THE HUMAN GREED PYRAMID: Those who control the world and why innovations have to mirror evolutionary human behaviour to be successful

The Human Greed Pyramid by Tiisetso Maloma
The Human Greed Pyramid by Tiisetso Maloma

This is a revised post from my latest two books (6th and 7th): ‘Innovate the Next: Success Frameworks to Innovating Products in Any Revolution’ and ‘Understanding the 4th Industrial Revolution & Innovation Easily.’ They are available on Amazon, in South African bookstores, and on my website.

What if there was a framework to explain the innovation, success, and effectiveness of almost everything? Be it in music, technology, comedy, medicine, entrepreneurship or other creative fields.

This is what I’ve indulged in for a long while now.

The Adjacent Possible Theory by Stuart A. Kauffman is great in illustrating how innovation forms and ascends.

I’ve plotted a framework that illustrates how innovation interrelates with human consumption, and how to plot innovation that will work on humans. I call it The Human Greed Pyramid.

First, let’s form a frame to understand Success, Effectiveness and Innovation and so set the wheel of understanding what innovation is and how it works

Below, for the sake of understanding, I would like to paint a graphic picture to illustrate the distinction between success, effectiveness and innovation.

When innovation is successful, it means it has touched a point of effectiveness, i.e. a place where innovation collides with the elements that it is supposed to drive and affect.


  • When a comedian tells a joke and his/her audience laughs, the joke is the innovation. The audience laughing manifests the effectiveness of the joke (the innovation), i.e. the mark the comedian is aiming to hit.
  • When a soccer player kicks a ball and scores a goal, the kicking of the ball is the innovation; the ball hitting the net is the effectiveness.
  • When an entrepreneur creates a product, if it works to achieve sales beyond break-even point (BEP), it means it is effective, successful and innovative.

Therefore, innovation is that which works, i.e. is effective, and therefore successful.

N.B. I haven’t yet said anything about newness (novelty).

Where does newness (novelty) come in when we talk of innovation?

Comedians tell their old jokes to crowds who know the jokes and still laugh. We watch comedy specials we’ve seen many times and still laugh because the jokes are still effective and therefore successful and innovative (as per the understanding that we’ve garnered above).

Also, when a comedian performs a new joke and the audience laughs, it is likewise innovation: the joke is effective and thus successful.

A new entrepreneur can make similar products to those of another business. If these new products sell beyond BEP, they are classified as an innovation, i.e. they work and they are effective and thus successful.

Innovation is that which works, i.e. is effective and thus successful.

This is regardless of whether it is new or old. If it works, it is innovative because it is effective and successful.

This is how success, innovation and effectiveness interplay.

I realise that this definition of ‘innovative’ is contrary to our general understanding of ‘innovative’, in that an innovative thing has to have newness (novelty) in it, right? That is ok, but please, for this post to effectively provide you with an understanding of that for which we are gathered here today (can I get an Amen?), assume innovation is that which works and is not necessarily just new.

Therefore, in this post, I will refer to innovation that has newness (novelty) as ‘new innovation’ and innovation that is old (effective) as ‘innovation.’

Humans are greedy: Pushing innovation forward

Human beings are greedy. We constantly want to beat the mark and push the boundaries of what has already been innovated. We want to push forward effectiveness, i.e. pushing innovation forward to achieve ‘new innovation.’

Everyone wants to create novelties – be it in comedy (Comedians want new jokes, i.e. novel jokes), technology or storytelling, etc.

It has been so since the beginning of man’s time on earth. (Or ‘Homo sapiens’ as evolutionary scientists call us.)

We are a species that can think of an object and build it, then innovate it further unlike our lookalike neighbours, the monkeys, or any other animals as far as we know – from dogs to fish to birds or any other wonders of the animal kind. No animals other than humans have ever built a car.

Human cognitive thought is special in that way – seemingly better than any other animals and maybe even more dangerous.

Imagine what could happen if monkeys learned, and remembered how to use guns. They could – if they decided to – start killing us off. (Why? Because we’ve been greedily taking away all the land we are meant to share with them and other animals, and keeping it to feed our covetous materialism).

But, they won’t learn or pursue that because they are not like us; their cognitive function limits them to just eating bananas, as opposed to making a banana shake with a blender they’ve invented. They invent absolutely nothing those monkeys, all they do all day is eat food they didn’t plant.

