Your Adjacent Possible – It’s Bigger Than You Think

Peek-aBooo by Shardayyy (Used under a Creative Commons License)

Why didn’t  Leonardo da Vinci invent the helicopter? In the 1480’s he drew a vertical flight machine. His notebooks reveal that he built small models of it. So why wasn’t he the first person to make a helicopter?

Da Vinci lived in a period where power was provided by humans, horses and water. His building materials were wood, cloth and iron. With these materials it wasn’t possible to make a heavier than air flying machine and generate sufficient power to lift it, vertically, off the ground.

Building the helicopter simply wasn’t in his adjacent possible.

The term adjacent possible refers to the fact that at any given time only certain next steps are feasible, while others are not. For example, a free, collaboratively created encyclopaedia (Wikipedia) became possible once the internet and wiki software became available. Before these things the idea could be conceived but not realised.

Although Leonardo conceived a vertical flying machine it only became possible to build one when lighter, stronger materials became available and sufficient power could be generated to lift the device into the air.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vertical Flying MachineThe first successful vertical take-off by a model aeroplane was in 1878. It was stream powered, reached a height of 12 metres and hovered there for 20 seconds. The first flights with humans were in 1906 and 1907 when the pilots reached altitudes of 30 to 60 cm for 20 to 60 seconds. It wasn’t until 1942 that a helicopter went into full-scale production, that’s over 400 years after Leonardo drew the concept!

Sometimes it takes a while for an idea to be realised because the appropriate technology isn’t available. Yet, we live in a world of rapid technological advancement and sometimes we are unaware of what is currently possible.

Your adjacent possible is bigger than you think.

Recently I worked with a biotech company that wanted to scale-up their operations by automating their laboratory science and their data analysis. When we spoke about their data analysis needs they viewed their data as unique and they felt that no one would have developed a system to do what they needed. They understood that developing a bespoke software system to meet their needs would be very expensive. All very valid points.

I knew of an off-the-shelf solution that would do 80% of what they wanted and I talked them through how it could work for them and how it would save their staff a lot of time and effort. Yet the biotech were still concerned that it wouldn’t do everything they needed – ‘What about that 20% gap?’.

When the biotech and the software company came together we learned that the software company were developing functionality that could meet, or be adapted to meet, most of the 20% gap. We co-designed an implementation plan that allowed the biotech to quickly get the benefits of the existing software. The plan ensured that the software company could perfect, test and implement the remaining functionality to further enhance day-to-day operations at the biotech.

To improve your understanding of your adjacent possible:

  • think laterally
  • talk to people who have a different viewpoint
  • consciously look at areas you wouldn’t normally consider
  • be open to everything you discover

You’ll probably be surprised. Often your adjacent possible is bigger that you think.

Original images courtesy of Shardayyy and Wikimedia, used under a Creative Commons license.

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