The Creative Leader Series: Part 8

Never forget, leadership is not only in pushing through closed doors, it’s also holding those same doors open for those coming behind you…

When an idea is birthed, it is all about possibility and where our imagination can take us. However, what we quickly find out is that it takes more than that to bring an idea to the point of value for others. We actually have to determine if that ‘possible’ is actually ‘reachable.’

When we work to determine if an idea truly has potential and value, we begin by, what Steve Johnson imparts in his work Where Good Ideas Come From, by needing to understand “both the limits and the creative potential of change.”

Too often, we try to skip from A (where we are) to G (where the idea wants to take us) without constructing the necessary knowledge, understanding, and capacity that will allow us to make that shift. Ultimately, we have to build the bridge that will permit those ‘jumps’ to not only happen, but to be even considered possible. Otherwise, we find ourselves left with a pile of ideas that have met an untimely demise because we’ve pushed forward and tried to implement them without the necessary foundation and layers that will allow them to take root, grow and survive.

If we really want to tap into what allows creative and innovative ideas to survive and flourish, we need to gain an understanding of what is known as the “adjacent possible”. A concept that Steve Johnson examines in his book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’.

Which he shares as…

“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 . Yet is it not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number, and it excludes most of the forms that now populate the biosphere . What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.”

Which he further adds…

“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible.”

Or, if I may add, think of the “adjacent possible” in this manner…

If you are in a room without windows, you find yourself limited to knowing only what exists in the room that you currently reside within. However, upon further notice, you see that the room has doors. It is within this room that you will also find access to the keys to unlock those doors. And if you are willing to unlock and walk through one of those doors, you will  find that you have expanded your boundaries and gained greater insight into the whole. Going through that door not only gives you knowledge to what exists in that new room, but carries forward the learning from the last, as well as all other previous rooms with you. Creating new and expanded learning, greater capacity, and increased knowledge, insights  and understanding.  And the more doors you open, the more your boundaries expand of what you thought is and can be possible.

As Steve Johnson imparts in Where Good Ideas Come From, ”But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point.”

Which is why the “adjacent possible” is such an important concept for creative leaders. For a long time, we’ve worked behind this belief in our organizations that we can play a game of hopscotch and jump and skip from where we are to where we want to be. What we fail to realize, is that we need to create the capacity and learning along the way that will allow us to safely cross that ‘chasm’ of where we are to where those new possibilities exist. We can’t just expect people to just jump this ‘chasm’ and we have to build bridges of support, learning and knowledge that will carry people to the other side.

As Steve Johnson shares, the “adjacent possible” is about how moving ideas and innovation is almost always “a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

And while there are the few and far between ideas that “teleport us forward a few rooms, skipping some exploratory steps in the adjacent possible. Those ideas almost always end up being short-term failures, precisely because they have skipped ahead. We have a phrase for those ideas: we call them “ahead of their time.”

Most times, it is a room by room exploration that creates the learning and capacity to not only engage new ideas and learning, but to creatively and innovatively take those ideas forward into new rooms where new ideas and thinking can add to and stretch them. It is in this journey that the “adjacent possible” not only allows us to connect dots, but creates the foundation for those dots to make more sense and add greater value to individuals and for organizations. It is in creating these layers of support that an idea can not only exist, but grow and flourish, as well.

The “adjacent possible” is not only about unlocking doors that expand the boundaries of our learning, it is about making that learning and new knowledge useful and valuable. When we try to skip rooms, we not only engage ideas that are ahead of their time, we also engage learning that is not always useful or meaningful. Without the knowledge from the prior room, we lack the foundation from previous learnings to lay that new knowledge upon. Which inhibits us from using the learning to engage more creative and innovative ways of thinking. Often requiring us to backtrack into rooms we’ve missed, to build a cogent foundation for the learning that was received when we jumped doors.

As Steve Johnson shares, ”Innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible… 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 then environments that encourage exploration.”

The “adjacent possible” reminds us that it is not enough to have good ideas, or even to be able to decipher and determine which ideas are worth exploring for the value they provide but, for ideas to come to fruition, we have to open the doors that ultimately create the foundation that will allow those ideas to survive and thrive.

We cannot connect dots if meaning fails to exist. And we cannot connect dots around ideas that are deemed ahead of their time. We only do this when we unlock the doors that make those ideas meaningful and valuable. Creative leaders expand those boundaries by unlocking those doors…

“All of us live inside our own private versions of the adjacent possible. In our work lives, in our creative pursuits, in the organizations that employ us, in the communities we inhabit— in all these different environments, we are surrounded by potential new configurations, new ways of breaking out of our standard routines.”  -Steve Johnson ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’

References and quotes from…

Johnson, Steve. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. 2010. Riverhead Books, New York.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s