A probe is a way to agitate and perturbate the system as a whole into responding in novel and surprising manners. This is the key aspect of a probe: because you cannot logically know what the radically new will be — you have no choice but to poke the system and work with how it responds. Because of this – a probe is not a plan that has an end in mind, nor is it a prototype (a draft version of a possible solution). A probe is simply a considered and strategic way to join and activate a system from within towards disclosing both its propensities and novel affordances.
Of all of the concepts/tools/practices on this list, probes are perhaps the most fundamental and also perhaps the most misunderstood (we will get to that shortly). Ultimately, probes and probing is a fundamental aspect and tool involved in every aspect of Disruptive Innovation.
The big mistake that we see people often make is that they conflate a probe with a test prototype or provisional plan for a specific outcome. A probe is neither – it is rather a system perturbator that has two main goals:
Early on your probes should be semi-reversible – you are still testing the waters.
As you sense propensities and novel emergent exaptations, you begin to experimentally play with variables (what happens if we do more of this and less of that?) while searching for thresholds. Here thresholds are critical – they are the emergent transition zones where a change-in-degree becomes a change-in-kind – where a quantitative change becomes a qualitative change. Exaptive probing has this as its primary focus – can one push a system via exaptive probing towards an emergent novel qualitative change? It is important to remember this is a creative act: the threshold is not pre-existing, it emerges in the process.
As your exaptive probes co-create a novel threshold one needs to shift towards forms of probing that stabilize and expand the qualitatively new. The goal is still not to “solve” something but to either expand the novel terrain or to push the system further into a qualitatively new state (see diagram below):