Innovation, Design, and the Adjacent-Possible

This is a simple depiction of this concept called the adjacent-possible. I’m going to use this visualization to describe a few thoughts about innovation strategy and practices that I hope you will find useful.

The concept of the adjacent possible originated from Stuart Kauffman, who used it to describe evolutionary potential in biology. For any given genetic configuration, there are a limited number of ways in which it can change once into another configuration, and it has to do so roughly one step at a time. To put it in terms of strings of numbers, The sequence ACA can become ADA or BCA with only a single iteration but it can’t suddenly become GGG. That configuration could perhaps be viable at some point for a certain context, but it has to get there through a series of adjacent steps – one at a time. A slime mold can’t spontaneously mutate into a bird. It has to go through millions of iterative steps to ultimately get there, each of which is viable for the context, and each of those steps is adjacent to the last one.

The author Steven Johnson describes the adjacent possible in innovation this way: “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…[the adjacent possible] captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.”

In innovation, the concept of the adjacent possible describes things that are within the current realm of possibility, and I’d describe its shape and size as contained by constraints, many of which are contextual. For example, some of the constraints I’ve shown in the image above: practices, perceptions, knowledge, technology, and resources. Something is within the realm of possibility if it doesn’t demand resources or knowledge we don’t have or technologies that don’t exist. It can’t demand that we behave in ways that are out of alignment with what could possibly be expected of us, and our behaviors are heavily modulated by perceptions, mental models, and knowledge.

The technological and knowledge limitations explain the phenomenon of “multiple discovery” – when the same thing is invented simultaneously by different people without any direct influence from one-another. The reason this happens is because something enters within the realm of the global adjacent possible and multiple people who are looking for beneficial adjacencies will see it and seize it at once.

We should recognize that just because something is in the realm of technical possibility on earth does not make it within the adjacent possible of a particular context.

Because of this, we have to discover what is within the adjacent possible for a particular context. We can’t just take what works for another context and apply it to our own.

As an example, we can’t just take solutions that were developed for the highly modernized and privileged context of the United States and bring it into a context without the necessary infrastructure, where there isn’t consistent internet, electricity, maybe people don’t have the time, attention, values, appetite or desire for the solutions that work for us…

Those aspects might all amount to what works here not working there.

This is one reason I like to define innovation as contextual. Something can simply be new to a context and you could describe it as innovation.

My favorite definition of innovation comes from the author Dan Ward – He describes innovation as “novelty with impact”.

What works here won’t necessarily work there, and that’s one reason why in design, it’s hugely important to clearly understand the unique constraints and needs for a given context. Those aspects, not just what is possible technologically, are often what cause innovations to fail.

There are lots of examples of this. One that I have gone through a number of times is my attempt to bring better communication technologies to Air Force units, like introducing Slack, MilBook, or MatterMost to a unit in the hopes that it solves some of the inherent problems with relying heavily on email. I have, a number of times, been met with localized constraints and barriers like culture, practices, mental models, lack of psychological safety, and more.

If you’re trying to implement anything that requires engagement, how people feel about one-another imposes a significant constraint. The technology can remove some constraints, but you’re going to have to also consider patterns of behavior and mental models that are required to make that solution successful.

If you think about it, the adjacent possible also has an adjacent possible. As we move into the adjacent possible and make “what could be” into “what is”, new possibilities open up. Invention begets invention. In his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” Steven Johnson describes a “stacked platform of innovation”. You can see it clearly in the evolution of computing and internet technology. Advances by academia and government for their purposes opened up possibilities for the commercial or private sector. This means that every step into the adjacent possible has the potential to open up pathways to potentially even more beneficial solutions.

Things get even more interesting when we add the concept of “exaptation” into the mix. Exaptation is when something is repurposed for another use and also comes from evolutionary theory. Many, if not most biological traits started as something different, for example, feathers were originally to keep dinosaurs warm, but were repurposed to aid in flight with the evolution of birds. New value is gained from something already in existence, that the over-arching system already supports. Now it stands to reason that exaptive innovations are more likely within the realm of the adjacent possible because they leverage technologies or platforms that already exist.

For example, one of the most effective methods I had to innovate within some of my previous units involved adapting existing platforms for different purposes. I didn’t have the same lift with regards to implementation because the platforms were already embedded within the organization. I did this by, for example, creating trackers in Sharepoint, which is well supported, instead of trying to get them to adopt whole new technologies for doing things, which is likely to run into the constraints of resourcing, mental models, etc… which prevent something from being within the adjacent possible.

This is probably why the Cynefin framework calls for “exaptive practice” in complexity. The most expedient and effective strategy to operating in complexity, where you can’t reliably predict cause and effect in advance, involves probing the system for its current state, sensing out adjacent-possible states, and responding in a way that nudges the system in a positive direction. Exaptive practices are routes to the adjacent-possible because they take advantage of what already is rather than trying to introduce too much newness. In complexity, any change can result in unanticipated effects, so we want to identify pre-existing positive patterns that we can take hold of and amplify rather than trying to manufacture a whole lot of new agents and effects at once. Too much complexity in what we introduce will make it impossible to know what aspects of the new system are helping or harming.

Exaptive innovation is like what Carmen Medina describes in her TEDx “How to be an organizational heretic” as “entering through an adjacency”:

She says “Find an area, if you can, that is important to the organization—that suits their values—that you can use to package your own idea or some portion of them.”

Identifying and taking advantage of existing patterns within an organization or community that are already supported by culture, processes, and mental models can be a very effective method of exaptive innovation.

