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Monday, September 19, 2005

Red Queen Effect

The Victorian mathematician and fantasist Lewis Carroll used the character of the Red Queen to parody grotesque forms of reasoning and energy: believing impossible things (before breakfast), running to remain stationary.

Believing the impossible, accelerating and relentless change - these are now among the totems of innovation. The Red Queen has now become an icon for a certain kind of energetic innovation. There is a good summary on the Farnham Street blog (October 2012).

There are several other related terms.
  • Running Up the Down Escalator. The SEI has a video with this title, presented by risk management consultant Bob Charette. (I haven't seen this video, but I've seen other materials derived from Charette's work that portray the staircase as a corkscrew or helix, spiralling downwards as you try to run up.) In one version of the story, the acceleration control is at the top, so those who are most successful at running up the down escalator get the chance to speed up the escalator, thus increasing the gap between themselves and their competitors (Critical Chain, June 2008).
  • Continuous Bootstrapping / Perpetual Bootstrapping.
Dave Bayless (Evergreen Innovation Partners) has recently propounded a model of accelerating product innovation, which he has also named after the Red Queen. He points out that the compound effect of a 10% annual acceleration in product innovation results in a halving of product life cycle duration every seven years See his blog and video on Innovation, Clockspeed and the Red Queen Effect. See also comment by John Hagel: Product Innovation and the Red Queen Effect.

While this model has some intuitive appeal, there are some interesting complications (or asymmetries).

1. The product is not the technology. A product may be composed from a large number of components, each of which may be subject to technical innovation. Product innovation is not a simple linear function of technology innovation; a product lifecycle can be extremely short, but most of the underlying technology may be moving much more slowly. Or vice versa.

2. The adoption is not the innovation (as John Hagel points out). Innovation includes process innovations as well as product innovations. Hagel suggests that "rapid incremental process innovation combined with aggressive leveraging of third party resources may in fact hold the key to diminishing, if not overcoming, the Red Queen effect."

3. The "device" is not the "commodity". Small incremental changes in the product may result in radical changes in user experience and practice, while radical substitutions on the technology side may simply be experienced as slight improvements in service cost and quality. For example, the consumer experience of innovation in automobiles or electronics or mobile telephones is not based on the rapid turnover of model numbers and versions, but on major (and relatively infrequent) step changes in functionality and performance.

A rigorous model of technology change must articulate these different layers clearly.


See also further posts on the Red Queen Effect.

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