The “adjacent possibility”

A few years ago biologist and researcher Stuart Kauffman came up with a term he called “the adjacent possible.”  It’s a complex theory but here’s a simple way to look at it.  Think of being in a house that magically expands with every door you open.  You walk into a room and see three more doors leading out.  Once you open one of those doors you enter another room with another three doors leading to yet new rooms.  Keep opening doors and eventually you’ll realize you’re in an expanding palace.

Let’s say you’re preparing your Sunday School lesson for 4th and 5th graders.  You want them to understand the principle of compassion for those who have far less than we do as in countries like the Darfur region of Sudan.   You know the teachings of Jesus but you’re struggling in making the lesson come alive.  So you decide to go for a short walk.  While walking you see the kids in your neighborhood riding their bikes – and all of a sudden a light-bulb comes on in your head.  What if you had your SS kids help build a simple electric generator powered by a bicycle on a stand being pedaled by one of those Darfur kids?  They would understand the compassion principle much better by doing something tangible to benefit those they want to help. The lesson comes to life because you stepped aside from the focus on your task itself.  That’s an example of “the adjacent possible.”

There are times when it makes sense to shut out the external world and really concentrate on a problem.  But when you do that you may be closing off discovering the new possibilities in “the adjacent possible.”  Novel but valuable ideas typically come from seeing things in new ways.

To increase your creativity* when you’re focusing in on a major project you may want to:

  • Get out of your office for an hour
  • Share your best ideas with six other people
  • Distribute your book as a free ebook rather than as a traditional hardback
  • Go for a walk with your granddaughter
  • Play ball with the neighborhood kids for an hour
  • Set your alarm clock for 90 minutes after you go to sleep (you’re likely to interrupt an insightful dream)
  • Remove the cubicle barriers in your office
  • Turn the shower on full cold and step in
  • Jump on the treadmill for a hard one-hour workout (that’s where I get many of my ideas)

*Many more ideas in Chapter Ten of No More Dreaded Mondays“Throw out your TV (and your alarm clock too!)”

So what's your best tip for discovering your “adjacent possible?”

Share this Post

  • Dan, something that has worked for me is to visualize I’m mentally putting my problem, or idea request in a package that is sent out for delivery. Usually an idea or solution comes back to me “delivered”. It may take a day, a week or six months. I can’t quite explain it, but it works for me on a regular basis.

  • I would add listen to some music, I can shut the world out and get lost in the music!

  • I get sparks of ideas from listening to podcasts (like the No More Mondays Show and Dan’s 48Days podcast).