Why ‘Adjacent Possibilities’ Are More Profitable Than Bright Shiny Objects

Identifying “adjacent possibilities” in your organization’s products and services has the potential to create something new, without the risk of chasing far-flung shiny object ideas with questionable ROI. I was recently introduced to the power of adjacent possibilities by …

Illustration of cloud network with multiple nodes and connectionsIdentifying “adjacent possibilities” in your organization’s products and services has the potential to create something new, without the risk of chasing far-flung shiny object ideas with questionable ROI. I was recently introduced to the power of adjacent possibilities by long-time friend and colleague, Nick Usborne, at an American Writers and Artists Web Intensive workshop where we were both speakers.

The premise of an adjacent possibility is that something new can be created from two existing and adjacent ideas. For example: chocolate and peanut butter. Separated for years, then combined to become a hot seller in Reece’s peanut butter cups.

Another example: laptops and smartphones. An adjacent possibility was the creation of the tablet — larger than a smartphone, but smaller than a laptop. Now tablets are everywhere.

For background about adjacent possibilities, it’s useful to quote “Finding Your Next Big (Adjacent) Idea” from the Harvard Business Review that says:

The idea of adjacent possibilities started with evolutionary biologist Stuart Kauffman, who used it to explain how such powerful biological innovations as sight and flight came into being. More recently, Steven Johnson, in “Where Good Ideas Come From,” showed that it’s also applicable to science, culture, and technology. The core of the idea: People arrive at the best new ideas when they combine prior (adjacent) ideas in new ways. Most combinations fail; a few succeed spectacularly.

Many organizations are obsessed with seeking the newest big product innovation. And that’s good. Disruptive technologies and products have power.

But a singular focus on completely new products or services, without considering adjacent possibilities of existing products, is also a risk. Why? Because a competitor may swoop in by identifying an adjacent possibility that’s been overlooked, and succeed with a new product by stealing smart.

Adjacent possibility tips that Nick suggested include:

  • Look inside your organization to see where you may have adjacent possibilities in current products where an outgrowth won’t involve a risky leap forward.
  • You don’t have to be the best at any one thing. Just be pretty good at two or three things you can combine.
  • If you don’t have two or three things to combine, connect with one or two other people (or organizations) who have adjacent skills.

In a world of adjacent possibilities, you can take the pressure off, and create big successes.