The Red Queen Effect and Innovation Speed

October 12th, 2011 | Posted by John Kapeleris in Innovation

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” Albert Einstein

The “Red Queen Effect” refers to the Lewis Carroll (1872) story “Alice Through the Looking Glass” where we read that the Red Queen runs hard but never gets anywhere because the surrounding landscape is also moving. The Red Queen tells Alice, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place”. The Red Queen Effect metaphor is very relevant to business – you need to run hard to stay up with the competition, otherwise if you do nothing you will fall behind.

Innovation speed (which is implied by the Red Queen Effect) refers to the length of time it takes for a product or service to move from idea to commercialisation. Many entrepreneurs and organisations struggle to quickly translate an idea to a successful product or service, and therefore are left behind. Some of the reasons may include lack of available early stage risk capital, lack of skills and experience, difficulty in aligning the product or service to the market need, fear of failure, difficulty in accessing resources or inability to manage risk. Improving innovation speed provides a number of advantages for the innovator, including:

  • First to market advantage
  • Reduced R&D expenditure and other costs
  • Improved profitability
  • Maximising value before patent expiry

The “Red Queen Effect” is occurring all around us; in new technology developments, increased competition through globalisation, climate change and the rapidly evolving business environment. We also find the “Red Queen Effect” impacting on our personal lives. Rapid and discontinuous change is the main cause of the “Red Queen Effect”.

To stay ahead of the competition organisations must take the advice of the Red Queen, “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” The metaphor implies that for businesses to be able to run at least twice as fast, they will require innovation to allow them to think differently and outperform their competition.

Does the Red Queen Effect apply to your organisation or personal life?

Dr John Kapeleris

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5 Responses

  • John,
    I find that this applies to ‘knowledge’ – potentially useful new knowledge is becoming available continuously at sources like HBR, business books, other journals, TED talks, the blogs and other entries in my RSS feeds, podcasts, video streams, professional conversations, workshops, seminars, conferences, etc.

    Maybe we can apply some “work smarter, not harder” strategies using (or at the very least take comfort from) the great circle navigators. While the Red Queen is running faster in a straight line, perhaps we can go a little slower and still get ahead by finding the ‘great circle’ needed to get there.

    I am thinking at my keyboard here, but here is an example: I often read up to 5 business books in a month and hope the content will stick. Instead I could pick 1 business book; read it two or three times; reflect on how it applies to my situation; encourage a colleague to read it too, and have a coffee with her/him and discuss how it applies; then do something differently as a result. It could take less time than reading 5 books, and result in tangible change.


    • John Kapeleris says:

      Hi Geoff,

      I agree that the Red Queen Effect applies to the knowledge space, as everyone is overwhelmed with the amount of information they are bombarded with on a daily basis. We spend enormous amounts of time sifting through all the information (emails, newsletters, blogs, articles, books, seminars etc) to identify those specific gems of new knowledge that we can practically apply that could make a difference in our personal and working lives.

      I like your idea of running a little slower and not in a straight line to find the best “pathway” that will provide a competitive advantage. This approach is very common with “fast-followers” that gain a competitive advantage over the “first-movers” who are running fast in a straight line. Many fast-followers such as google, iTunes, and Internet Explorer eventually outperformed the first-movers in their industry sector, AltaVista, Napster and Netscape Navigator respectively.

      It’s great to know that you read 5 books per month as you are outperforming many Fortune 500 CEOs who generally read about 4 books per month. From my perspective the answer lies in two areas: 1. Choose the right books that will have the most compelling influence (be selective), and 2. Engage in some training in speed reading and improved comprehension. I undertook three courses in speed reading before I ventured into an enhanced reading program. My reading speed and comprehension increased substantially. Perhaps this is an example of “working smarter, not harder” and circumventing the Red Queen Effect. You can find out about some of the books I have read (and still reading) at link to We should be sharing our thoughts on the books we read with colleagues as this opens up discussion and different points of view to inspire change and personal development. This could be done through one-on-one interaction, through a local book club, or perhaps through an online forum or online book club.



  • For what it’s worth Geoff and John, I found that my reading-diet was lacking in fiction. So I set about increasing the amount of fiction in my diet. I started with the short-listed Booker and other Awards and consider that I have benefited from the transition. And, if I want to ‘spoil’ the experience, I can relate the different themes to everyday life. And when I add non-fiction to my intake, the ‘words of wisdom’ take on an additional meaning.

    Go well.

    • John Kapeleris says:

      Thanks Neil for your input. You are correct that we also need to add some fiction to our “reading diets”. Personally, I like to read Michael Chricton for his techno-thriller novels suchs as “Prey”, “Rising Sun”, “State of Fear” and “Disclosure”. I also enjoy Tom Clancy’s spy and techno-thriller novels and James Patterson’s thrillers. However, you can’t go wrong with the classic novels from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.




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