The adjacent possible in large multinational corporations (Part 1 of 3)

Soup. Primordial soup. The chemical and biological mixture and its environmental surroundings that gave us the planet we know and love/destroy today. The monomers turned into polymers which turned into life through a series of reactions and transformations made possible by the surrounding atmosphere and components. Life as we know it became possible because of what was around to interact and react with. The initial molecules that are formed then have a new set of reactions and collisions available to them and on it goes. This is known as ‘the adjacent possible’.

It was brought to my attention by the author Stephen B. Johnson in his book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ and it has stuck with me. I have been wondering for quite some time about the adjacent possible inside a large multinational corporation.


This post is my attempt to unpack and write down some thoughts on this subject. I think there are a few key areas for consideration in improving the organisational environment for the adjacent possible. I have considered the following eight ideas.

  1. Make conversations and connections easier – Can enterprise collaboration tools solve geographic location problems and make it easier to share ideas and solutions.
  2. The rules are only as good as the tools – don’t strangle attempts to collaborate by restricting people so much that they are afraid to get involved.
  3. The culture is the air people breathe – The air an organisation breathes contributes greatly to its health. If it is oppressive then experimentation will not flourish
  4. Spaces designed for collision and cultivation – The adjacent possible must be cultivated in the real world not just on screen, how working environment design affects this.
  5. Publish by default – No more secrets. Hiding away the success, progress, and failures of every team in an organisation restricts knowledge and collaboration opportunities.
  6. The adjacent possible on the inside versus what is available outside – it is so easy to look outside and see lots of shiny new technologies and wish they were available but what is available today inside and are they adjacent to the outside?
  7. Team building exercise – A small team of A grade people should beat a bigger team of B grade people. Experiment with the mixture of teams on certain types of projects and challenges.
  8. Freedom to experiment – How easy is it to take an idea beyond a few words or a scribbled diagram? The easier it is to move ideas forward the more time people will be willing to invest.

These eight ideas will be covered in three post which will be published over the next seven days.


What is the adjacent possible and why is it so important?

In the context used in Stephen B. Johnson’s book the adjacent possible refers to the ideas and inventions that are possible at a set period in time. You can’t go from the steam engines to electric trains in a single leap. A series of events, skills, tools and materials need to have occurred/been invented/existed for progress and innovation to occur. Examples given in the book include the invention of the newborn child incubator being created by an obstetrician who had seen hatchlings at the Paris Zoo warmed under a lamp. Conversely, the complexity involved in modern day incubators meant that donating them to 3rd world countries was a waste of time as they would invariably break and are not easily repairable leading to the design of incubators made of abundant resources i.e. car parts, made so simply that if you can change a headlight you can fix them.

The inspiration of an idea, the ability through skills and materials available to experiment and make are key to innovative breakthroughs. Johnson says;

“Good ideas […] are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

The organisation must design for stumbling, make it easier for people to come across these ideas and the people that care about them, and then make it simpler to jigger them into something more tangible and defined.

Johnson gives the example of coral reefs displaying such rich diversity in a very small area in terms of the vast empty oceans. What set of ecosystem components causes this to happen and can they be designed or at the very least enhanced or experimented with?

In a large multinational organisation it becomes ever more difficult for the right minds to know one another exist let alone converse or meet in person. In organisations over a certain size the chances that someone somewhere in the world is coming up with similar ideas to someone else are high. How do you connect those ideas? How do you connect those experiments?  The technical problems, progressions or failures in one team, in one building, in one country, in one region could be as much a secret to someone six desks away let alone six time zones.

‘The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible’

The following sections are my thoughts on how to enhance large organisations to allow maximum adjacent possibilities.


1. Making conversations and connections easier – enterprise collaboration tools

The problems associated with this distance between people and knowledge is the challenge being addressed by the enterprise 2.0/social business/collaboration technology vendors today and it is a worthy challenge. The technical element of this problem is fairly well understood. Let me search for colleagues in my organisation who have ’hot new technology’ in their job title, or have blogged about a topic you are interested in etc. etc. this is the techno utopian dream to enabling ’collaboration’ and I can’t wait for it to arrive but the technology is only part of the battle. I worry that these enterprise class collaboration platforms are too unwieldy, trying to do too much. Would a smaller suite of simpler tools be more effective? Can the two worlds coexist with user identity to bring them together?

Our team, in conjunction with others, run a small microblog. It is a proof of concept system designed just to do one thing well. It does not try to do everything just a simple yet powerful stream of 500 character text messages. It is a platform for public conversation at its heart and that is where the greatest value is derived. It simply allows asynchronous adjacency across time zones.

The users of the system have come up with a small call for help in the form of the #uBlogHelpMe hashtag. Replies will come in from all over the globe with ideas, suggestions and solutions and it is always a great thing to see. Studies have shown that microblogging, externally in the form of Twitter, has reduced the six degrees of separation to much nearer four.  Microblogging is not for everyone, it is not the solution to all of an enterprises collaboration problems but it is a damn good start.  It is a single place for public discourse and connection and reduces the distance between people and ideas and so few large organisations have that capability. The tools outside are often much more fully formed and I personally have made connections with other staff members from my organisation that I would never met via any other means.

I assume most large organisations have some sort of idea suggestion scheme, whether they involve writing an idea on a piece of paper and posting it in a fake letter box or some nice collaborative idea gathering/voting platform. We use IdeaJam as a platform for gathering, voting and commenting on and linking ideas. One recent example showed a colleague in Mexico reaching out to someone in China who had a similar idea and to explore working together. The more out in the public the ideas the better for all, the ability to have conversations around these ideas even better still.

