Sub-theme 54: Fortune Favours the Prepared Mind: The Management of Surprises

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Pierpaolo Andriani
Kedge Business School, France
Francesco P. Appio
Pôle Universitaire Léonard de Vinci, France
Gino Cattani
New York University, Stern School of Business, USA

Call for Papers

Exaptation is a key mechanism in discovery and technological change. Exaptation (sometimes referred to as pre-adaptation) is one of the most important and yet little studied evolutionary mechanisms in the history of species, ecosystems and technologies. (Gould & Vrba 1982, p. 6) refer to it as “… characters, evolved for other usages (or for no function at all), and later ‘coopted’ for their current role”. Despite its ubiquity, exaptation is under-explored.
The main purpose of the sub-theme is to solicit contributions from researchers with diverse backgrounds and engage them in an interdisciplinary discussion on the theoretical and empirical implications of studying exaptation. The sub-theme thus constitutes a unique avenue for enhancing our understanding of exaptation not only within the context of management, but also of other social sciences. We invite theoretical, methodological and empirical contributions that address (but are not limited to) the following issues:
Innovation and the institutionalization of surprises. The literature on creativity and innovation has identified a number of routines, procedures and practices that have enabled some organizations to be consistently innovative over time. To date, however, no systematic attempt has been made to explicitly tackle the question of how organizations can structure and manage their R&D departments and activities to foster the emergence of exaptations.
Search, problem-solving and exaptation. A large body of research in strategy and organization has focused on search and problem-solving. Topics such as ‘luck vs. foresight’ and ‘emergent vs. deliberate strategies’ have long been of scholarly and managerial interest. We suspect that exaptation plays an important role in search processes and invite papers that address such relationship. In particular, the use of analogical thinking to identify distant opportunities; the role of serendipity and contextual factors in search processes; the order between problem formulation and solutions in problem-solving. Despite a few exceptions (for a review, see Andriani and Cattani 2016), exaptation has remained an under-explored search mechanism.
Organizational memory. Preserving an organization’s memory is critical for facilitating the emergence of novelty via exaptation. Hargadon and Sutton (1997), for instance, emphasize how the process of storing, and retrieving knowledge has enabled IDEO to find new applications for its technologies (artifacts), both those currently in use and those with no obvious application. The extent to which an organization’s memory might be viewed as a prerequisite for exaptation is a very important question that deserves further investigation.
Exaptation as a shadow option. A shadow option refers to the case in which an existing bundle of resources provides options (or investment opportunities) awaiting recognition. We suggest that shadow options may be turned into real options when a functional shift occurs that unveils opportunities to further invest in existing assets. This raises some fundamental question: first, is it possible, at least in principle, to anticipate the shadow option returns (the ‘exaptive’ returns) from an investment? What is the impact of shadow options and exaptation on accounting practices and decision-making concerning new projects? Future research may explore how such returns can be inferred and establish a tighter link between shadow and real options.
Exaptation as a driver of user and open source innovation. Several studies demonstrate that new technological trajectories and markets often result from linking different knowledge bases from across disparate actors, communities or social networks. User innovation literature has shown the centrality of users in innovation. Users conjugate very diverse contexts with a very large number of experiments. The Makers movement is a fascinating example of user innovation. The Makerspace consists of a library of digital objects sitting in the Commons that makers can turn into physical objects using 3D printers. Future research may explore the conditions under which the increasingly larger number of users operating in the highly modular 3D technologies environment can enhance innovation by fostering exaptations.
From we don’t know what we don’t know to radical innovations Across many fields, it is being increasingly recognized how thinking and innovating within the ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ is playing a major role in shaping the opportunity landscape. Stirling (2010) describes this concept with an eloquent word: ignorance, that is, ‘the state in which neither probabilities nor outcomes [of a possible event] can be fully characterized’. It is in such a state that we face ever-present prospect of surprise. We argue that a very promising area for exploration, radical innovation and exaptation is what we call the ‘ignorance area’ of the adjacent possible (Kauffman, 1995). If the adjacent possible indicates the knowledge that can be attained given the current state of advancement of science and technology, then the ignorance area constitutes the achievable part of the adjacent possible we are not aware of. Evidence shows that exaptations reveal possibilities that sit outside the envelope of paradigm-based legitimate science and technology.
This raises several issues: First, what are the antecedents (e.g., knowledge base diversity, inter- and trans-disciplinarity, inquiring mechanisms, serendipity, micro-foundations) paving the way to the emergence of radicalness, with special reference to innovations rooted in the ignorance area of knowledge? Second, paradigms define a trajectory of legitimate research and at the same time close off other research possibilities. In other words, paradigms generate ignorance. Often the most promising research possibilities reside exactly in the areas closed off by the dogma. How do dogma emerge and how can dogma be broken helping inventors and scientists to jump on different trajectories or paradigms? What evidence exist to link paradigm-generated ignorance with radical innovation?
Quantification of exaptation. Studies that quantify the phenomenon of exaptation. Important questions to address include: What percentage of innovations is due to exaptation? What is the actual contribution of exaptation to radical innovation?
Methodological challenges. One of the main challenges in studying exaptation is to identify appropriate methodological approaches for understanding, documenting and measuring the process by which existing artifacts are co-opted for new functions. Of course, multiple methods that cross disciplinary boundaries will be required to make progress in this area of research and theory. Mixing methods, criteria, and metrics from different disciplines is, indeed, where the scholarly opportunity lies. The greatest potential for advancing research and theory on exaptation lies in methodological innovations that can penetrate and describe the complexity of exposing the micro-evolutionary processes underlying exaptation.



  • Andriani, P., & Cattani, G. (2016): “Exaptation as source of creativity, innovation, and diversity: Introduction to the Special Section.” Industrial and Corporate Change, 25 (1), 115–131.
  • Gould, S.J., & Vrba, E.S. (1982): “Exaptation – a missing term in the science of form.” Paleobiology, 8 (1), 4–15.
  • Hargadon, A., & Sutton, R.I. (1997): “Technology brokering and innovation in a product development firm.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 42 (4) 716–749.
  • Kauffman, S. (1995): At Home in the Universe. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Stirling, A. (2010): “Keep it complex.” Nature, 468 (7327), 1029–1031.


Pierpaolo Andriani is Professor in Innovation and Complexity Management at Kedge Business School, France. His research interests are focused on complexity theory and evolutionary models of innovation.
Francesco P. Appio is Head of the Business Group and Associate Professor of Innovation at Pôle Universitaire Léonard de Vinci, France. His research focuses on the antecedents, processes, and outcomes of scientific breakthroughs discoveries and radical technological inventions.
Gino Cattani is Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at the Stern School of Business, New York University, USA. His research focuses on creativity, innovation, and market/industry formation and evolution.
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