Exaptation: The Power of the Pivot

13 Dec 2018 - David Hackman

I first heard the term Exaptation at Agile Tour London 2018. It wasn’t a term I was aware of before, but it piqued my interest during Liz Keogh’s opening talk. In simple terms Exaptation is making use of something in a way other than the initial intention or design for use. I’d like to talk about a few good examples of Exaptation in this post.

One of the most powerful natural examples of Exaptation is bird flight. Feathers were not originally intended for flight, instead their purpose was heat regulation and attraction of the opposite sex for reproductive purposes. Flight was a by-product of the fact that they had wings, but it is (in most cases, barring Ostriches etc.) now the characteristic that is quintessential to the concept of a bird.

Technology, too, has seen significant examples of Exaptation throughout the years. The rockets used by NASA (Werner Von Braun’s V2 rocket) to allow humankind to breach the barrier of making orbit was due to the exaptation of the technology of the rocket. The explosive power of the first ICBM was transformed to enable Space flight instead of enhancing a nation’s firepower. A weapon of war’s purpose was completely altered to allow the Global civilization to a take step forward and look up to the stars, instead of each other’s borders. On a slightly lighter note, LSD was never intended to be a recreation drug and its psychotropic properties were only found 5 years after it’s initial synthesize.

In Software as well, there are strong examples of companies pivoting because they create something that becomes so essential, it must become the entire focus of their operations. A fantastic example is the all reaching Social Media platform Twitter. Twitter was formed out of a podcast Publishing house called Odeo, and the tool itself was more about internal messaging. When the team realised the power of their code, they pivoted away from the crowded Podcast industry and are now a household name.

Slack also came from a company focussed on a completely distinct vertical. At the time the company behind Slack were working on a browser based MMO. They built a set of tools around this MMO to help their admins and their community managers work with their users. This tool became SLACK (Searchable Log of All Knowledge and Conversation). The MMO that Tiny Speck were working on was called Glitch. How many people know about that game compared to the success that Slack has enjoyed since?

Exaptation doesn’t just come from a failing company though, it can also occur in extremely successful ones. In gaming, Valve pivoted from making games to selling them through Steam. This developer was one of the highest regarded in the industry and had just released the critically acclaimed Half Life 2. Rather than continue to make this series, Valve pivoted and decided they could be more successful selling games and owning the PC ecommerce space. They do still of course make games, but it would be hard to argue that this is their purpose anymore.

Here, at TeamUp Labs, our goal is to make tools that improve your ability to build valuable software as a team. Our first tool, the Example Mapping tool, has been well received and we have received a lot of feedback. We’re continuing to enhance the functionality with focus on splitting and drag and drop in the UI, but we’d love to hear what you need to make it as helpful as possible in the use cases you have. I’ve personally used it for Feature Kick Offs, and other members of the team have used it for SWOT analysis amongst other things, but we recognise the tool will be used in ways beyond our original intentions, and we’d love to hear more about how you, our users, have exapted it!

Thanks for reading. As always, you can get in touch with us directly @TeamUpLabs. Looking forward to hearing from you.

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