The Adjacent Possible

My thoughts on the first chapter in Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From"

The Adjacent Possible

The idea of the adjacent possible is something I'd considered for a long time and see or used in different contexts throughout my life. I found it refreshing to have a simple handle to put on the idea. Now that I sit down to write about it I find it even more useful to have such a handle, since I still feel a bit unequipped to provide an explanation of the idea. 

    Johnson uses the analogy of a house (in addition to chemestry) to communicate the idea and I think a simpler example is in order. The idea that one cannot get to the last step of a journey without going through the intervening steps. With a house, consider standing at the front door. One cannot simply step into bedroom, it is not possible. It is possible to step into the entryway, and from there more possibilities exist; left to the library, right to the living room, or up the steps to the bedroom. In this case more possibilities are adjacent to the entryway than to the front stoop. In most cases backtracking is quite possible. One can go into the library get a book, come back out, and then go upstairs. There may be more possibilities adjacent once upstairs. These possibilities could not be reached from the rooms downstairs without developing the possibility of the stairway. I trust I'm conveying this well enough to be understood. 

    In military campaigns, video games like Age of Empires, and development of technology some possibilities may become closed once others are exploited. A great example is the development of the car & roadway system in the US. This is a case where resources were laid out and allocated to favor a singular system of technologies; petroleum burning cars, asphalt roads, etc. over other transportation technologies like trains or walking zones.

    Likewise our choice of nuclear power technology in this country was based on the type of energy generation that also produces weapon grade uranium. Now that we have embarked on these technologies, it is difficult to switch tracks {so to speak} to rail or pebble bed nuclear energy technology.     

    So while the planet is made up of the same carbon atoms that were around when the place was primordial soup, we didn't jump directly from there to  human life forms, rather we went through a series of changes based on the possibilities that were adjacent at the time. First forming membranes, then single cell organisms, multi-cell organisms, etc. until Life could reach more complex shapes and forms. Now, with CRISPR CAS9, even more possibilities are open or adjacent to us.

    OK, I've rambled about this idea for a few paragraphs. What does this have to do with where good ideas come from? Ideas multiply and improve by "rubbing up against" other ideas. Like people, when ideas meet and mingle, new ones are sometimes formed. 

    For entrepreneurs this is really important. Maybe it takes a million cups of coffee to get the door opened. Each of those conversations hones a business idea with more and better ideas. Capturing customer data is a great idea, but until your business has customers that possibility is not adjacent. So start where you are, with what you have, now. Each action taken will bring you and your idea into contact with other ideas and create more adjacent possibility.

    The next chapter is about Liquid Networks or making those connections between ideas more fluidly. Entrepreneurs will obviously recognize that this as a metaphor for coffee. But wait ... there's more.