Monday, December 3, 2012

Resource Allocation, Innovation, and Risk: A Botanical Model

The other day Lucy and I were talking about how her Mac Book (circa 2007) is practically obsolescent. It's an amazing thought actually, given the dazzling technological innovations that have emerged from Apple since then. In spite of a closetful of used and practically useless products from the last 20 years, we are joined at the hip to our iPhone 5 devices. It appears that Apple's strategy to allocate resources to innovative, growing product lines has provided brilliant results. In spite of what seems to be planned obsolescence in all of its devices, Apple continues to evolve to the delight of enthusiastic customers. What's it all about?

Our conversation got me to thinking about plant growth, resource allocation, and innovation and how, in a not-so-random way, it is related to the Apple phenomenon. 

If you think about a tree for example, the growing tips are buzzing with molecular activity and resource allocation. At the growing tips (where meristem tissue resides--roughly analogous to human stem cells) the tree is investing most of its resources, sugars, minerals, protective tissue, and as the leaves emerge, water. At the same time it is exactly at these meristematic areas that the tree faces the most risk. Predators, wind, desiccation, and UV exposure are some of the many adaptive challenges faced by meristematic buds, the growing tips of the plant. 

It's also in the buds where tissue differentiation occurs. Leaves, branches, or flowers may emerge from a meristematic bud. And ultimately, in buds that differentiate into reproductive tissue, meiosis occurs. Meiosis produces sperm and eggs; it's the basis of reproduction and genetic change. So it's in the vulnerable buds where genetic innovation, the engine of evolution, occurs. In the same way, new product lines that shape the evolution of a company emerge from older iterations. 

The growth that emerges from buds, whether leaves, branches, or flowers, is the part of the tree that's the most exposed, the most vulnerable. It's the part of the plant the encounters all the harsh realities of the physical world. It is out at the tender buds and emerging soft tissue that the tree survives or dies. In a similar way, new product lines are vulnerable to market choices and customer satisfaction. The tree takes a calculated risk with new leaves. Apple takes a calculated risk with new products. 

What happens to older parts of the plant? In trees, older tissue becomes woody through a process called lignification. An insoluble, non-permeable, practically indigestible molecule called lignin invests every woody cell. Subsequently, the cells die. Dead woody cells are far from useless. They support the tree and conduct water and nutrients that nourish new growing cells at the tip. Similar to an evolutionary tree, where branching occurs, a "decision" is made to render the ancestor extinct. It's a rare tree that sprouts fresh buds from branching points that go back 10, 20, or 30 years. 

We see this kind of growth process in many types of organisms, notably fungi and lichens. If you've ever looked at a colony of mold or a rotting log, you may notice that growth patterns are roughly radial. It's at the edges of the growth circle that resources are obtained and processed, and it's the cells at the edge that keep fighting their way into the substrate. As the fungus grows outward, similar to the tree, it encounters the vicissitudes of a harsh and unknown environment. Analogous to leaves, which produce nutrients through photosynthesis, apical fungal cells and new product lines are the driving force of growth and differentiation. 

I don't know if the Apple folks had a botanist working for them but someone somewhere must have looked at a plant and come up with the inspiration for growth form of unparalleled success. 

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