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.

Corporate Punishment i) Questions

I’ve decided to begin an irregular series on ‘corporate’ behaviours which one encounters in large organisations.

Most of these start with the germ of a good idea from some management book or coach. Some are learnt through imitation and emulation. Taken to excess or with the wrong intent they stymie progress, sap energy and scupper decision making. A common feature is they are safe and look clever but often aren’t. As with so much in life, too much or too little is a vice – only the golden mean is a virtue.

Number one in the series is always asking questions and not stating your own view. Aristotle (not himself a man to beat around the bush) quotes a prior Greek, Hesiod, on this topic.

Hesiod is pungent as an old sock in his critique:

“He is best of all who of himself conceiveth things; Good again is he too who can adopt a good suggestion; But whoso neither of himself conceiveth nor hearing from another layeth it to heart; — he is a useless man.”

It takes Aristotelian effort to develop a new insight and the courage of Achilles to present a new idea. Listening, thinking, improving, adapting and adopting is what you want in return. Questions are too easy.


I read something today which put a bit of theory behind something I’ve been trying for a few months now. If you have a complex problem to work out try forgetting about it.

I originally read a letter in the New Scientist written by a man who said when he had a particularly tricky problem to work out he would set himself a timescale of between 10 days and two weeks and then forget about it. Routinely the solution would come to him unbidden at some stage in the time he allowed.

Since being aware of it I’ve become conscious of the same phenomenon. The answer to things I’ve been thinking about or working on a lot often floats into my mind as I pass a particularly forbidding high rise housing estate about 25 minutes into my morning cycle ride.

Turns out Poincaré wrote about this many years ago describing four distinct stages in developing new insights or having breakthrough ideas. First think about it and study it a lot. Then hopefully get distracted or less fun, but as effective, get frustrated and lose hope of working it out. Then from nowhere Eureka. Finally verification of the validity of the insight and the develping confidence you are really onto something. Conscious thought, unconscious thought (or incubation), illumination and verification are the key stages.

Discovering it written down is a great relief – routinely forgetting about major work and life problems feels a bit uncomfortable without a bit of intellectual cover. The polymath Poincaré is a pretty good brain to pray in aid.

So the answer I’m increasingly persuaded, whether you are Archimedes or not is study, stop, forget it and bingo – eureka.