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Jan 12th, 2023 Share: Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn

The Adjacent Possible

My friend Rob Evans, co-founder of Imaginal Labs, likes to point out that “like evolution in the natural world, practical innovations almost always proceed by recombining and extending what already exists.”

Let that sit for a moment.

Most of what we label as innovation — even the most daring, era-defining ones, are merely the product of combining, changing, and extending what came before.

The iPhone? A product built on the shoulders of (small but mighty) giants like the Palm Pilot, the Newton, and Magic Cap. Tesla’s original Roadster? A Lotus Elise chassis, lithium-ion batteries, and most other parts off-the-shelf from the usual suppliers. The same is true for most other innovations.

There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this picture. What it does, though, is show us the way. Instead of waiting for lightning in a bottle, we ought to train our eyes to see the adjacent possible.

“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.”

This is Steven Johnson, explaining the adjacent possible in his excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From. He also shows us how to discover the adjacent possible:

“The trick is to figure out ways to explore the edges of the possibility that surround you. This can be as simple as changing the physical environment you work in, cultivating a specific kind of social network, or maintaining certain habits in the way you seek out and store information.”

With the New Year ramp-up still in motion, now might be a good time to expand and explore what’s possible — your next big thing might lurk in the shadows of our future.

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