Past Midway Ramblings on Business & Life

Adjacent Possible

In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson talks about the “adjacent possible”. The adjacent possible, as the name suggest, entails all the near-collision ideas that might form with a simple, first-order combinations of previously existing concepts, ideas, products or services. Although important, the adjacent possible requires no monumental leaps of inspiration or creativity. It’s a single evolutionary step and, viewed in hindsight, might even look trivial and obvious.

For my company (, the original adjacent possible upon launch was implementing the best way to find targeted private equity investors for a particular deal. Previously, databases of private equity firms only allowed users to filter by broad industry categories.1

The PEI concept allowed users to keyword search the business descriptions of the portfolio companies owned by the various private equity firms to quickly identify PE firms already investing in niche industry segment. An example… instead of searching for PE firms that invest in manufacturing companies, you could now find those PE firms investing in ball bearing manufacturers. In retrospect, this seems embarrassingly obvious. That I was the first to implement this granular search approach is quite surprising to me. And yet, it was insightful at the time and an incremental innovation of sorts.

Because of that simple concept, I launched PEI with the best searchable database of private equity firms on the market in early 2005. It was later to be copied – many times – and swallowed up whole by the corporate finance information services industry at large… to the point that all my competitors now have this as a normal course of their offering. Consequently, we had to continue to innovate. But the point remains that this concept was the next adjacent possible at that time.

Everything That Exists

Every product, service and process that exists was first conceptualized and implemented by someone.

It’s quite incredible to consider that someone had to invent everything around us… work it out in their mind… how it should function, materials to use, processes, fabrication, etc. Even simple things that aren’t even tangible things… like standard traffic rules. When two or more people simultaneously pull up to a 4-way stop, there are specific rules about who goes first. Someone had to think about that, create the rule and communicate it. Or consider a simple screw that holds parts together, paired with the design of the screwdriver. Someone had to dream that up, make it and sell it. Someone else probably improved upon the thread designs. Others figured out how to mass produce screws. Someone else then standardized screws into their various types and sizes.

Every product, every service, every procedure, every little part and sub-component of everything… someone had to dream it up, create it and make rules and standards for it. It’s really amazing when you consider the massive contribution of innovative individuals over time to the general population as a whole.

Adjacent Possible Matrix Accelerates Innovation

Incremental innovation – the next adjacent possible – yields the next adjacent possibles (plural). We roll through time compounding our innovations. This, coupled with enhanced, efficient communications, allows innovation to accelerate, which we are now experiencing.

Evolutionary Rather than Revolutionary

If a concept is truly revolutionary (as opposed to evolutionary) and represents a significant and substantial, leap forward, then you could have a unique concept that is not an adjacent possible. The analogy used is that the present is like a room with multiple doors on each wall. Each door represents the next adjacent possible, the semi-obvious next thing to be done from the room in which we currently stand. Opening a door and going to the next room presents a new set of doors-of-innovation that we might pursue and explore on our journey. By contrast, revolutionary ideas are akin to magically skipping over several rooms without walking through the series of adjacent rooms to get there.

But these step-functions forward are truly unusual outliers. As much as people want to think they have the next big revolutionary idea, it probably isn’t the case. Most people overestimate the creativity of their own ideas. Most ideas are simply an adjacent possible, as was mine.

Simultaneous Ideas

Because most innovation is incremental and evolutionary, representing the next adjacent possible, it stands to reason that several people might claim the same new idea at the same time (or very near the same time). And they often do. When this happens, we tend to think of this as improbable. Surely someone thought of the idea first and the other person copied. But since both parties were privy to the same existing “possibles”, and the next adjacent possible was simply the combination of these pre-existing structures, it really shouldn’t surprise us when multiple people think of the next idea about the same time. This should happen frequently.

For this reason, if you are thinking about a new idea, unless it’s radical and skipping some rooms, you can be fairly certain you are not alone.

  1. And, at the time, this was an improvement over just a long list of private equity firms. So, at one point, categorizing the PE firms by industry was an adjacent possible.

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By Andy Jones
Past Midway Ramblings on Business & Life

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