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Ideas in Motion

Shortcuts to Success: Exploring the Adjacent Possible

After more than 70,000 years since homo-sapiens first emerged, more than 100 billion people have lived on earth. That is 100 billion minds seeking innovation and new ideas for millennium. Unique ideas are rarer than diamonds, and inventing something completely new is more difficult than ever.

Fortunately, the concept “adjacent possible” can help you frame problems in a way that makes new ideas and creativity easier to access. First articulated by evolutionary biologist Stewart Kaufman, the idea of adjacent possible describes how evolutionary processes might work. Kaufman hypothesized that environmental change is always possible, but not every change is possible at every point in time. All of the correct factors have to be present at the right time and in the right environment. He hypothesized that change happens in a linear and orderly manner.

Steven Johnson in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, proposed that Kaufman’s idea has a broader application. It can be used to explain why many of the most useful inventions take at least two or more existing ideas and combines them to create something much greater than the component parts alone. Technology builds on technology. Innovation happens in adjacent increments.

“What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.” Those changes must overlap in some way. Fire had to be invented before metallurgy could be developed. Our understanding of flight preceded space travel.

Imagine the first automobiles Henry Ford designed in the early days of the Ford Motor Company and compare them to the vehicles they produce today. More than 100 years of incremental improvements have transformed Ford automobiles into something far more advanced than what was possible at first. Change happens as each adjacent idea becomes available. Advances in materials, electronics, design, software, testing, and manufacturing processes all cumulated to help make our modern vehicles. But in Ford’s time, it was impossible to make a leap from the Model-T to the 2020 Ford Explorer. Very few technologies in the new Explorer were even conceptualized in 1908 when the first Model-T rolled off an assembly line.

Providing solutions using a unique combination of adjacent ideas is a shortcut to success. Instead of bearing the burden to create something completely “off the beaten path,” building on what already exists is usually easier than finding new, viable solutions.

Particularly when dealing with difficult problems, ask yourself the two following questions to begin exploring adjacent possibilities:

1. How have other problems like this been solved?

2. Which traits of the “ideal solution” already exist?

The first question searches for adjacent possibilities in the approach. Approaching a problem is the first and sometimes most important factor in finding a solution. By changing the way you approach a problem, your mind will often open up an avenue toward new solutions, leading to the type of divergent thinking required for finding a unique idea.

The second question will help you focus on what is already existing that might apply to your problem. If you can find an idea or solution that is only a step or two away from the ideal, then you are just left bridging the gap, which in many cases is far easier than envisioning a completely new solution.

Another example of adjacent thinking are all of the startup companies applying internet connectivity to the many everyday solutions, such as refrigerators, thermostats and toilets, and transforming them into “smart” devices. When combined, old solutions and new technologies create even better solutions.

Creating something new and unique from scratch is not impossible, but it is difficult. Before you take on the most trying tasks, it can be helpful to first imagine if what you’re looking for is even necessary. The challenge is to apply the idea of the adjacent possible to your current problems and determine if a new solution is necessary, and if combining two or more existing ideas will be a shortcut to a viable solution.

If you would like to learn more about improving creativity, check out our E-Book—Improving Creativity.