Innovate Like a (Monarch) Butterfly

I spent some time last year visiting a butterfly sanctuary in the cloud forest near Mashpi, Ecuador.  In this sanctuary, local support staff have identified 300 species of butterflies and have been able to reproduce 50 of them in a research facility referred to as the Life Center, which is basically a large, screened-in habitat for butterflies.  I watched intently as the staffers gently moved butterflies in the four stages of their lives: egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult butterfly.

Innovate Like a (Monarch) ButterflyI had always considered these creatures to be things of beauty (with the incredible colors and patterns on their wings), and I had thought about the short lifecycle of the butterfly as an interesting analogy for the fleeting beauty of life’s experiences, but when I heard a podcast recently about the incredible lifecycle of the monarch butterfly my appreciation of this tiny creature increased exponentially.  I also thought about how these astounding facts about the life of the monarch butterfly could provide guidance for those of us facing the daily challenge of developing innovations for our customers and organizations.

Every year around 300 million monarch butterflies travel nearly 3,000 miles from North America to Central America, ending up in the trans-volcanic range of south/central Mexico.  The migration begins each September when most of North American monarch population East of the Rocky Mountain range heads south for the winter.  This migration is needed because the butterflies are a tropical species and cannot endure the freezing winter temperatures of the North American continent.

Throughout the summer, the butterflies feast on milkweed plants, but those plants stop growing at the end of August, which triggers the butterflies to spend their final weeks before migration drinking nectar to get ready for their trip.  The butterflies navigate by using sensors that track the length of daylight, the position of the sun above horizon and, in general, follow the sun towards the south.  Starting as far north as Canada, Michigan, and Maine, the monarchs fly as much as 50 miles a day, following currents of warm air.  By October, the migration routes from different regions of the United States converge in Texas, while others cross the Gulf of Mexico to take a more direct route.

The migration paths in Mexico follow the geography of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range, then at the Sierra Gorda the butterflies change direction and cut through a pass heading southwest towards the interior of Mexico where the butterflies finally reach their objective – the trans-volcanic range.  None of these butterflies has ever made the migration before.  There are no leaders or adults in the group with previous experience, but somehow the butterflies end up in exactly the same place as generations did before them.  Here the monarchs rest for the winter, with multiple colonies of millions of butterflies living in a state of almost suspended animation.  The high-altitude location of the colonies provides a climate with a temperature range of between 35 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which enables the butterflies to minimize their expenditure of energy during the winter.

Once spring arrives, the butterflies search for nectar and water to prepare themselves for a migration to the north.  This migration corresponds with the appearance of a new crop of milkweed in Texas.  They lay eggs and follow the milkweed as it blooms north, all the way to Canada, then they lay eggs and start the cycle over again.


Four Generations

Every year the monarch butterfly population passes through four distinct generations.  The first generation, born in the warm climates of Mexico or California in February or March, awake from hibernation to migrate north and east in search of milkweed plants upon which to lay their eggs.  These first-generation butterflies must complete their tasks in a short lifespan of two to six weeks.  The eggs hatch into baby caterpillars, launching via metamorphosis the second generation of butterflies in May and June.  These butterflies thrive during another two to six week cycle, continuing their migration, then lay their eggs on milkweed plants again for the third generation of caterpillars to be born in July and August, change into butterflies, and die after two to six weeks.

The fourth generation, born in September and October, deviates from the two- to six-week lifecycle and is able to live for a full six to eight months – a longer lifespan that is needed for the arduous migration.  This generation is known as the Methuselah generation, named after the character in the Hebrew Bible who lived for 969 years.  These butterflies migrate south for the winter and spend their time in the warmer climates of Mexico and California, biding their time until the winter dissipates and they start the process over with the first generation awakening from hibernation in February or March.

