Innovation and the Adjacent Possible

By November 14, 2014 December 22nd, 2015 Strategy

In his book, How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson describes six innovations that “made the modern world.” Johnson chronicles how these innovations were often the result of networks of people pursuing the same invention. He describes many innovations occurring nearly simultaneously from people who are not connected, but who were pursuing the same course because advances in thought made something new possible. Johnson employs legendary complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman’s term “the adjacent possible.” In simple terms, advances in thinking make possible today that which was not possible yesterday. This could also be described as the penumbra, the future that is partially visible but also partially obscured. That which is visible provides the foundation for the many alternative futures that are not quite, yet within our sight.

Contrast this with our fascination with stories of inventors who come upon a brilliant idea and parlay it into breakthrough innovation that changes lives, particularly the life of the entrepreneur. In that narrative, the inventor always becomes wealthy and celebrated. This fable captures our fancy. We dream of being Gates, Jobs, or Zuckerberg. We view innovation as a sentinel event, a single occurrence that changes everything, rather than what innovation more often is: an iterative process that builds upon the successes and failures of yesterday, resulting in something new that is possible today, and that will make something even greater possible tomorrow. We seek breakthrough without understanding that breakthrough rarely happens immediately and spontaneously.

Innovation can be characterized as intellectual crowd-sourcing. It is the sum of dozens or even hundreds of small steps, none of which were a breakthrough in their own right, but when totaled result in seemingly sudden change. Instead, think developing a culture of innovation by:

  • identifying sources of innovative ideas and focusing on cultivating a constant stream of ideas both large and small
  • identifying obstacles to new thinking and innovative action and removing those barriers
  • intentionally building into the organizational culture intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for innovation

Reframing the way you look at innovation can be powerful. Focusing on the glory of the breakthrough undermines the value of the small victories and defeats that are foundational. Incremental change should not be looked upon as inadequate and uninspired. Rather it should be celebrated as the next step on the ladder, the step that takes us closer and closer to the adjacent possible.

In my next post, we’ll explore in greater detail how to develop a culture of innovation. What ideas and experiences do you have that should be a part of our conversation? Send me your thoughts.