Enemies of the “Adjacent Possible”

In “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2010),” Steven Johnson writes about “the adjacent possible.” I love that phrase. The possible is always in reach. “The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

In business, I see a couple enemies of the adjacent possible that may hinder its being tapped and thereby impeding innovation and successful change. Both of them are fed by our inner voice of fear. First is our inability to collaborate well. Collaboration is bringing the contribution of each individual fully to the conversation so that decisions are balanced, informed, appropriate, and will produce a high degree of engagement, commitment, action, and accountability. Collaboration is messy. It is less expedient. And, it requires us to be vulnerable in front of others. So, we don’t collaborate very much. If we do, it may not even be real collaboration. What passes for collaboration in most corporations today looks like this: A string of monologues as people passively observe the presentations of others, usually in the form of large PowerPoint slide decks. We share our output with others; we do not share our process. Johnson writes, “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts.” Our tendency to not engage in collaborative inquiry hinders our capacity to tap the adjacent possible.

Another enemy of the adjacent possible is the pace at which we move through our days, weeks, months, and quarters. We tell ourselves that the world never sleeps. We must keep moving. We can’t afford to slow down to reflect. We can’t afford to engage others in collaborative inquiry. We can’t afford to look carefully at what’s going on around us. We can’t afford to explore too many options in our search for the optimal solution. These are all lies told to us by an inner voice of fear.

I believe that we cannot afford not to slow down to reflect, to engage others in collaborative inquiry, to look carefully at what’s going on around us, to explore all our options in order to find the optimal solution rather than the obvious one. The fear-fed delusion that we cannot slow down keeps us from collaborating as much as we could and should. The delusion that we cannot slow down keeps us downloading old solutions on new problems and challenges. And so we miss the adjacent possible and the chance to reinvent ourselves, our teams, our organizations and our world. We have met the enemy and it is us.

Photo – The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893)

Categories: Leadership.