Innovation Insight – When we apply innovation to solve a problem we can sometimes be trapped by the thinking that the solution we develop to solve the problem has to be one that works the same way when the same situation reappears.  In other words, we sometimes suffer from an overbearing focus on symmetry or logic that stipulates that the same factors applied in the same manner to the same situation will always result in the same outcome.  In the case of a reengineered process, for instance, we assume that we can improve a single step and the process will always work better on each iteration as a result of our intervention.  However, by tying ourselves too much to logic and symmetry, we may be overlooking a non-linear, or asymmetrical innovation that we could apply to a problem.  What if instead of applying our change to every iteration of a process we were to apply it to every third or fourth iteration?  We might find that the process as a whole works better with this non-linear approach.  If the monarch butterfly always had two- to six-week lifecycles, it would never be able to complete its migration to Mexico.  An innovator should not always assume that the same solution will be the right one in all scenarios, even if it appears on the surface that all other conditions remain the same.


Four Life Stages

Every butterfly passes through four stages in its lifecycle: egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupae (chrysalis) and butterfly.  Each stage serves a specific and distinct purpose.  The egg is the starting point for the creature and resides on the milkweed plant.  By sticking to the plant as the caterpillar forms, the egg’s location on the leaf ensures that when the caterpillar emerges it has an abundant and nourishing source of food.  The larvae or caterpillar stage allows the creature to consume a huge amount of plant matter to build up its body and obtain the energy it needs for its subsequent metamorphosis.  The pupae or chrysalis stage provides a safe space for the caterpillar to transform into the butterfly.  After all, if the creature remained a caterpillar, it could not complete its migration any great distance due to its slow-moving nature.  The butterfly stage, with its powerful wings, allows the creature to complete its migration and land on milkweed plants to lay eggs to re-start the cycle again.

Innovation Insight – When we think about applying innovation to solve a problem, we sometimes try to come up with a single design that solves all the problems we are trying to overcome.  We may over-engineer a solution because we think that the more utility our solution has, the more innovative it will be considered to be by others.  This is the classic example of design by committee, where everyone involved tries to add a feature or function to a concept, which results in a clunky, sometimes less-useful solution, as in the well-known phrase that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.  The four stages of the butterfly show that an innovator should not be restricted to thinking of a single solution for a problem.  Rather, one can focus intensely on solving individual problems with individual solutions.  The caterpillar would do a horrible job migrating to Mexico, while the butterfly would do a poor job consuming tons of milkweed leaves.  Butterfly wings would not form well in the open air without the protection of a chrysalis, while a chrysalis would be difficult to transport on the small bodies of a butterfly to be laid on a milkweed plant.  Another phrase that describes this and, happens to refer to horses, is “horses for courses.”  This is derived from the notion that in different track conditions (dry, muddy, long, short, grass, dirt, etc.), different horses will succeed or fail.  It is often applied to people and reflects the concept that different individuals have different talents and skills and thus will succeed or fail depending on the challenge they face.  An innovator should acknowledge this and consider different solutions to solve different problems.


Singular DNA

From a genetics standpoint, one fascinating aspect of the butterfly’s four stages and four generations is the fact that these very different creatures all emerge from the same core set of DNA, or genetic code.  In other words, the same basic DNA in the egg can form the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly, and can provide the extended lifespan of the fourth generation to enable it to migrate to Mexico during the winter.

Innovation Insight – Just as the same DNA results in the creation of four very different phases of life for the butterfly, so too can an innovative idea spawn numerous progeny.  This could, perhaps, be the measure of the value of an innovation in terms of how it can be applied to many different problems or situations.  Another way to look at this is that the innovator is like the butterfly DNA.  In other words, an innovator is a single person who is expected, over the course of a career, to develop numerous unique and creative ideas to solve problems.  The same person must wear many hats and apply innovation to many different types of challenges.


Take a Break

During its journey from North America to Mexico, the monarch butterfly crosses the Gulf of Mexico.  Scientists have found a unique location from which to monitor these creatures in the middle of their transit – oil rig platforms.  Scientists have observed the butterflies landing on the platforms and resting before continuing their journey south and posit that perhaps the creatures are attracted by the lights on the rigs in the midst of a sea of darkness.  Scientists who spent several nights on the oil platforms noticed that at daybreak the butterflies spread their wings to warm their flight muscles then resumed their journey.  Scientists liken the wings to solar panels in their ability to absorb heat and transfer it to the flight muscles.

