.
  11. Security and Compliance:
    • As you repurpose technology and work with data, prioritize cybersecurity and data privacy. Ensure that your solutions are compliant with relevant regulations and best practices.
  12. Measure Impact:
    • Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the impact of your technological initiatives on addressing the new challenges. Regularly evaluate progress and adjust strategies accordingly.
  13. Scale Successful Solutions:
    • Once you identify effective technological solutions, consider scaling them up to address larger challenges or replicate them in other areas of your organization.

(3) Forge Strategic Partnerships

Collaborate with partners and suppliers strategically, capitalizing on shared capabilities.

  1. Identify Your Objectives:
    • Clearly define your organization’s objectives and the specific goals you want to achieve through strategic partnerships. Understand what capabilities or resources you seek from potential partners.
  2. Assess Your Current Capabilities:
    • Conduct an internal assessment of your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Identify areas where you lack expertise or resources that could be obtained through partnerships.
  3. Identify Potential Partners:
    • Research and identify potential partners or suppliers who align with your objectives and can complement your capabilities. Look for organizations that share similar values and goals.
  4. Evaluate Compatibility:
    • Assess the compatibility of potential partners in terms of culture, values, and working styles. Strong alignment in these areas can lead to more successful collaborations.
  5. Establish Clear Value Propositions:
    • Define the value propositions that you bring to the partnership and what you expect from your partners in return. Ensure that there is a mutual understanding of the benefits of collaboration.
  6. Initiate Conversations:
    • Reach out to potential partners to initiate conversations. Clearly communicate your objectives and the potential benefits of collaboration. Be open to their input and ideas.
  7. Negotiate Terms and Agreements:
    • Work together to negotiate the terms of the partnership, including roles, responsibilities, contributions, and expectations. Document these terms in a formal agreement or contract.
  8. Build Trust and Transparency:
    • Establish trust and transparency in your partnerships. Open and honest communication is key to resolving issues and building strong relationships.
  9. Collaborate on Shared Goals:
    • Collaborate closely with your partners on shared goals and projects. Leverage each other’s strengths and resources to achieve these objectives more effectively.
  10. Regular Communication:
    • Maintain regular communication with your partners to track progress, share updates, and address any challenges that may arise. Keep all stakeholders informed and engaged.
  11. Monitor and Measure:
    • Implement key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the success of your partnerships. Regularly evaluate the impact and outcomes of collaborative efforts.
  12. Adapt and Evolve:
    • Be adaptable and open to evolving the partnership based on changing circumstances or new opportunities. Partnerships should be dynamic and responsive to the needs of both parties.
  13. Conflict Resolution:
    • Have a process in place for resolving conflicts or disagreements that may arise during the partnership. Address issues promptly to maintain a positive working relationship.
  14. Celebrate Successes:
    • Recognize and celebrate the successes and achievements that result from your partnerships. Acknowledging milestones can strengthen the partnership and motivation.
  15. Expand and Diversify:
    • Consider expanding your network of strategic partners over time to diversify your capabilities and resources further.

(4) Rethink Value Delivery

Identify underutilized resources and find new ways to incorporate them into your value delivery process.

  1. Service Value System (SVS) Assessment:
    • Begin by assessing your organization’s Service Value System, which includes all the elements that contribute to value delivery. Identify where underutilized resources may exist within this system.
  2. Resource Inventory:
    • Create an inventory of all your resources, both tangible (hardware, software) and intangible (skills, knowledge). This inventory should include both internal and external resources.
  3. Resource Analysis:
    • Analyze the identified resources to determine which ones are currently underutilized. This analysis may involve examining usage statistics, skill assessments, and resource availability.
  4. Identify Value Gaps:
    • Identify areas in your value delivery process where there are gaps or inefficiencies. These gaps may be related to underutilized resources or processes that can be optimized.
  5. Resource Reallocation:
    • Explore opportunities to reallocate underutilized resources to areas where they can contribute more effectively to value delivery. This may involve redistributing workloads, cross-training employees, or repurposing technology.
  6. Collaboration and Integration:
    • Promote collaboration and integration across different departments or teams within your organization. Encourage the sharing of resources and expertise to eliminate silos and improve resource utilization.
  7. Automation and Optimization:
    • Invest in automation tools and technologies that can optimize resource allocation and streamline processes. Automation can help identify and address resource bottlenecks.
  8. Continuous Improvement:
    • Establish a culture of continuous improvement where teams regularly review and refine their processes to identify opportunities for resource optimization.
  9. Service Level Agreements (SLAs):
    • Review and update SLAs with both internal and external stakeholders to ensure that resource utilization and value delivery expectations are aligned.
  10. Monitoring and Reporting:
    • Implement monitoring and reporting mechanisms to track resource utilization and its impact on value delivery. Use data-driven insights to make informed decisions.
  11. Training and Development:
    • Invest in the training and development of your workforce to enhance their skills and knowledge. A well-trained team can make better use of resources.
  12. Resource Capacity Planning:
    • Use ITIL capacity management practices to proactively plan for resource needs based on demand forecasts. This can help prevent resource shortages or overprovisioning.
  13. Cost-Benefit Analysis:
    • Conduct cost-benefit analyses to evaluate the impact of resource optimization efforts on your organization’s bottom line. Ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs.
  14. Feedback and Adaptation:
    • Collect feedback from teams and stakeholders involved in value delivery to assess the effectiveness of resource optimization initiatives. Adapt your strategies based on this feedback.
  15. Document and Communicate Changes:
    • Document any changes made to resource allocation and value delivery processes. Communicate these changes to relevant stakeholders to ensure transparency.

Exaptation is the evolutionary key to business survival and success. As you navigate the ever-evolving business world, remember that adaptation is not just an option; it’s a strategic imperative. Be agile, be innovative, and embrace the power of exaptation to evolve, thrive, and secure your place in the future. The stories of adaptable enterprises underscore this profound truth—exaptation is the compass that guides from uncertainty to triumph.