The Barnacle Theory

The Barnacle Theory: Please Don’t Foul the Hull

The Barnacle Theory: Please Don’t Foul the Hull

Mark B. Mondry, NPDP

Originally published: 2013 (PDMA Visions Magazine Issue 3, 2013 • Vol 37 • No 3)
Read time: 5 minutes

"True innovators will attract large clusters of people and organizations who seek to ride along on the innovation, attaching themselves to its likely success with no intent to assist in achieving a positive outcome other than self-preservation."

You’ve heard of barnacles. They are those small, obnoxious crustaceans that attach themselves to all matter of things like boats, docks, rocks and anything else attractive in the water. Scientists refer to them as crustacean “suspension feeders.” They attach themselves to something and set up life on their host substrate. Once attached to their chosen structure, they secrete a hard shell around themselves for protection and go about sucking the nutrients out of the surrounding water in order to grow and survive. They don’t enhance the host structure in any way; they merely use it for their own self-preservation.

Let's Go On A Voyage

Now, I have this theory. I call it the barnacle theory, and it helps me place players in the innovation ecosystem. The theory evolved from my work in many companies and observing countless careers within and around those companies. All of these organizations and individuals are self-proclaimed “innovative” players in the sea of global business. Yet, despite the innovation badge, I could see that much of their activity was not helping create and bring new products and services to market. In fact, a significant amount of activity appeared to be detrimental, producing nothing positive other than than self-preservation of the individual—like a barnacle. This was true in multi-national conglomerates, small startups and everything in-between. It is amazing, actually.

The Oceans Of Innovation

In the vast oceans of commerce, there are all kinds of businesses striving to be more innovative. As customers continually demand faster, better and cheaper products and services, companies respond with innovation or perish. There is a wonderful analogy Mark B. Mondry, NPdP The Barnacle Theory: Please Don’t Foul the Hull • 5 between the innovation ecosystem and the maritime system. Picture innovation efforts and the companies forging these efforts as ocean-going vessels, navigating the vast expanse of open waters. Some are huge, slow-moving ships and others are smaller, more nimble boats.

Also, among the expansive ocean of opportunity is all manner of potentially dangerous flotsam1 floating about, drifting aimlessly. Collectively, these structures represent elements of innovation commerce; the big ships and small boats are active businesses, and the flotsam represents that which has been lost or abandoned (old businesses or business models) or just potentially damaging artifacts in the reality of bringing new products and services to market (patent litigation, project delays, new laws or regulations, etc.). We have a nice nautical theme going here. Stay with me.

Big Ships and Small Boats

The big ships of innovation navigate these blue oceans2 deliberately with a pre-defined course. They move from point A to point B with focus and efficiency, deploying refined policies, procedures and precise roles for each crewmember. What they do, they do well, but making a change in direction is hard to do. Big ships set a destination and generally stick with it. These giant vessels generally ignore flotsam, unless of course it causes actual damage. If damage occurs, there is a procedure to deal with it in due course.

The smaller, more nimble boats are built for swiftness and maneuverability, capable of quick changes in direction and able to react to the inevitable changes in weather. These smaller vessels can react to those massive storms that quickly form on the horizon (like new competitors, bankrupt suppliers, etc.). They accept unpredictability as part of the journey. They are also built to a smaller scale than their big ship brethren, focusing on quicker journeys. Some cast about to specifically pursue epic adventure (the joy of creating disruptive innovation3).

We all can identify with this big ship and small boat innovative business analogy as employees, advisers and service providers. Some like the stability and substance of the big ships (like those companies in the Fortune 100). Others like the responsiveness and excitement of smaller boats (startups, small and medium-sized companies).

Throughout our careers, we select which ocean-going vessels we want to join, considering aspects such as its sea-worthiness, the composition of the crew and the attractiveness and rewards of the destination. If we climb on board as crew, we sign-up for the voyage at hand. We commit, and we participate. We have a vested interest in seeing the voyage successfully completed, and we pour all our energy and abilities into making it happen.

The Hitchhikers

Then there are the barnacles. The barnacles are just along for the ride. They attach to our hull without much deliberation, a passive act in the pursuit of extracting life-sustaining sustenance from the surrounding sea.

In the innovation context, these are the individuals and enterprises that see a potentially successful innovation emerge from afar, like a ship or boat readied for the innovation journey, and they just latch-on without any intent of helping in any way. They adhere not to help make the journey successful, nor as crew, but for the sole purpose of self-preservation. They are passive hitchhikers. In fact, like actual barnacles, these hitchhikers often impede forward progress by causing turbulence and friction between their hard-shell self-protective exterior and the surrounding environment.

A funny thing about actual barnacles, they have competitors and predators. Ironically, one of their survival mechanisms is to rapidly cluster together in the same place, covering a large area. In the event of predator aggression, their sheer numbers allows at least some of them to survive by pure chance. The greater the number of barnacles, the greater the chance of survival for any individual in the group. As you can see, our nautical analogy keeps getting better and better.

The Barnacle Theory Applied

The barnacle theory refers to this reality in our innovation ecosystem: True innovators will attract large clusters of people and organizations who seek to ride along on the innovation, attaching themselves to its likely success with no intent to assist in achieving a positive outcome other than self-preservation. Just like a barnacle on the hull of a ship.

The marine ecosystem works well with barnacles in it, don’t get me wrong. Certainly, barnacles are not all bad. The same applies for the large numbers of people and organizations who prosper from attaching themselves onto the innovation of others. In the recent economic recession, many colleagues of mine found themselves in a barnacle role rather than their preferred role of crew or ship builder. At first, it felt foreign to them, downright unattractive. Over time, their passive role grew more comfortable. After all, it’s an easy ride, looking out for only your own needs. If you see yourself or someone you know on this passive journey, it is time for a change.

Don’t be a barnacle. Build a boat. Build an amazing crew or be an amazing part of the crew. Actively set a course into new waters. But be aware of those who foul the hull.


1Flotsam generally refers to debris, wreckage or waste floating on the ocean’s surface. Flotsam includes things lost at sea from vessels or junk intentionally discarded or thrown overboard.

2Credit goes to the authors of “Blue Ocean Strategy,” as the premise of their excellent work fits well into our nautical analogy, albeit unintentionally. In their book, blue oceans are a metaphor for open, untapped market space. Kim, W. Chan and Mauborgne, Renee, “Blue Ocean Strategy: From Theory to Practice,” HBR Press (2005).

3The term “disruptive innovation” was coined by Clayton Christensen in his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” Christensen, C., “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” HBS Press (1997).

About the Author

Mark B. Mondry, NPdP, Managing Partner, Phase M, llP, works in a variety of industries to identify and establish international collaboration opportunities around the creation and commercialization of innovation. he is an engineer, patent attorney and certified licensing professional (clP) focusing on asia-united states business transactions.

What did you think of this post?

Start a conversation with your peers by posting to our kHUB Discussion board! Browse trending posts and reply to other thought leaders OR start your own discussion by clicking "Post New Message."

Start a Discussion

If you don't have an account with us, create a guest account or become a member today and receive exclusive access to all PDMA member benefits. Please note that both members and non-members are welcome to participate in the kHUB.