Adjacent Possible

I read recently that all successful innovation expands into the ‘adjacent possible’. Whether it’s spines becoming feathers, swords becoming ploughshares or mobiles becoming smartphones, successful innovation depends on adapting technology to expand into an adjacent – and sometimes very different niche.

It’s also a useful metaphor for work and life. It’s a dangerous business trying to change everything all at once or trying to leap from one paradigm to a completely different one. I worked for two organisations which set out to change their whole market in the 1990s. In one we got it right, by applying an ‘adjacent’ idea from the restaurant business to mobile phones. The other had exactly the right strategy – cloud computing – just ten years too early. That organisation largely destroyed itself trying to create a new ‘non-adjacent’ future before people or the technology were ready.

Charles Babbage’s Victorian computer was way before it’s time. But despite its potential people stayed wedded to the steam age. A friend told me in ancient Alexandria an inventor allegedly created a tiny table top steam engine, but considered it a mere curiosity – who needs steam power when you have slave labour.

So what of the iPad? Steve Jobs famously failed with the Apple Newton: too big, too slow, too expensive, no market. I bought an iPad in September more out of a sense of duty than belief. I wasn’t sure I needed one, but discovered I more or less do. For me the most amazing ‘adjacent possible’ that lies latent in the iPad is the ability to span all ages. My pre-school son can use it happily and so can his grandmother. We bought my parents an iPad for Christmas and she is now sending email.

Seizing the ‘adjacent possible’ doesn’t necessarily mean incrementalism – there are huge advances to be made by looking at the opportunity next door or putting familiar ideas and capabilities in new configurations. I learnt some years after applying ‘set menus’ to mobile phones that there is a well established marketing creativity trick called ‘related worlds’; namely, looking for new product ideas and inspiration in other sectors. As I emailed back to my mum this morning, she has leapt from the computing stone age to the 21st century in one graceful bound. She’s surfing the web and connected for the first time in her life – thanks to the re-imagined and simplified interface of iPad.

‘Think different’ was Apple’s strapline in the 1990s. It’s good advice. Neither a big phone nor a small computer, iPad is less than either. But it is more than both combined in getting my mum online. Hats off to Steve Jobs – he’s not ‘man of the year’ for nothing.

As soon as iPad became adjacent Steve Jobs made it possible and created new adjacent possibilities for millions of people. I’m writing on one now.

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