Exaptive triggers

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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 main criticisms of evolutionary theory is that evolution could not have happened as fast as it has with a linear adaptive approach. Neo-Darwinian interpretations argue that everything had to happen in a linear way; it is survival of the fittest. Stephen J Gould and Elisabeth Vrba argues that, under conditions of stress, a trait that evolved for one function exapts for something completely different. For example, the Cerebellium evolved to manipulate the muscles in the fingers in order to pick seeds from seed pods, it now handles grammar in human language. One of the associated issues is how do we make exaptation visible / 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.

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 finding solutions


Factual description of what is needed together with lists of materials and the physical environment needed. Default is physical but see later section.


English text with any general instructions to be given at the start

For a minor method the table may be omitted

first instruction first set of tips

Do's and Don'ts

Simple bulleted list including common mistakes

Virtual running

Default is to state that it cannot be until we have developed and tested practice. If it can be run virtually then we describe it here.

It is acceptable to add a third column to the workflow if needed


Link to other articles on this wiki if they are relevant.


  • 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.

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