Air Force Gaming creating a community of gamers to bring people together solve issues of resiliency is a form of exaptive practice, in my opinion. It takes advantage of existing patterns in order to create patterns for new value to be created. People were already gaming, and gaming was already bringing them closer together. There was this existing trend that other solutions could latch onto to try and deliver new value.

This is why in the book ‘Switch: How to change things when change is hard‘ by Dan and Chip Heath , they tell us to look for “bright spots”. Look for where the patterns you’re looking for are already occurring. Look for where in the organization the problem is already being solved, if only in tiny pockets, and it may provide exaptive avenues into the adjacent possible.

In the application of design and innovation methods like Design Thinking, Human Centered Design, Think Wrong, and countless others, a solid scoping effort will determine a lot of what is, a lot of what could be (the adjacent possible), and even more of what could be if things were slightly different (the AP’s AP).

I started writing about this subject recently as we were going through a design sprint with the Centers for Adaptive Warfighting and Air Force Gaming. We got to the point where we were identifying potential solutions to clear problems, but pinning down the scope of what we should try and tackle was a particularly tricky part. In our discussions at this phase, it became apparent that there were a number of things that would likely be hugely impactful, but were just out of reach due to constraints. Someone observed that if one solution was introduced, it might open up the doorway to more impactful solutions, perhaps worth getting after once we’d opened up that possibility. This is actually really interesting…

Your chosen solution must be within the realm of current possibility (the adjacent-possible). You will have to consider all of the things that might prevent a solution from possible implementation, usually fitting within the realm of desirability, feasibility, and viability.

Perhaps culture isn’t ready for your solution. Perhaps you couldn’t possibly acquire the funds or support needed to get it off the ground. Perhaps users wouldn’t adopt your solution even though it would solve all their problems. That solution is outside the realm of the adjacent possible.

You could say it’s in the adjacent-possible’s adjacent possible. If things were slightly different, it would be possible, but things aren’t different. Your solution requires something to bring it within the realm of the adjacent possible.

This is like with a lot of my efforts to get facilitated practices adopted by units I belonged to or across the Air Force. What I found was that getting these things adopted even at a small scale was beyond my adjacent possible. By myself, I couldn’t convince people to take the time necessary to experience these methods. I also needed significantly more practice as a practitioner. I needed support. I was burning out. So what I ended up ultimately doing was starting a community for facilitation and design within the DoD- that’s Agitare – because something much more fundamental needed to happen for lone facilitators themselves before we could even start to worry about adoption and application at scale.

Now, Agitare, along with amazing organizations like the Centers for Adaptive Warfighting and AF Cyberworx have opened up new possibilities, and it seems much more within reach for facilitated discovery practices and human centered design to become the norm within the Air Force and DoD.

Sometimes, you identify a potential solution, but it’s outside the realm of possibility right now. In order for that solution to become possible, you need to create new possibilities–to expand the adjacent-possible. For example, if a solution wouldn’t be adopted because of cultural perceptions which impeded desirability… you could use another solution as a stepping stone. Your stepping stone solution could be an initiative that changes perceptions and culture. This might not seem like it directly solves the issue at hand, but it does open up the possibility for the actual goal to come within reach.

Examples: Tesla’s electric vehicles couldn’t be sold as all-around drivers for families with only one car–not without mature infrastructure for recharging stations everywhere people might want to drive. They first targeted the market of people just looking for another commuter vehicle, who could afford to have more than one vehicle–some of which might be for short-distance and others for long-distance. Selling to that initial market made it possible to gradually build up the infrastructure necessary for Tesla to release their “affordable” model 3.

This reminds me of a thing that I heard from AirBnB founder Brian Chesky on the podcast Masters of Scale. “In order to scale, do things that don’t scale”. What he’s talking about there is running experiments that result in learning but aren’t intended to ultimately become the scaleable solution. It’s a departure from the Lean Startup method which has you aim for experimental solutions in the form of the Minimum Viable Product, which is the simplest possible version of your product that will result in validating your hypothesis of value.

Suggesting that you do things that don’t scale is a novel concept I think to a lot of people. Many people see the MVP as something that’s supposed to be scaleable, not just a method of research. I think it’s interesting to think about whether we could use things that don’t scale as stepping-stone solutions to create the possibility for things that do scale. This is closely related to the idea of “exploring downhill” that I described in The Art of Wandering Downhill. We have to accept and embrace certain inefficiencies in our design and innovation efforts.

We should be well aware of the fact that changing conditions for a given context can expand the adjacent-possible. We can open ourselves up to new possibilities if we identify some of the constraints that limit our capacity for exploration and evolution. Our evolutionary potential goes up when we move the constraints further out from just what already exists. For example, if we consider how limited knowledge can limit our capacity for growth, we can increase the flow of knowledge into and throughout the organization by adopting better practices of communication, increasing the amount of white-space that individuals within our organization have to go out and get knowledge, to bring it back, experiment, and share it with the organization. These are examples of “increasing the internal complexity” of an organization which I explored in the piece May We Mutate.

We can reduce the resource constraint by opening up new avenues for gaining resources, by adopting sourcing methods that allow us to borrow and experiment with the resources of others for example….

A lot of these innovation enabling or limiting constraints occur at the team and unit level. We can expand our adjacent possible just by creating better cultures and adopting information sharing technologies and practices for ensuring that information moves throughout the organization.

I hope you find some of these ideas useful in your efforts.

This piece was also produced as a YouTube video, if that’s more your speed:

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