How hybrid dynamics create the greatest impact in innovation and social change
From the atomic to the galactic level, in physics, chemistry and biology, nature has much to teach us about innovation. Evolution occurs over time, but the most significant changes come from adaptive mutations and hybrids. Their dynamics can be applied to the pursuit of individual innovations and offer a framework for developing innovative organizations.
Science and technology advances through specialization that allows incremental developments. But history shows the greatest discoveries, inventions and progress often arise when advances from one field are applied to another or someone goes against his or her “type.” Given the right ingredients, complementary elements can cross-fertilize and gestate. The innovations then surface, and, with their current prominence, show us that we are now in an age of hybrids.
It’s epitomized in the theater mashup, Hamilton, and the country-rap crossover, Old Town Road, but the signs are everywhere. We see it in technology, art, genetics, media, storytelling and social life. Where tech companies had teams entirely composed of specialists, they now seek “t-shaped professionals” to extend their reach across different domains and types of systems. Where multi-ethnic families were once rare, mixed marriages are common and fusion cuisine is trendy. One of the most well-regarded trends in fitness is cross-training while advances in genetics have brought us into the mix-and-match heyday of synthetic biology.
From Pokémon to Hololens and Magic Leap, augmented reality (AR) is, by definition, hybrid media. The interactive nature of video games and live streaming is another expression of hybrid media. They also happen to be the fastest growing segments of entertainment, along with another proliferating hybrid, eSports.
Where publishers once restricted creative works to well-defined genres, cross-genre is now a popular category and stories are distributed across multiple platforms. Heroes and villains have been replaced by antiheroes and sympathetic antagonists (who are often interchangeable). Fiction mixes with nonfiction in hyperrealistic thrillers, editorializing documentaries, mockumentaries, and reality television. There are cross-cultural studies, integrative medicine and cobranding ads — and terms like transgenic, transmedia, transpartisan and transgender.
Study further, but please realize this is no mere cerebral analysis. If you learn the principles, you’ll find countless scientific and commercial applications, even ones with social impact. You may even find something personally meaningful.
Consider how individual elements can have outsized impact when they’re combined. Think of the collection of musical instruments that can create a wretched cacophony or a breathtaking chorus. But look deeper at our commercial and cultural marketplace and you’ll discover something thought-provoking about these blends. The worst attempts at innovations, including the biggest market flops, as well as the most valuable innovations, are hybrids.
So, what elements distinguish the winners from the losers?
Dysfunctional hybrids express hypocrisy, compromise, and incompatible mixes or awkward mix points like the “uncanny valley” (the point that makes people feel uneasy when features on a robot look almost but not quite human). Even so, an authentic mix may first seem strange because of our bias or rigidly defined categories. It wasn’t long ago when the term “faith-based horror” sounded as if it was an oxymoron. But on more careful examination and after the well-crafted production of a number of successful films, the concept now resonates as apt. In hindsight, we may wonder why we had resisted what later seemed obvious.
This cross-fertilization is prevalent, even when unrecognized. For example, the term, “stress” is used in medicine and the social sciences, but it comes from the field of engineering. Similarly, concepts of critical mass and escape velocity may have come from physics but their underlying principles also apply to viral marketing, the breaking of habits and the formation of monopolies. Likewise for network effects that scale a venture and advance meaningful innovation.
In technology and design, adaptation and adoption cross-fertilize innovation in countless areas ranging from genetic and evolutionary algorithms to neuromorphic computing and GANs — Generative Adversarial Networks. While artists explore the possibilities of computer-generated art and bioart, one of the hottest design paradigms in engineering is biomicry. Even so, the innovator needs to know the reasons the feature or function fit the original organism’s environment, and adapt according to matching parameters. It entails an expression of a creative process where inspiration and brainstorming are followed by assessment and fine-tuning.
Biology has countless examples of dual-stage or hybrid processes where a novel change is followed by testing and correction. The burgeoning neural development of a young human brain is followed by essential pruning that reflects environmental needs — aka “use it or lose it.” At a genetic level, environmental needs stimulate a phase of genomic turbulence that’s followed by homeostasis. But, ironically, even genetic mutations bring along with them the code for correcting DNA copy errors.
When it comes to hybrids, geneticists use the term, “outbreeding depression,” to indicate a slump in an offspring’s functionality compared to either parent. In contrast, heterosis is a term they use for the “hybrid vigor” in a crossbred offspring that shows enhanced functions. Many factors are involved, and sometimes the results have mixed value, for example, mules, which are hardier than their parents but also sterile. One generations’ vitality can also differ from another, giving incentive to continue the hybrid process — or, in modern parlance, to keep disrupting the disruptions.
For hybrids with clearly enhanced functions, two factors in the genetic mix stand out: complementarity and compatibility. The greater the degree of reciprocity, the higher the “valence” in the bond, but the elements also have to mirror, resonate or fit within certain constraints just as chromosomes need to be matched when breeding. Put into marketplace terms, innovations that mix elements that have those qualities result in products that can feel fresh and familiar. They are appealing in their uniqueness and satisfying in their consequences, matching what marketing expert, Jonah Berger, calls “optimally distinct.”
Playing it safe won’t bring about those types of products, but wild mixtures can just as easily yield a muddled hodgepodge. In contrast, a good hybrid blends distinctive elements in ways that avoid what statisticians call a “regression to the mean.” In other words, instead of regressing toward mediocrity and dissipating or diluting its distinctiveness, the combinations become outliers that are more remarkable than their parent elements. It’s the type of blend the acclaimed songwriter, Desmond Child, uses when he applies his key principle for songwriting: “a juxtaposition of opposites.”
