Migrating to the adjacent possible

Steven Johnson's latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From, explores seven fractal patterns of innovation that reappear from the smallest to largest scales in nature and human endeavors. I'm making tons of connections to my own frameworks for creative problem solving, disruptive innovation and therapeutic breakthroughs. Through this next series of blog posts, I take one of these fractal patterns each day and relate them to my own models.

The first of these patterns, The Adjacent Possible, comes from Stuart Kauffman's research through the Santa Fe Institute. Kauffman is considering how migrations toward increased complexity occur in very small chemical reactions and microorganisms and very large systems like the global economy. He views the migrations as acausal wanderings that cannot be predicted by any laws and that potentially change the established laws about persistent phenomena. He's fascinated by the recursive nature of the adjacent possibility changing the current actuality which in turn alters what is now possible. He considers how migrations to the adjacent possible could occur too quickly, often or disruptively and how systems moderate these movements to ensure stability and survival.

Steven Johnson gives us a different inflection to these migrations through the wonderful examples in this first chapter. I won't restate what he's said. I highly recommend reading his book yourself. I'll explore the ways his patterns tie into many other frameworks. Here are three ways I relate to migrating into "the adjacent possible":

  • Go with what we've already got: When we rule out additional acquisitions to solve problems, make changes or generate innovations, we've imposed severe constraints on ourselves. However, this can disrupt our feeling sorry for ourselves, our making excuses and our waiting for the good stuff to happen. We can recognize the abundance in our midst and the current sufficiency of resources to begin a migration. We realize we can reuse, repurpose or reconfigure our current inventory to get unstuck an move into the adjacent possible.
  • See the unfamiliar in an familiar way: The field of Synectics defined creativity as "seeing the unfamiliar in a familiar way and the familiar in an unfamiliar way". The adjacent possible is an unfamiliar space. We have not been there before. It seems strange and different to our familiar categories, predictions and routines. When we see it as familiar, we see what good it can do for us and what differences it can make. We also have a different take on the status quo. We switch from taking things literally, to seeing their function, contribution, effects or narratives. We disregard a positional stance to focus on the underlying interests, intentions and considerations. We stop dealing with constant conditions and delve into evolving processes. We migrate into the adjacent possible with a renewed outlook toward both the actuality and possibilities. 
  • Finding a solution inside the problem:  Conventional problem solving looks outside the problem for solutions. There's big bucks to be made by bringing expert, outside solutions to problems inside business, healthcare, education and entertainment. This setup gets reversed when the solutions are found inside the problem. The field of solution therapy presumes that no problem appears without an inherent solution to be uncovered and utilized. Solution finding replaces problem solving. Usually the solution is already in use on an exceptional basis and merely needs amplification, justification or integration.
Since this pattern applies to the micro and macro scales of natural phenomena, it's inappropriate to reduce the pattern to "seeing the present situation differently". Bacteria and chemicals don't see or think like we do. Thus is seems more fitting to characterize the migration to the adjacent possible as "integrating added complexity"

Here are my other explorations of the seven fractal patterns of innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson:
  1. Migrating to the adjacent possible (adjacent possible)
  2. How do good ideas behave (liquid networks pattern)
  3. Where hunches go to die (slow hunches)
  4. Setting up accidental discoveries (serendipity)
  5. Benefiting from errors (errors)
  6. Getting psyched for exaptation (exaptation)
  7. Flourishing on emergent platforms (emergent platforms) 

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