Exaptive triggers

From Cynefin.io
Jump to navigation Jump to search

List of methods / Design and innovation

Exaptive triggers is a method aimed at establishing novel, non-obvious links between knowledge objects and ideas, at an appropriate level of abstraction, for the purpose of producing exaptive, radical innovation.

Name and history

One of the questions evolutionary theory has had to answer is the appearance of complex new traits or features faster than a linear adaptive approach would justify, or in a context where gradual "stages" of adaptation do not necessarily make sense. As a response, non-linear approaches have been proposed, going back to Darwin who had himself suggested the possibility of an existing trait finding novel function, using the example of unfused skull bones across different animals (including humans). Stephen J Gould and Elisabeth Vrba in 1982[1] proposed the term "exaptation" to argue more formally that a trait that evolved for one function (or indeed for no function at all) can be coopted to a completely different effect. An example from our own evolutionary history is the cooption of existing structures in our bodies and brains for symbolic thinking [2]. When we want to consciously trigger that property, a key question becomes how we increase the potential for capturing potential for exaptation. How do we manage for serendipity and radically repurpose?

Prior knowledge

The method is ideally positioned to the top right of a 2x2 matrix, the dimensions of which are discovery, and ideation. By combining distributed ethnography with distributed solution generation, as opposed to other methods that use expert knowledge on one or both dimensions, it also works as an aggregator of other methods suitable for those purposes.

The method is designed to overcome inattentional blindness, i.e. it facilitates the the establishment of unobvious connections, by drawing the attention towards them. The word "trigger" refers to the realization of the "why these things a re connected with these other things".

The identification of potentially valuable connections between problems and solutions is made possible thanks to:

  • the decomposition of both to an adequate level of granularity, so as to induce abstraction from their originating contexts;
  • the interpretation of both along a common set of dimensions.
Expert v distributed discovery-ideation matrix
Ideation (solutions generation)
Expert Distributed
Distributed Clusters of experiences presented to experts.
Agile’s unarticulated need mapping
Exaptive innovation
Expert Double Diamond (linear) "Finding the 17%’s"

Both discovery and ideation can be performed in both ways. "Expert" will likely only catch "complicated" data, while "Distributed" is more likely to elicit "complex" aspects. If the purpose is radical innovation, the second is more likely to produce interesting results. Which one to adopt, however, depends on context and expectations.

Exaptive triggers also link to the 'exaptive moment' in the Flexuous curves flexuous curves framework.

Back-of-the-napkin sketch of the F-Curve / Flexuosity / Apex

Exaptation is especially key at the point marked with alpha (α) on the curve, where novelty needs to be discovered quickly for a seamless transition to a new, upward curve, before the current trajectory reaches its peak, after which point transitioning to a new proposition becomes harder.

Key frameworks, concepts, and principles

Related frameworks:

Key concepts:


Related methods

For eliciting knowledge objects:

For finding ideas:

  • Hermeneutic inquiry
  • Human sensor networks
  • Entangled trios form a network that can be stimulated for the purpose of making novel connections


Setting things up so the capacity for exaptation can emerge is more of an ongoing process than a distinctive process. Some familiarity with the idea of exaptation will be useful for the instigator of the method, but for more detailed elements of what might be required, the workflow section below provides a guide. For example, if exaptive approaches are used in combination with some kind of journaling and narrative collection, then the mechanism for those need to be set in place, while if an approach like Entangled trios is used, exaptive triggers might be anticipated as a by-product and a degree of alertness to their appearance (or a monitoring mechanism) might be required.


Exaptation as a methodological approach generally requires three elements:

  1. A database, ideally narrative-based, such as journaling or micro-narratives from the history of an organisation. The narrative basis is important, since narrative can concentrate contextual knowledge and transmit it alongside its context in a way that codified knowledge cannot always achieve.
  2. Assets, capabilities, or scenarios that reveal some of the existing characteristics, a.k.a traits, in the same context.
  3. A way of linking the two elements above.

This general approach can be implemented in the context of different methods and approaches with which it can potentially be applied. The table below outlines such a possible implementation, in combination with narrative and journaling methods, but it is not the only one. Less formal approaches to the method are also possible. For example, a method that focuses on connecting people in novel ways, such as Entangled trios is a prime ground for the triggering of exaptive possibilities in a less structured way.

