This is the third and final part in a series of posts on the adjacent possible. I recommend starting with the first and second posts to get more context on the ideas and the adjacent possible.
6. The adjacent possible on the inside versus what is available on the outside
As someone whose job it is to look outside the organisation for new and interesting technologies and trends it can be very challenging to try and bring those things back into an organisation that might be a few generational steps behind, like trying to sell Maglev rail tracks to George Stephenson. Sometimes the harsh and frustrating reality is that you need to understand how many steps behind an organisation is, to know where the line of adjacency is.
This in itself can grow to be a major problem. The less an organisation looks outside and studies the evolution of technology over time the greater the technical debt can become and what is adjacent and possible falls further and further behind.
There are also the internal attitudes to innovation in general. Most organisations would say they are innovative and want to be leading fields but inside there might be a more cautious attitude or even admittance that they are a fast follower. Now I hate that term but I realise sometimes it is a good way to be, the first out of the gates is not always the winner but that attitude spreads like a weed and strangles people’s attitude to risk and may prevent them ever trying something new no matter how adjacent to organisational reality it is.
There is also an education and a publishing issue, as outlined in the previous section. Most people do not know what the capabilities of a large organisation are and they also don’t know how an idea goes from their head to getting made. It seems far from possible for most, me included.
7. Team building exercise
“It was probably one of the greatest research teams ever pulled together on a problem,” Walter Brattain would later say. When he first reviewed the list of who would be working with silicon and germanium in the new solid-state group with Shockley at Murray Hill—roughly every month, the Labs’ staff received typed organizational charts of their department’s personnel—Brattain read it over twice. There isn’t an S.O.B. in the group, he thought to himself, pleased with the prospect of joining in. Then after a minute he had a second thought: Maybe I’m the S.O.B. in the group. Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory
Can you increase the chance of discovery, invention and evolution by mixing together different elements? Diverse and cross skilled expert teams should be able to create and unlock greater numbers of ideas faster, although variety is certainly more desirable than speed. It is not as easy to try and force these things but experimenting with different groups of people is certainly worth trying. At the previously mentioned Bell Labs they handpicked teams to work on specific problems and challenges. They had a mix of theorists and experimenters, ideas men and makers working together. Personality types also played a big part as outlined in the quote.
This form of team design maybe considered for short term projects and challenges but not so much on longer term investigations or research. Build an interesting team of people and give them a set of challenges and some freedom to simply ask ‘what if’?
8. Freedom to experiment
“The point of this kind of experimentation was to provide a free environment for “the operation of genius.” His point was that genius would undoubtedly improve the company’s operations just as ordinary engineering could. But genius was not predictable. You had to give it room to assert itself.” Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory
Conversations will lead to other opportunities, they will progress ideas but only so far. Jumping from words spoken or on a screen to a tangible prototype, product or service for most can be a very difficult leap to make. The large organisation will have ‘siloed’ and gated most processes to prevent people just going off and making new things and rightly so in most cases. The enterprise is a huge machine full of cogs. It has fixed outputs and they must run like clockwork. Slack must be built into the machine though, spaces to converse, build and play outside or adjacent to the main machinery. The closer the play and experimentation can be to the main machine the better for making these experiments as realistic as possible and also increasing the speed with which they can be put in front of customers. Ideally the experiments themselves should be with customers.
Our internal microblogging platform, uBlog, is a small experimental system that has more than proved the concept of this simple way of increasing adjacency. We were lucky enough to find some equipment we could build and host it on. Most people don’t have that luxury let alone the knowledge of what they would need or even how to ask for it. Making it simpler for people to experiment is an imperative.
Part of that simplification is making tools and ingredients available for people to use and build with. The Application Programming Interface is becoming the default means of building digital things quickly in the real world but most organisations do not have a rich set of these just yet. That should be the aim though, exposing services in a smart enough way internally, with a view to moving it externally, can give those with the ability and desire to make a huge increase in adjacency. Those developers who have worked on a single system their whole life may have always harboured a ‘what if we could do that with system X’? A system they had never touched before. APIs allow them to scratch ‘the what if’ itch.
Most large complex organisations will be good at doing large complex things. The processes and checks built up over time will account for these types of projects. Experiments however need to be quick, easy, dirty and cheap. If you wanted to test a new idea or barely working service with a handful of customers how long would it take? Do the processes designed for the large and complex make it impossible to try out the small and simple? These are key things to fix to give people the freedom to experiment.
There is an interesting quote from a talk by Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist and I believe the first person to use the term adjacent possible
“There is a chance that there are general laws. I’ve thought about four of them. […] And the fourth concerns the idea of the adjacent possible. It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.” Stuart Kauffman
And this is what it is all about. Making it so people can explore the adjacent possible as quickly as is possible, keep within the rules to stop them from going too far and too fast but all the while the aim is to find out the what if. Learn from the experiment, publish it widely, discuss it deeply, and move onto the next one. See what is possible tomorrow.
These eight theories over three posts are just the starting point of my ideas on this topic. It is clearly a huge subject and there are many angles I have surely not covered. Hopefully people will be willing to share and publish their own ideas and feedback to help build upon the work I have done.
For me the key to the adjacent possible is networks. Allowing easy connections to be made between people, problems, information, answers, ideas etc., is a must. Simplifying the steps required for a person to ask a question, find an answer/person, propose solutions, make a thing and most importantly do this in public will bring a greater level of adjacent possibility to an organisation.
There are many variables to improving the chances of great ideas getting out of people’s heads and getting closer to reality. There are many more than I have listed above. The two things to solve that will bring the greatest benefit in the shortest time are make it easier for conversations and connections to be made and build things that will give people freedom to experiment.
You can’t necessarily force all these elements together and expect magic. You just need to create a fertile environment and nurture people and see what they create. Feed the curious mind, enable the skilled maker and let the theorists test out those long held theories. These are my ideas on how to encourage the adjacent possible.
I highly recommend the following books which I have quoted throughout
Where Good Ideas Come From by Stephen B. Johnson
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the great age of American innovation by Jon Gertner
And here are a few related articles on the subject.
A great set of points that I suspect resonate with many older organisations.
There is one area I would challenge “The less an organisation looks outside and studies the evolution of technology…”. Technology may not be the answer to an innovation problem. Innovative organisations are not always about technology, innovation can be about process or disruptive solutions in existing marketplaces. In some industries, many of the organisations within it may be laggard and have a couple of generational leaps to make to be anywhere near the new entrant leaders. Innovation for those older organisations may just be simplifying their existing offerings for customers that get them close enough to the disruptive entrants and this may have nothing to do with technology, other than knowing their current and prospective customers better and reacting to their core needs rather than niche ones (which agile CRM solutions may help, but only as a tool to accelerate people doing their work better).