The Adjacent Possible

After reading this blog post by Jed, I came across a great little concept called the adjacent possible.

It’s a term used by writer Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From (which I haven’t read but is now on my Amazon wishlist. I have read his previous book – Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, which is great).

In a Wall Street Journal piece, in which Johnson explains the concept, he reveals how ‘good ideas’ are:

“inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

As Jed explains, the phrase wasn’t coined by Johnson but by the scientist Stuart Kauffman to describe this very idea. As Johnson states, the adjacent possible:

“…captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

To crystalise this concept in a phrase, Johnson states that the adjacent possible is the “premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas”.

To PR, business and beyond…

This phrase particularly struck me as I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about creativity/inspiration, the role it plays for us generally and in the work we do in business (and for me personally in business, marketing and PR). As a professionally trained musician (in a previous life) I’ve always thought of myself as quite a creative person and yet often I find that, in the routine of the day-to-day, it is easy to lose sight of the need for and importance of being creative and innovative. And, if we pull that firmly back to business, it seems amazing that so many businesses fall into a rut of ‘this is how things have always been and always will do’ and seem afraid to innovate and try new things.

It is why I love working with startup/disruptive companies. Companies that are not afraid to try to do things differently. It doesn’t always work but, when it does, the results can be phenomenal.

And I guess I have a toying feeling that the PR industry suffers from this inability to innovate and be creative too. It is easy in PR to get tied up in the routine, in the day-to-day or traditional ways of doing things. Whereas other marketing disciplines such as advertising bet a great deal of money, resource and reputation on creativity and ideas, the same just often doesn’t happen as much in PR.

[And as aside I must just say that I'm not just talking about billion dollar ad campaigns and/or wacky stunts. I mean creativity and innovation in its broadest sense - creating something new and original.]

A means to an end

So, to bring this back full circle, if you buy into the idea of the adjacent possible, you see that it is only by opening ourselves up to ideas, innovations and developments that we too can be creative and innovative ourselves.

That means sharing ideas and being inspired by the work of others. Even taking concepts from elsewhere and adapting them to be used in other ways.

So in business, as Johnson states, the idea of closely protecting your innovations and developments is perhaps not the most fruitful way to secure further innovation.

And in PR and marketing, being open to and learning new technologies, ideas, ways of working can and should inspire.

Finally, in a wider context this is all just a realisation that, as humans, we learn best from others and from external influences. Like magpies, we acquire and reuse ideas, techniques and technologies to create and develop new things and new ways of thinking about things.

So rather than sitting around searching for that elusive ‘big idea’ in splendid isolation, we should be opening our minds to other ideas and influences as a way to create and innovate ourselves.