Exploring The Adjacent Possible

Photo by Kyle Glenn / Unsplash

The Adjacent Possible — Explaining how every decision and innovation creates the opportunity for a new, previously unknown decision and innovation.

Inspired by Nick Shackelford's tweet, I have revived an old article I wrote exploring The Adjacent Possible. Here, we will look at how something like 'building in public' could be the reason humankind ever made it as far as it has.

 Building in silence is a pretty dumb statement.

Build loud and let the community guide you.

Building in public for the last 6+ years has always been the right choice.— Nick Snackelford 🦾 (@iamshackelford) January 21, 2023 

Essentially, it’s a concept called the ‘adjacent possible,’ and in Steven Johnson’s book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From,’ he describes it as, well, where good ideas come from.

Stuart Kauffman originally created the concept in 2002, attempting to describe how there is a hidden series of outcomes available to you just outside of your current capabilities.

While most people picture ‘good’ ideas as a stroke of genius, hitting you like a crashing tidal wave, it’s more than likely an outcome of a series of actions leading to this particular breakthrough. What’s better than it being a stroke of genius is that because it’s a likely outcome of your actions, it’s within your control. You can actively put yourself into a position of being able to come up with great ideas if you know how.

The adjacent possible is quite hard to explain, so I’ve come up with an example that I think does this well by looking at the relationship between electricity and television.

Before electricity existed, the television wasn’t something you could conceptualize because you wouldn’t have had the context, the capabilities, etc. However, with the invention of electricity, a whole world of opportunity arises. Suddenly, the invention of the television becomes possible. Using the diagram from above as a reference, the creation of electricity was once within someone’s adjacent possible, and the television was within the realm of impossibilities. They used their series of existing possibilities to unlock electricity. When electricity moves into its series of existing possibilities, the adjacent possible expands, bringing a television from impossible to an adjacent possible.

The interesting thing about the adjacent possible is that once you expand your series of known or existing outcomes, the adjacent possible expands with you. This is all great, but how does this apply to you? Below, I’ve tried to come up with some more practical examples.

Learning. Whether through schooling, employment, etc. Imagine you’re in a senior marketing role. Now picture yourself as a junior marketer five years ago. It’s easy to see how much you didn’t know from here, but when you were a junior marketer, it probably felt like you knew it all. As you learn new skills, platforms, tactics, etc., you gain a better understanding of marketing in general and unlock new potential outcomes - deeper strategies, more intuitively designed UX, more intricate funnel structures, etc. The possibilities available to you now only exist because you embraced your potential as a junior marketer, expanded your knowledge, grew, and discovered previously unknown possibilities.

Another example that I can think of is using the problem of audience building on Facebook. In this instance, you want to improve your audience segments but have run out of interest segment ideas. You haven’t tried any other platforms, but you feel confident on Facebook, so you stick to it. An existing possibility for you would be to learn Snap Ads, but you don’t currently see the value in that because you haven’t yet learned it - you don’t know what you don’t know. Learning Snap Ads, however, unlocks a new series of possibilities. Once you learn Snap Ads, you see that they actually have really deep audience analytics, and you can see a breakdown of interest segments that are likely to overlap. This is the adjacent possible. Learning Snap Ads seemed like it was pointless at the time, but by putting yourself in a situation to discover new possibilities, you’ve come up with some new ideas to solve an old problem. In this example, doing so provided enough knowledge to go back to the original problem and attempt to solve it better equipped - you have now unlocked outcomes previously hidden to you behind the veil of the adjacent possible.

The adjacent possible is only unlocked by stepping out, doing the best you can, and learning what you can. The more you learn, the more you know, and therefore the further you can go.

The pattern is cyclical, and that’s a good thing. It means that there will always be a series of new opportunities and outcomes available to you and that you will never stop learning and growing.

Embrace that the adjacent possible exists and venture towards it. Good things lie in wait.


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