Exploring the adjacent possible – Conditions for success

What makes innovation flourish?

Which types of environment let new ideas thrive?

In Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson delves into exactly these questions.

To avoid the potentially misleading subtleties of an exclusive definition, he chooses the broad term good idea that includes all aspects of innovation and creativity. By characterising a good idea as a work of bricolage, he underlines the fact that a good idea works like a network: It is never a single flash of illumination, but a swarm of established concepts and thoughts, interacting with fresh insights.

The narrative

Johnson builds his entire narrative on the adjacent possible, that somewhat strange conceptual space that keeps expanding its boundaries as you explore those boundaries. To make that abstract notion more accessible, he projects the following image:

Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.

With that core concept well in place, Johnson summarises his answer to the initial guiding questions early on:

Innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts, and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts.

In other words: Good ideas come from exploring the boundaries of the known, by testing and pushing the edges of the available ideas. That first part of Johnson’s summary is pretty short, but not very practical. Therefore, in the second part, Johnson names the necessary conditions to facilitate such exploration: access to a large variety of ideas, and motivation to experiment with mixing and fusing them.

That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. But how to actually create an innovation environment that meets those conditions? Johnson proposes six aspects that I’ll present under three headings along the lines of an agricultural theme: the substrate to grow ideas on, the nutrients to feed them, and the tools to support your gardening efforts.

Soil

Let’s start at the bottom, literally, and think about a substrate that ideas could grow on. Because ideas themselves are networks that connect ideas and concepts, innovative environments in Johnson’s sense should be organised as networks as well, connecting people, ideas, and information sources to support the generation of good ideas. A network can be the fertile ground for good ideas to flourish on.

But not any kind of network. Some are too close-knit to adapt and adjust to new ideas, whereas others are too loose to observe and absorb them. The art is to establish the Goldilocks conditions that are just about right: neither too rigid nor too fluid. Networks in solid state are too dense for new ideas to move around; they paralyse the maturation and dissemination of good ideas. Networks in gaseous state, on the other hand, are too thin for new ideas to meet other ideas and build new connections; they let new ideas evaporate before they can have an impact.

Steven Johnson suggests the term liquid network to describe a network that finds the sweet spot between the dysfunctional extremes. To succeed, a liquid network must be big enough to contain a large number and diversity of ideas. It must be dense enough to support the meeting and mating of those ideas. And it must be flexible enough to incorporate those new connections and adjust to them. With these characteristics, a liquid network is the soil that good ideas can grow on.

Nourishment

Next, think about the nutrients that could nourish good ideas and promote their growth. Johnson suggests four such ways of feeding good ideas.

  • The slow hunch – Good ideas do not just happen overnight, they need a little time to develop and mature. And some need considerable time to come to full fruition. In order to cultivate such ideas slowly, you need to give them time rather than pressure. – The advice for your innovation environment is simple: Don’t optimise for maximum speed.
  • Serendipity – Ideas need to meet and connect with other ideas to generate new ideas. Sometimes you may have a concrete plan in mind, but new ideas often result from unintended encounters. These “happy accidents” may well turn out highly influential and meaningful. You have to accept that you cannot predict or plan everything, and instead foster these serendipitous encounters: Don’t seek maximum control.
  • Error – Nobody likes errors. But they do you an important favour as Steven Johnson points out: “Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.” Errors demonstrate that the idea in its current state cannot work. They make you reconsider assumptions, seek additional insights, and ultimately develop a better idea. Therefore, successful innovation environments are always a little contaminated: Don’t drive for perfection.
  • Exaptation – New ideas often emerge from novel combinations of established ideas and concepts. Ideas developed for a specific purpose are then taken outside their initial context and put to good use in a totally unrelated field. Just consider Johannes Gutenberg adapting the wine press to his printing purposes. What seems like a “misuse” can actually be a breakthrough: Don’t stay fixated on the initial purpose.

Plough & greenhouse

Finally, Johnson turns to platforms that push good ideas to a whole new level. Take for example the railroad or the internet that provided the foundations for reams of new ideas to follow. Platforms are breakthroughs that open up new innovation environments, literally breaking the ground for many new ideas (like a plough) and shielding them from the weather (like a greenhouse).

The magic of platforms is counterintuitive: it lies in the knowledge you no longer need to have. Once the railroad system is in place, you don’t need to worry about the generalities of long-haul transport any more. Instead, you can focus your thinking on goods, their producers and customers, traffic patterns, schedules, pricing, and so on. Once the internet is created, you are not concerned over the means for distributing information any longer. Instead, you turn your attention to new sources of content (such as blogs) or the emerging opportunities of many-to-many communication (such as social media). It doesn’t take long after the initial amazement to get used to a new platform, accept it as a given, and embrace it as the new baseline.

Exploring the adjacent possible

Throughout his story, Johnson refers to the image of the magically expanding house to explain the effects of the nutrients and tools:

Exploring the adjacent possible can be as simple as opening a door. But sometimes you need to move a wall.” “Serendipity … completes a hunch, or opens up a door … that you had overlooked.” “If error and serendipity unlock new doors, exaptations help us explore the new possibilities that lurk behind those doors.” “Platforms … do not just open a door. They build an entire new floor.

Taken together, Johnson’s insights provide a rich set of criteria to shape successful innovation environments. However, his advice runs counter to conventional management wisdom that strives for maximum efficiency in resource allocation, that celebrates speed, that maintains tight management control, that seeks to exterminate errors, that firmly adheres to predefined goals. We need to rethink our organisational structures and processes if we want to explore the adjacent possible along the lines of Steven Johnson’s findings.

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