History tells us that it is rare indeed that a single individual will come up with a totally new idea that leads to innovation (even Newton is purported to have needed a bit of help in the form of an apple). Innovation is more likely to arise from the recombination of existing ideas in novel ways or in different contexts, such as applying ‘tried and true’ practices from one industry to another.

Recombination of this type is only possible if ‘innovation elements’ – ideas, people and organisations – are given an opportunity to interact with one another. Diversity of people, thoughts and interests are the lifeblood of the innovation process.

Ok, that all makes sense – but why bacteria?

It is the biological realm of bacteria that provides the best ‘entrepreneurial’ example of how to crank up the innovation process.

Bacteria breed – recombine – every 20 minutes. That’s three generations – three spins of the evolutionary wheel – per hour. But this amazing recombination rate doesn’t fully explain bacteria’s evolutionary resistance – or should that be persistence!

Bacteria is in a constant state of evolutionary flux. It achieves this by a process known as ‘lateral gene transfer’, which is a really technical way of saying that your typical, garden-variety bacteria is an evolutionary kleptomaniac.

Bacteria excel at stealing useful genes from other organisms. How they do this provides a ready reckoner for entrepreneurs looking to obtain ideas from other industries to provide an innovation breakthrough.

Bacteria can ‘acquire’ gene sequences through:

– Conjugation (that is, physical contact with the host of the soon to be acquired cells),

– Transformation (picking up DNA that has been abandoned by another organism)

– Transduction (where the bacteria replicates itself inside the other organism, bringing with it random DNA fragments).

The business equivalent of conjugation is getting out an mingling with people who are “different” to you – who work in different industries, have different interests, hobbies and perspectives. Transformation, of course, can happen when we study business history, learning how other companies, markets or industries grew and flourished. Finally, there is transduction, which is the equivalent of bringing an “outsider” into your company for a new perspective.

What strategies do you have in place to mimic bacteria?