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Exploring the Adjacent Possible

Over the summer, a friend recommended Steve Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From – the natural history of innovation”, not only is it a great book, it contains some really important themes that I think are worth calling out for future exploration. Here’s a few that resonated with me (and why) but you can expect to hear more about these in the coming weeks. (Anyone paying attention will also note that Johnson dedicates a whole chapter in his book to “serendipity” – I have excluded it from this post not because I don’t find it relevant but because I want to focus on it much more deeply in the near future.)

1) The Adjacent Possible
This is one of those “obvious now that you mention it” kind of things where simply, when you are looking for the best ideas, or what makes ideas work, you have to find the ideas that are adjacent to existing concepts, two steps away is too far and will never happen, one step away and you’re in. This is where the natural history meme comes in, if you think about evolution, you can’t start at the big bang and immediately make humans or sunflowers or puppies or chicken tikka massala (although I’m thinking there would have been enough heat there for a pretty efficient tandoor oven so you could have had a shot at that last one), the point is you have to incrementally change all those atoms and molecules over a period of time until the evolutionary process provides you with the opportunity to move that final strand of DNA or molecule to make that complex outcome or even Graham Norton.

hovercarThis principle is exactly the same for our ideas, the reason I can’t have my hovercar is because the concept is not adjacent to our existing ideas or technological capabilities – we simply lack the building blocks to put it together (although, after hearing about that Swiss bloke practising fusion in his kitchen, you’ve got to think that somewhere out there, is a Doc Brown waiting to happen).

In the book, Johnson uses the analogy of a house with infinite rooms, all interconnected. You walk into the first room, it has 4 doors each connected to further rooms with further doors. You can’t go to any room in the house without first traversing a series of other, connected rooms. This is where some of the inherent beauty of the adjacent possible lies, it’s potential grows exponentially with every new stage of discovery.

It’s also a great tool to try and use when you’re trying to validate the strength of any given idea – does it represent the adjacent possible or the distant impossible?

2) Liquid Networks & Exaptation
Forgive me, while I get all Hybrid Organisation on your collective asses, but we’ve been talking for a couple of years now, about the importance of workplace design and its relationship to the collective innovation of a team or organisation. Johnson provides some nice analogies that help to push that story a little further. So, close your eyes, put yourself back a few years and imagine yourself back in the 5th form at school, in double Physics to be precise, just before your mock O’level. Using the concept of solids, liquids and gases, Johnson describes the inherent ability for individuals (acting like molecules) to oscillate those individuals around them (stop sniggering at the back Coplin, I said “oscillate”). If you constrain the extent to which the individuals can move, i.e. restrict their office layout with offices and cubicles, it’s like the molecules in a solid, they exist but have little effect on each other. If you go to the other extreme and remove all constraints (i.e. no office at all) you end up with chaos (the collaborative equivalent of a gaseous state) where molecules dissipate into the environment and have little effect on each other.

What you really want, he proposes, (and the Hybrid Organisation agrees) is a liquid state, where the molecules are free to move around but remain within the overall context of the organisation. Molecules can bounce around inside the liquid, resulting in an agile collective can change shape and move as needs dictate. This is essentially creating the perfect environment for collaboration, innovation and exaptation. Exaptation? That’s when an organism develops a trait for a specific use, then that trait gets hijacked for a completely different purpose. Feathers are the classic example of this, initially evolved to provide temperature regulation for birds, the birds discovered that they’re also pretty good for flying too, and then evolution takes over and you end up with streamlined aerofoils rather than fluffy, downy warmth.

Exaptation of ideas is a huge part of innovation and is also a crucial part of serendipity. Like serendipity, it also requires a free, liquid network that enables disparate ideas, individuals or concepts to come together to create innovation.

3) The Slow Hunch – Why Eureka! Takes Time
EurekaThere’s not much to this important concept, other than it dispels the myth that most of our great innovations come from single individuals who experience a “light bulb” moment and have the big idea. Although that explanation may work for Hollywood because it’s a better and easier story to tell, the reality is that many of the important discoveries, innovations and ideas of our entire history are actually the result of lifetimes of work and study often bordering onto obsession. We know this inherently, but often choose to ignore it. Our best ideas, are often the ones that we’ve left to fester at the back of our minds, nurtured and tended by, a long shower or a long walk, to help them mature to their full potential. <Assumes crap French accent> “Ideas are like fine wines, they need time to mature, percolate and infuse” .

The reality of the slow hunch is actually a cumulative factor that builds on liquid networks, exaptation and serendipity – all elements that make our view on _­discovery_ so crucial to our overall objective in search. What is key then, is to be able to feed, nurture and evolve an individual concept over a long period of time, incredibly though it seems that in order to make the breakthrough, the concept needs to be at the background of your cognitive activity not the foreground, slowly percolating away to completion.

You may not see the link in all of this, but every time I walk into the office I do. These days, I know I’m pretty lucky, I have a job that makes it easy for me to explore the adjacent possible, to “exapt” ideas by forming a liquid network of influencers and thought leaders inside and outside of Microsoft – but I also can see the constraints, especially as we get busier, we don’t always have time for the slow hunch to mature, and we find it hard to leave the safe confines of our team, office or sector. My encouragement to you is to make time, make time to cultivate new ideas, make time to speak to people outside of your team, make time to explore the adjacent possible. It won’t help you today, but I guarantee it will set the stage for your greatness tomorrow.

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