The Adjacent Possible
Date: December 7, 2010
Steven Johnson’s new book Where Good Ideas Come From brings new energy to the notion given by scientist Stuart Kauffman of the “adjacent possible.” In this phrase we get a glimpse of the real nature of the creative potential of change and innovation. This notion is something of the opposite to an epiphany or a quantum leap at arriving at change, but to the contrary, suggests that the next breakthrough in innovation is just around the corner, or, if you think of it in terms of falling dominoes, it is the adjacent domino that will fall, leading to ultimate flow in the chain that brings the project, idea, or notion into full being.
The idea of the adjacent possible is more than just getting the sequence right, however. The better interpretation is that as you explore one area, more areas are opened up in your understanding. As Johnson puts it, “…boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries.” We find the adjacent possible at work in what Gladwell, Johnson, and other recent writers have identified in “the multiple”: a brilliant discovery is made by someone, somewhere in the world, the idea is made public, and then it is discovered that other minds in other parts of the world had come up with the same idea around the same time. These “multiples” have been documented for many of the great technological and scientific innovations of the last century.
If the adjacent possible is the trigger for innovation, the key then becomes how to figure out ways to explore the edges of possibility that surround us. This brings me back to the strategic imperative of collaboration. Johnson states:
Environments that block or limit those new combinations—by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges—will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration. (p. 41)
Creative collaboration is one of the keys to finding the adjacent possible. It starts as simply as cultivating a professional network that has similar, but not necessarily the same, goals and purposes as you are pursuing. At a personal level, this may be an essential for your own creativity.
The American Choral Directors Association has begun this pursuit with a variety of similar organizations and associations. The reason for this collaboration is the pursuit of the adjacent possible as we move forward in the pursuit of our mission and purpose of fostering and promoting excellence in choral music performance and education.