The space within this tension forms the womb of creativity. Though it’s surrounded by the dynamic needs of the Mother of Invention, it also has the lucidity and stillness found in the eye of a storm. It’s a pregnant gap that works like the pause before a reversal in a joke. An apparent incongruity generates creative tension that pays off when the punchline brings comic relief. Like Jonah Berger’s concept of products that are both familiar and novel, the clincher has to be both understandable and surprising.
Nature is rife with these juxtapositions of opposites. They show us that, if we hinder the emptying, we halt the filling. We need to exhale to inhale. We have to literally “go with the beat” when it comes to the dual action of the heart. Similarly so for innovation. Sufficient pressure or momentum needs to be generated in one direction before it can reverse with a phase change.
Life is full of examples of when we have to go against the flow. The cure for repetitive-motion injuries often comes in the form of exercising antagonistic muscles. Alcoholics Anonymous has a practice called “contrary action” that may as well have been borrowed from ancient ascetics or competitive athletes who refuse to give in to lazy urges. For a creative person it means training the muse and expanding the workroom of creativity. For the innovator who wants to create a breakthrough, it means having the courage to develop contrarian ideas.
But what if the prevailing market current is so powerful, it seems foolish to consider any redirection? Just as a blacksmith can rest, replenish his supplies and prepare his tools while the proverbial iron grows hot, a proper wait lets a venture gain resources, gestate or build a network of developmental roots.
But what if that market current is a venture riptide leading to a deadly end? Then the entrepreneur needs to swim with the flow, build up speed, and use the momentum to veer away. It means, of course, to pivot, but to do so with these efficient dynamics.
On the surface, a strong current also offers encouragement that there is a comparably powerful but hidden current that will eventually break through and surprise the marketplace. If that breakthrough can be recognized and exploited, it’s tantamount to harnessing a black swan.
Unfortunately, there are far more imaginary black swans than real ones. They are extreme outliers, but they’re also hybrids, at least in their features. You’d be fortunate to find a single black swan who lays platinum eggs. Fortunately, we’re in an era that gives birth to magical hybrids called unicorns! So, why not examine the breeding practices that yield such progeny?
The mating ritual may appear outwardly unremarkable, or even hidden, but it selects for the best match. It can be a methodical journey that seems to take eons but then spontaneously unites after an uncanny allure. But of course it’s a matter of access and chemistry!
The genetic mix in a hybrid business leads it to being both strong and flexible, hardy and adaptable. It won’t be left behind with the dinosaurs because its genetically reliable foundation incorporates newly adaptive genes that thrive in the changing environment. It will be bred with the right germline genome, giving it both the infrastructure and culture needed for optimized innovation. But some of that hybrid vigor can still come after birth, through mutations or “genetic engineering” by M&As or merging departments such as HR and finance or adding a vital new “gene” in the form of a visionary leader.
Hybrid vigor also takes place when commercial and social purposes aid each other’s heat to reach a kindling point. The term, “synergism,” can have fresh meaning, not just for the internal dynamics of a venture, but for its far-reaching impact. Hybrid companies with a double or triple bottom line can create the most meaningful innovation. The prospects for a solution to a tech or commercial problem is magnified if it addresses a significant, widespread social need. If it’s media that genuinely mediates, it can also infuse the greater organism of society.
“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” (Melvin Kranzberg, Georgia Tech, 1985)
Critics warn us that technology can make us shallow and superficial, but it also can deepen interactions in meaningful ways, as seen with virtual reality’s capacity to enhance empathy. It can hook us or help us find balance in life. The paradox of hybrid innovation can yield automation that’s not only liberating but personal, virtual reality that’s virtuous, and entertainment that’s profound and life-changing.
It’s not enough to merely assent to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s statement that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” There is also a need for the right combination of ideas. Otherwise, the results can fall under either extreme of bland compromise or destructive hypocrisy. At the very least, the opposite ideas have to have a dimension of compatibility, though an expert in aesthetics or physics might say that order is simply an expression of beauty.
In the creative process, beauty is the great matchmaker, the precursor to procreation.
It’s powerful in its ability to disarm and attract, whether it seductively stimulates lust or authentically inspires love. Technology that awes can be called “dual-use.” It first started with that powerful beauty called fire, which can warm or burn, light or blind. But technological advances are now far more agile and immersive, stealthy and powerful. Innovation that matters requires humans who are psychosocial hybrids, able to appreciate both the innovative advances and their ethical implications. They have a vision of the whole horizon when others who are constrained by specialization see only segments. They also have a moral grounding that goes unseen by those who fear being archaic in the facile expectations of pop culture.
These hybrid thinkers are not stuck in silos. But when they venture beyond their formal expertise, they may be dismissed by experts — until their perseverance and incremental progress shows revolutionary promise. The best are also not merely obsessed with disrupting common assumptions. They’re imbued with a mix of conventional and contrarian genes expressed with vigor and creative tension, but also with wisdom and foresight. And what they lack, they seek in complementary resources, human and otherwise.
The best blends are often paradoxical, so it’s no wonder the age of hybrids also is an era of paradox. In the same way that mixed reality can be both fun and productive, a true innovator can explore the delights of a quantum playground and adapt them for a world that operates on Newtonian principles.
All we need are a few hybrids who are grounded but free to soar. Could you be one?