There was a terrific piece in the WSJ on Saturday. In an excerpt from the soon to be published Where Good ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson writes about “the adjacent possible.” “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 impede innovation and successful change. 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. What passes for collaboration in most corporations today is 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.
I believe that we can’t 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 delusion that we cannot slow down keeps us 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.