Narrative collection and indexing Real-time journaling collects observations and experiences from people on the ground (the GENBAapproach can also be used). These micro-narratives tend to be richer than explicit answers and contain both context and codified knowledge, and the ongoing collection ensures that they are unfiltered by the process of being viewed in retrospect. This can take place as part of the ongoing real-life operation of the organisation or in the context of a special or imaginary occasion. For example, if the method is used in combination with another method like Anthro Simulation, which involves imaginary situations and decisions, then the journaling could also refer to that imaginary context.

Indexing is a key element and introduces the idea of abstraction, as well as the capability of making "sideways" connections between things, which is key for exaptation. If SenseMaker is use, then indexing will take place through the process of signification, self-interpretation of the micro-narrative entered.

Scenario, asset, or capability mapping A narrative audit can be carried out to map out existing capabilities, assets, or scenarios in the organisation. If an audit is carried out, then a knowledge mapping method, such as ASHEN can be used. This material is once again indexed, in a way that corresponds with the micro-narrative indexing.
Creation of exaptive clusters Through the indexing, links are made between stories and experiences on the other hand, and capabilities and assets on the other. These combined objects are called exaptive clusters and can reveal novel opportunities for repurposing of elements that are already present.This process of collecting, mapping, and review is ongoing but can be punctuated with specific gatherings or rituals where exaptive clusters are identified and followed up with through action design.

Do's and Don'ts


  • Start a narrative database or a lessons learned journal, with as wide a scope as possible, before you think you might need it. It has a myriad of applications, including exaptive ones and it might be an essential resource in a crisis.


  • Make any assumptions in advance about where exaptive opportunities might lie or what they might look like.
  • In the creation of novel linkages, abstraction and ambiguity are both essential elements. If everything looks specific and crystal-clear, it might be an indication to re-examine your approach.

Virtual running

This is a method that is extended throughout a longer period of time than unfolding in the context of a specific session or workshop. Multiple components of this method can, therefore, be run partially or fully virtual, and none of the core capabilities require specifically on physical or virtual resources and co-presence.


Flexuous curves


  1. Gould, Stephen Jay, and Elisabeth S. Vrba. “Exaptation-A Missing Term in the Science of Form.” Paleobiology, vol. 8, no. 1, 1982, pp. 4–15. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2400563. Accessed 23 Jun. 2022.
  2. Tattersall, I. Becoming Modern Homo sapiens. Evo Edu Outreach 2, 584–589 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12052-009-0164-x
  • Cattani, Gino & Andriani, Pierpaolo. (2016). Exaptation as source of creativity, innovation, and diversity: introduction to the Special Section. Industrial and Corporate Change. 25. 115-131.

Blog posts


Method card material

This material will be extracted for the method cards

Possible symbols or illustrations

Front page description

Exaptive triggers trigger attention to novel, non-obvious possibilities and connections between existing assets and emerging needs to facilitate radical repurposing.

Back of card summary

Exaptation refers to a trait evolved or designed for other uses, and later “co-opted” in a novel way for its current role. We also refer to this as radical repurposing or managed serendipity – the process of finding things we already have or are competent at and repurposing them to solve novel problems or to meet needs. This typically entails mapping existing capabilities, knowledge objects or assets at an appropriate level of abstraction; identifying new or unarticulated organisational problems or needs, and matching these together to trigger the discovery of new and innovative connections or links between them.

How can it be used?

for diagnosis

for analysis/understanding

for intervention

Method Properties - Ratings

Represented by symbols - interpretation/voting scales are:

COST & RESOURCES: How resource-intensive is the Method in terms of materials and tools required, and thus costs?

  1. Requires only common office equipment (eg paper and pens)
  2. Requires simple facilitation materials (special hexies, printouts, whiteboards etc)
  3. Requires some inexpensive but specific tools and materials
  4. Requires moderate investment in tools or software to apply
  5. Requires significant investment in software or other specialist tools

COMPLEX FACILITATION SKILL: How much training and skill in complex facilitation does the Method require?

  1. No complex facilitation experience is required
  2. Some complex facilitation experience needed - practice in a safe space
  3. Should be mentored while developing complex facilitation skill
  4. Requires Mentoring until proven, familiarity with theory critical
  5. Advanced, requires deep knowledge of theory and experience

ENGAGEMENT GRADIENT: How challenging is engagement of participants into the Method likely to be?

  1. Ad hoc technique - can be used in multiple contexts with relative ease
  2. Requires time commitment but overall, engaging and not difficult to achieve
  3. Mild uncertainty or discomfort, may need work to keep people engaged
  4. Indirect/ambiguous method, requires engagement through sustained levels of uncertainty
  5. Challenging method – may incur resistance if people expect a more traditional approach