Humans build. We created gunpowder, then everything from guns to nuclear bombs and we continue to create more lethal and agile weapons. Our cognition is set up that way, i.e. it allows us to build weapons and then more dangerous weapons, cars and then faster cars, so on and so forth.

We keep pushing forward

We want to keep pushing innovation forward, i.e. cognitively advancing innovation into new innovation.

Can we trace points of innovation and new innovation – i.e. points of effectiveness? Enter, the Adjacent Possible Theory

The Adjacent Possible Theory by Stuart A. Kauffman is effective in explaining the points.

My Human Greed Pyramid helps us understand, in a hierarchical sense, the realm, factors, advantages and rules within which we live and are bound by, in order to innovate and produce new innovations:

(a) Nature (including humans), (b) Human Behavioural Inclinations, (c) Functional Cognition, (d) Culture, (e) Enterprising Innovation (f) Novel Innovation and the overlying layer i.e. (g) Creative Cognition.

I will explain The Human Greed Pyramid later.

The Adjacent Possible is a theory coined by theoretical biologist Stuart A. Kauffman to explain and model the evolution of Planet Earth.

The theory states that our planet evolved and continues to evolve as per the order allowed by the environment at any particular time. For a certain novelty to form – e.g. sunflowers (before they were sunflowers), it is dependent, restricted and possible because of existing factors of the present environment.

Here is my interpretation of evolution as I understand it: In order for living organisms to exist (human beings included), billions of years ago atoms broke up and then collided, some connected as they collided and some didn’t. Those that connected formed into molecules and the molecules collided and connected to form living organisms. It played, and continues to play, like that until new novelties formed, e.g. sunflowers, human beings, etc.

A Human being (Homo-sapiens) is also a living organism: a formation and combination of organisms. Nature pushed forward to bring a novelty into being; a novelty that became us, just like comedians push to write and test new jokes that they hope will work.

So human beings are an innovation; possibly not a new innovation, since we are believed to have existed in our present (Homo-sapiens) form for anywhere up to 300 000 years, but certainly, our biology is evolving; it adjusts to the ever-changing environment.

The Adjacent Possible Theory has been adopted by other people to explain even man-made innovations. Examples include:

Illustration of the Adjacent Possible Theory: Explaining new-innovation:

Above: Adjacent Possible illustration

  • The shaded circles are actual developments in existence, i.e. innovation that currently exists, or those we can call ‘old innovation’.
  • The empty circles represent new possible innovations, i.e. The Adjacent Possible. If they work (are effective), they will be new innovations (novelties).
  • It proposes that new innovations can only stem from current innovations. The new innovation is possible because of a combination or collision of existing innovations – just like humans were formed from a collision of molecules and organisms.
  • g. A new music genre (an Adjacent Possible) can only come from connecting actual music tools: If blues music is new, it takes from, and/or combines, existing elements, i.e. an evolved singing style and the guitar.
  • Even jokes are a combination and/or collusion, reflection and/or juxtaposition of more than one thing. It could easily be like saying a phrase and adding a wink to it.
  • Example of a joke: – ‘Q: Why are men’s feet on average longer than women’s? A: So they can stand further from responsibility.’ That’s a funny joke I made up. It mixes both genders, adds feet and reflects a societal perception that men run away from parental responsibility.

Let’s apply the Adjacent Possible to YouTube

YouTube branding

The Adjacent Possible illustration

  • YouTube started out in 2005.
  • B. YouTube had few competitors when it started, the likes of Vimeo and Dailymotion. We could say it fell under a new class of innovation that was online video streaming. It became the alpha of this pack, in that it kicked all the others’ asses; the natural selection of the strongest.
  • So we will use YouTube as an example, as it has all the correct nuances to explain the Adjacent Possible.
  • Before the creation of YouTube, it was only a possibility, i.e. an Adjacent Possible.
  • It was founded in 2005, and later the same year, it announced it had reached 100 million video views per day[4].
  • By 2005, internet use had grown to about a billion users worldwide: YouTube’s 100 million streams per day were within this parameter.
  • YouTube operates on the World Wide Web (the web). The web is a platform for YouTube.
  • The web (internet for the masses), was created in 1991 and, at that time, no country had more than 1 Internet user per 100 people according to com.
  • Had YouTube been founded in 1991, it would have failed due to low internet usage. YouTube had to wait for a feasible Adjacent Possible in 2006 to reach 100 million streams per day.

