Tag: AdjacentPossible

The Adjacent Possible In Large Multinational Corporations (Part 3 of 3)

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.





The adjacent possible in large mutlinational corporations (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part in a series of posts on the adjacent possible. I recommend starting with part one to get more context on my thinking about the adjacent possible as well as the first two ideas on this subject.


3. The culture is the air people, and therefore ideas, breathe

The rules for the use of collaboration tools mentioned above will be endemic to certain types of corporate culture. The surrounding atmosphere that people live and breathe in their office will have the largest impact on any attempts to encourage people to investigate and test the adjacent possible. Some people will wait for permission to be given or even ordered but for real experimentation to flourish it must become just an accepted part of the working day. It does not have to be something fully formed like Google’s mythical 20% time but just an acceptance that people can feed their curiosity and have the freedom to experiment at the boundaries.

Initiatives like 20% time i.e. a day a week to work on whatever you want as long as it benefits the company and is something new or innovative, is of course worthwhile but single initiatives however varied can become a burden over time as they grow into complex processes that are open to a few capable and perseverant folk. Like most things in large complex organisations they also grow large and complex. It is important to try these kinds of processes but they cannot be the sole measure of whether a company is innovative. They do of course contribute to the overall culture of the organisation showing that innovation will be rewarded.

The question I ask is how is easy would it be for two people from different departments to decide to spend a day or two working on something non-standard and then share or publish what they had done to the rest of the organisation. Rigid objectives, budget lines, timesheets all these important resource recording and directing mechanisms are required for the machine to run but they can certainly get in the way of anything outside the norm making the previous scenario feel almost impossible. ‘Sorry mate can’t help you unless you have a budget line I can record my time against’ ‘We can’t show this anyone as <insert stereotypical perceived innovation blocking department here> will kill us’ and conversations of this type make it feel like making anything new and different is almost impossible. People are often so overloaded with work because the resource allocation for an individual developer will probably be 110-120%. Having an environment and atmosphere that provides time and freedom for these ad hoc collaborations and provides a vehicle to share them with the organisation will be as conducive to the overall culture as any best idea competition.


4. Spaces designed for collision and cultivation

And what of the physical spaces we work in? Are they designed for collaboration as well? There are many studies and design articles on the changing workplace and building to ensure peoples paths cross often ensuring potential for cross pollination of ideas. I am currently reading a brilliant book about Bell Labs, the legendary research facilities of AT&T that created all manner of things including the solid state resistor that changed the face of electronics. Their labs were built to ensure people would bump into one another.

“By intention, everyone would be in one another’s way. Members of the technical staff would often have both laboratories and small offices—but these might be in different corridors, therefore making it necessary to walk between the two, and all but assuring a chance encounter or two with a colleague during the commute. By the same token, the long corridor for the wing that would house many of the physics researchers was intentionally made to be seven hundred feet in length. It was so long that to look down it from one end was to see the other end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling its length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions, and ideas would be almost impossible. Then again, that was the point.” Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Other companies have designed offices for these kinds of interactions and collaborations. Steve Jobs made sure Pixar had a huge atrium that every department had to pass through. Zappos also went with a similar approach when they redesigned an existing office building, closing off several previous routes into the office to force people through central areas. In addition they also built in flexible office walls and non-fixed desks, complete with ceiling level cabling so it is easier to unplug, enabling individuals and teams to move and morph into new spaces and configurations. Do offices in great big vertical towers only go to highlight rigid vertical structures and hierarchies that are not designed to mix? Hot desking as a concept is ok but do teams still sit with each other as a matter of course and is moving around the organisation really encouraged?

Another element of office design and usage that I think certainly helps is using the walls. The walls in most offices are either covered in wretched wallpaper, beige paint or the occasional wall decal or worse still motivational posters. These walls could and should be used to display work, to show progress, to highlight problems so that people who are passing can take a look. Well implemented agile development processes will get users to create physical representations of tasks and jobs using pen and paper and some means of fixing them to the wall. Publishing activity, showing progress, making the ‘working out’ visible to those physically near or just passing is a great form of advertising what a team actually does.

In an old post about cultivating hunches I suggested putting whiteboards on the back of toilet doors. It is about thinking more of how we use the spaces we occupy and work in over and above just somewhere to sit in front of a screen and a keyboard.


5. Publish by default – no more secrets

No more secrets, make things public by default, creating a culture of sharing can only increase adjacency; the importance of this sharing cannot be underestimated. Build basic description and communications into plans and working practices of the projects being undertaken around the world. Not just the dry status reports but well written descriptions of the trials and tribulations of a project/product as it ebbs and flows through its natural lifecycle. The publishing and therefore sharing of this information is the key to having a healthy flow of knowledge and potential adjacencies to be investigated by others.

I have stated before that I am a big fan of the UK’s Government Digital Service Team and they have built into their service delivery manual the concept of blogging progress frequently and freely. This recent example talking about the work involved to improve search is an excellent example of sharing, writing and publishing.  Project teams sharing their progress, failures, processes, changes and successes in a pace accessible by all (maybe even outside the organisation) would be a very valuable source of information.

The default setting of most teams in organisations seems to be private. Our team often get asked if we can build other teams their own microblog and we usually say no. Use the same one everyone else does. They invariably decline. There needs to be a move away from this unwillingness to work in public. Without the act of publishing the organisation does not maximise the value of what it already, knows and tries and achieve.


This is the end of part two. The final part is available here.

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.