Innovation Insight – Although monarch butterflies have been migrating to Mexico and crossing the Gulf for thousands and thousands of years, they have not always had a place to stop and rest along the way.  Oil rigs in the region are a relatively new phenomenon, with the first derrick out of sight of land deployed in 1947.  Clearly the butterflies had been able to make the journey for thousands of years before the appearance of the first well, but the behavior of the butterfly when encountering an oil platform results in an interesting observation.  The butterfly could probably make the entire journey without assistance but it chooses not to do so.  Likewise, an innovator could single-handedly drive an entire innovation program himself or herself, but if others are offering to help, the innovator should gladly accept the assistance.  There is no award for heroism in innovation.  The award lies in the end result.  If someone offers to help, the innovator should smile and add that person to the team.


Internal Guidance

One of the mysteries about the monarch migration is how these butterflies are able to fly thousands of miles and converge in a single location in Central Mexico.  Scientists have discovered a clue to this puzzle in that the trans-volcanic range in Central Mexico contains large deposits of heavy metals near the Earth’s surface.  This geologic phenomenon creates an anomalous magnetic field.  Scientists have also found that the monarchs have tiny particles of magnetite in their wings, thorax, and abdomen, and the magnetite in their bodies rotate like a compass inside a cell and may help them navigate to this specific place on the planet.

Innovation Insight – When faced with a distant objective, an innovator can sometimes get overwhelmed by the vast gulf that lies between him or her and the overall goal.  For instance, a leader may set a goal for an organization that is beyond a ”stretch” goal and may require a number of innovations to reach.  When the innovator is positioned at step 0 of 10, it may seem daunting and one may doubt that he or she will ever get to step 10.  In this scenario the example of the monarch is perhaps instructive.  Just as the monarch internalizes (tiny particles of magnetite) the objective (the heavy metal-laden trans-volcanic range), so too can the innovator internalize an objective so that it does not seem so far out of reach.  It can be a physical act of internalizing, such as spending time with a research team working on a new prototype, or as simple as putting reminders all around one’s workspace, such as “zero defects by 2020” or some other slogan that encapsulates the objective of the overall initiative.  Seeing or living the goal on a daily basis brings it home to the innovator and makes it feel more attainable.


Follow the Milkweed

Milkweed plants are only source of food a butterfly’s offspring will eat.  Butterflies have a keen sense of smell and can identify a milkweed plant from miles away.  Butterflies can also recognize the leaf shape and will scratch a leaf with its legs then taste the leaf with its proboscis to make sure it has found the correct plant on which to lay eggs.  Caterpillars, which emerge from these eggs, are eating machines whose purpose is to build up raw materials for next stage of life.  A caterpillar can eat its own weight in leaf matter in a single day and can multiply its birthweight 3,000 times in less than two weeks.  When the monarchs depart from Mexico to return to North America, their migration follows the blooming of the milkweed plants as they spread from south to north, following the increasing warmth and sunshine of springtime.

Innovation Insight – As innovators we are sometimes tempted to get out in front of our support networks, whether that be colleagues or Executive Sponsors.  We want to be on the cutting edge of thought and push boundaries, but the lesson of the monarch is that it is important to recognize and not outpace our support mechanisms.  A monarch that flies too far north too quickly will find itself without milkweed plants to support its offspring, and that generation will not make it through its lifecycle.  As such, an innovator should work closely with his or her support team to make sure that he or she is not too far out in front of an initiative.


Benefits of a Short Lifespan

The asymmetric four generations of the monarch butterfly are puzzling at first glance.  After all, why would the first three sets of butterflies only survive two to six weeks while the Methuselah generation survives for months?  Would not it make more sense for there to be two Methuselah generations lasting for six months each to round out the year?  It is possible that the shortened lifecycles of the first three generations allow the butterfly to align its growth cycles with the spreading milkweed as spring moves into summer.  In the end, however, it may be that this is just a mysterious characteristic of the monarch butterfly.

Innovation Insight – This example can remind innovators that short lifecycles are not always a negative thing.  When working on a project, a quick phase, or a series of quick phases back-to-back, may yield results that are better than would be the case if one tried to run the entire duration of a project from start to finish.  Breaking up work into smaller phases can make those individual phases more manageable.  Likewise, an innovation does not always have to be the most complex, all-encompassing solution to a problem.  It may be a series of smaller steps that are taken individually but then collectively result in a better outcome.



Photos Courtesy of the Author

Clearworks Customer Insights

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden

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Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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