Now, moving on to the innovation of YouTube, i.e. how and why it became effective and a success mechanically: combination/collusion of two properties

  • Earlier I mentioned that innovation mixes two or more things.
  • YouTube combines two things: video and the internet. Separately, they both have millions of users, even in 2005.
  • YouTube receives success by mixing two demographics with mass audiences, i.e. internet + video (by 2005 video had millions of users – it gained millions of users through the evolution of platforms such as television, cameras, cassettes, DVDs and hard disks).
  • The fusing of video and the internet turns video into an agile tool, i.e. availing of free video uploads and stream virtually to anyone in the world with access to the internet.
  • A new innovation has a pattern of agility.
  • I call it stacking for agility, i.e. fusing two or more things; at least one of which has a sizeable following, or usage. Otherwise, it fails, i.e. like YouTube would have failed had it came out in 1991, for the simple reason that there weren’t enough users on the internet to attain 100 million streams per day.
  • Steven Johnson (author of ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’), calls such an innovation ‘ahead of its time.’
  • From this, we denote that new innovation has to sit on a platform, or at least be derived from a particle with a feasible amount of users. Or else it fails. The other part of the combination can, however, be any size.

The Human Greed Pyramid: An illustration of how innovation interrelates with human consumption patterns, natural inclinations, cognition and culture, and how to plot innovation that will work on humans

The Human Greed Pyramid by Tiisetso Maloma
The Human Greed Pyramid by Tiisetso Maloma

Human beings (people) are part of Nature (first layer in the pyramid) and thus the subject of the Human Greed Pyramid. They are the main players.

  • People have Human Behavioural Inclinations. It is where consumption patterns are shaped. It is the evolutionary biology and psychology of the choices we make, either consciously or subconsciously.
  • Behaviour in biology (as per is defined as: “Behaviour pertains to the (aggregate of) acts or reactions that an organism, an individual or a system produces in response to a particular circumstance. It may be induced by stimuli or inputs from the environment whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary. It may be innate. It means it may be based on instinct or natural action (or inaction), originating from inside an organism or a cell. Or, it may be acquired (or learned) based on previous experiences or exposure. Genetic factors seem to affect the behaviour of an individual or organism as well. A subfield in genetics called behavioural genetics examines the role of genetic and environmental factors on the behaviour of animals (including humans).”
  • Crying, laughing, hunger, walking, running, headaches, anger, love, eating etc, are all our Human Behavioural Inclinations.
  • It is me taking cocaine knowing it is bad for me. It is you judging me badly for it. And it is all the ways a person can view drugs – from positive to negative.
  • It drives me to buy drugs. It drives governments to declare war on drugs.
  • It is a newborn baby knowing instinctively to suck breast for milk without anyone teaching him. It is conscious and subconscious.
  • It is me having discernment, or not.
  • All consumer consumption – for food and bad drugs – is driven by Human Behavioural Inclinations.
  • Functional Cognition is the ability to recognise the utility in bad drugs – even if the high is short-lived. Functional Cognition is how we understand the world and how to get utility from its innovations, i.e. man-made and nature-given.
  • As young children, we grew up loving candy, later, we found out that money buys candy. Because we loved and wanted candy, and we then realised that money buys candy, we wanted money so that we could go and buy candy. Even if we did not know the value of money, or even how to count, we wanted money to go buy candy. You could have asked your parents for R10 000 for candy, whereas it only cost R1.
  • Functionally, we knew what utility candy serves. And functionally we understood that money’s utility is that it buys candy. That is Functional Cognition; it recognised the utility of money and candy.
  • If you give a monkey ice cream, it will enjoy it. Monkeys love sweet things. The next time it sees ice cream, it will functionally understand that it is a nice thing. In Cape Town, monkeys steal ice cream and food from people. Monkeys can functionally understand the utility that ice cream serves. Monkeys and Humans share the same ancestors who loved sugar.
  • Although monkeys love ice cream, and functionally they understand and want the utility that it serves, their Functional Cognition does not extend to being able to learn how to make ice cream. Culture is everything humans do, i.e. religion, atheism, eating candy, eating food, consuming bad drugs, etc. Enterprising Innovation is where the leaders and suppliers of culture operate. The priests, business people, government etc.
  • Novel Innovation is where new or novel things are introduced, e.g. the first muffin ever, the first car ever.
  • A car is made at Novel Innovation for the first time. It is supplied to people at Enterprising Innovation, people understand its utility through their Functional Cognition, their inclinations push them to buy because; e.g. it can get to a loved one (Human Behavioural Inclination).
  • A car can get you to work. Thereafter you can buy your children candy.
  • A car is made for people with resources from nature, e.g. steel.
  • Creative Cognition is those who contribute or control Novel Innovation and Enterprising Innovation to thus get results. It is the entrepreneurs and the priests.
  • Successful innovations become Culture, i.e. what people do or consume.
  • Successful man-made innovations mirror Human Behavioural Inclinations.

