To move to X you must work through adjacent possible spaces
Business literature is full of stories that portray massive leaps to a new future. It’s sexy and it sells because we desperately want instant solutions that bypass work.
If only these stories were true!
If you dissect these stories (try interviewing the business owner or project manager) you will find that no magic occurred but instead considerable trial and testing, and incremental successes that moved in a particular direction. This is simply the power of incremental changes over time – it’s compound interest applied to product or service development.
There’s another lesson from the history of innovation: most innovation comes by leveraging established ideas and practice in a new space, or applying new ideas to an established space.
Let me introduce you to a concept from theoretical biology and particle physics: Adjacent possibles.
We observe that organisms occupy a particular niche in an ecosystem. Although there are many potential niches in an ecosystem, organisms are only directly affected by the niches which are adjacent to them. From an evolutionary perspective, all the adaptive pressures are coming from these adjacent niches.
In physics terms, a particle has a particular energy state at a particular time. It can only go up or down one level in energy– the adjacent possible energy state. It can’t “jump” over adjacent possible states.
The rules of adjacent possibles are simple:
- I can only be in one possible state at a time.
- I can only move from where I am to an adjacent state; I can’t jump over adjacent states.
This is a great way to think about your team, your organization, your business, and all your projects!
Strong leaders find ways to get to the desired future state in practical steps, never losing sight of the desired direction and eventual goal.
The key question becomes “How do we take a step which moves to an adjacent possible state, and be positioned for the next adjacent possible state on our way towards a desired future?”
Another way to leverage this concept is to think about product or service improvement. “What exists in an adjacent state that we could apply to our current state?”
A fun exercise with your group is to explain the concept of adjacent possibles and then brainstorm ways to move to a new adjacent possible. You will find it becomes part of the language your group uses to describe your progress.