I wonder how many companies also use the platforms to capture problems and questions. There are hundreds of ideas out there but we sometimes ignore the actual capturing of problems. If you could fix one thing is a powerful question…the normal worry is that you would be inundated with questions about pay rises. The fact is most people just want a place to ask a question, to get help with a problem. Therein lays a great source of innovation potential, both the problems requested but also the network of people that build up around those problems and communities.


2. The tools are only as good as the rules

“When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.”
Don Cherry

The tools are only as good as the users though. They are also only as useful as the rules/culture allow. For some managers collaboration tools like this are seen as play and not work yet if someone sat in front of an email client all day they would be seen as busy.

This set of unwritten rules damages the collaboration culture execs say they want. Posting on chat forums/blogs etc. just like speaking up in public, is challenging for most due to fears about their ideas being mocked, have they said the right thing, are they wasting people’s time etc. This culture makes it difficult. There are some good studies on why people lurk rather than post in communities such as this one by Ridings, Gefen and Arinze

Of course there must be some rules, to avoid the rise of undesirable behaviours and to keep people within the law but they must not prevent the use of the tool entirely through fear. Those that do not understand the tools are usually the ones most afraid of them and it has been the same for many technological advances designed to improve communication within large companies.  Telephones, email, instant messaging and internet access have all been greeted with howls of derision by certain parties claiming all work will cease. Some will misuse the tools they have in any working environment. Some will use rope to help them scale the heights; another may use it to hang themselves. The outside world created these technologies for a multitude of reason and while there may be negatives they are usually far outweighed by the positives of connecting people more easily.


This is the end of part one. Part two is here, the final part is here.


Ross Breadmore says:

There’s something golden in here. I have to confess I only read the list of eight things and then got excited (i blame the internet for my shitty brain) – particularly 3, 4 and 5. Mostly I love the simple idea that lots of small collisions/evolutions/instances add up to something larger. I’ve been struck by watching the GDS team videos as how normal it looks, how mundane; surely behind such outlandish success is some kind of mega robot or space cabbagepatch, but no, just some smart and empowered people doing lots of small things.

Ross Breadmore says:

Just realised that this adds nothing – it’s a big blatant ‘FIRST’. I refuse to apologise. Everyone loves a comment.

Aden Davies says:

They certainly do, especially one that features the phrase ‘some kind of mega robot or space cabbagepatch’

lottie says:

it’s a really interesting subject aden, and i totally applaud your enthusiasm.

what i do wonder is how much innovation really can (dare i say should?) be the air we breathe in a large multinational corporation?
we’re slow followers, not cutting edge.
we’re a jcb, not superman.

that said, the spirit of communication and openness definitely works at every stage of every role, so cool!
look forward to the rest of the article.

Aden Davies says:

It is a very good point, and one which was debated quite a bit at an event I attended yesterday. Can large organisations only ever be innovative in certain ways i.e. incremental improvements to existing business models/services/products, can they really create the truly distuptive models? Not many businesses have the bravery to truly try and build something that will kill something else they own that makes money for them. Large organisations cambe to be becuase they were successful at doing a certain thing/set of things, so hard to change that but there is a realisation that blindly sticking to the same things that made them successful for the last x decades is now meaningless. We all know the names of the companies that stuck to their guns, Kodak, Blockbuster etc in the face of more adaptive and suitable companies for the information age. There is value in being slow followers but the capability for experimentation and collaboration must be built up otherwise new opportunities will never be found and it could be too late for survival if that is the case. That being said JCB’s are pretty cool.

Neil Cockerham says:

In many larger organisations, there has to be consideration of the diversity in the employees. Yes, hiring techniques often hire others who fit the culture, but that’s not always the case and sometimes you get acquisitions hiring that are deliberately trying to bring in diversity.
The organization may be a slow follower, but there will be a population of people within it that want to be faster. Where do they connect, share their ideas, find that some things can be fast and bring along the rest of the organization.
Not all will be supermen, but within any organization there will be some who are the change agents that avoid your organization becoming Kodak, Blockbuster, Woolworths, etc
Most large enterprise collaboration platforms originate from lots of smaller capabilities that over time are recognized to overlap. Starting small with one or two capabilities for many, whilst allowing access to wider capabilities for the few is where the value can be derived. It’s often quoted that people say they only use 10% of a tools features (MS Office is a common example) – but the 10% of one person may be a different 10% of another person (e.g. ones an Excel wizard but is awful at email management, whereas another does fantastic presentations but has never used Pivot tables). Across the organization, each mini-superman / superwoman in their field plays their art in the success of the organization.

Paul Rissen says:

Interesting stuff. I can see a hell of a lot of this applying to where I work too – we wrestle with very similar problems. Will be interesting to read the rest – one thing I’d perhaps say is that the ‘making conversations easier’, for me, starts with the culture of openness and playfulness – then the tools – Twitter has been great for me, because it pretty much removes any notion of organisational hierarchy, it’s a playful space, all of which encourages the sharing of ideas & conversations..

Aden Davies says:

I totally agree about Twitter. It is what first got me hooked on it when I could talk to IBM colleagues much more openly. I only mention external tools briefly above but they such a big part these days. The line between work and play collaboration tools is very, very fuzzy.

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