Let’s plot the Human Greed Pyramid and the Adjacent Possible and apply it to YouTube

  • People crave (Human Behavioural Inclination) entertainment. We’ve evolved to crave it.
  • They then create entertainment utensils at novel innovation via their creative cognition.
  • Their creative cognition can create objects that feed inclinations.
  • People created video to store moments for entertainment.
  • They created the internet.
  • These two both had millions of users even before they were fused.
  • Innovation is achieved through achieving agility: creating faster and smarter cars.
  • It follows a route of mixing more than one property or thing – anything.
  • Combining video and the internet is innovation as it creates agility. Video and the internet form an agile virtual tool. This is stacking for agility.
  • Video and the internet were huge demographics with millions of users individually. YouTube combined these demographics, hence it is successful.
  • This Adjacent Possible of there being video and internet became YouTube, an agile innovation that fuses the two.

Innovation is competitive. Everyone, inadvertently or not, is using a Greed Pyramid to gain a following that hopefully produces results favourable to them, i.e. religious institutions, entrepreneurs, soccer teams, politicians, mining companies, etc. The result could be money, political power, creative superiority, technology, etc.

Newness and the Human Greed Pyramid

It can be argued as to whether YouTube was a new innovation or not. Nevertheless, as I said before, it was possibly new in that it fell within the category of the new innovation that was online video streaming.

Or it may even have been a new innovation in terms of its business model (marketing and location-specific advantages – located in the USA). Businesses, on top of novelty, compete on business models.

Therefore, your cause or venture could be an old innovation, but is new and powerful in how it is marketed or modelled, or it may have an advantage because of its location.

How can you use the Human Greed Pyramid?

  • You can use it to brainstorm or test a cause, product, idea or campaign – be it entrepreneurial or otherwise.
  • Check how an idea or product touches or mirrors inclinations, and devise how further to twist it to mirror/suit the inclinations.
  • Test the innovation of an idea and if it will affect culture, i.e. dominate and/or become part of the culture. Are you stacking for agility? Does one of the properties or combinations stacked for agility have a massive user base already? Successful innovations become a culture, as has video and YouTube. With the help of this pyramid, you can think it through.
  • Is it an old innovation or a new one? I.e. is it effective? Is it stacking for agility?
  • Of course, all this is Creative Cognition at play. What you think (innovate), i.e. your cognitive Adjacent Possible, is the stacking up of your knowledge, experience and networks.
  • Where are you getting the material (nature) for your product? Has it already been made?
  • Happy thinking.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (abbreviated 4IR or also called Digital Revolution) is nothing but innovation moving forward in the manners detailed throughout this post. It also applies to all of the previously defined Industrial Revolution categories: First Industrial Revolution (mechanisation, water power and steam power), Second Industrial Revolution (mass production, assembly lines) and Third Industrial Revolution (computers and automation).

It is the stacking of two or more properties to produce more agile tools or products. Like YouTube mixed video and the internet to produce virtual video, the Fourth Industrial Revolution carries that forward, i.e. fusing today’s technology or innovations to produce other new innovations.

[1] Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History of Innovation (Illustrated Edition, October 4, 2011), ISBN 9781594485381 , by Steven Johnson

[2] Township Biz Adjacent (20 April 2018)

[3] Waves of Novelties in the Expansion into the Adjacent Possible (08 June 2017)