There's a myth about breakthrough ideas, though we treat it more like fact. It's the belief that these innovative seeds of success come down like a lightning strike, flashing in all their incandescent glory all at once and fully formed. We think of big ideas as arriving from somewhere far, far away from what we know, think, and do right here, right now. But as heroic a story as that would make, the truth is far simpler.

First things first, those big ideas we talk about in hindsight are not a result of luck or magic, neither are they available only to some exceptional few leaders or innovators. In truth they result from good creative habits anyone can employ, habits that significantly raise the odds of generating breakthroughs. But just as important to understand, rather than residing a world away those pioneering concepts we crave lie right at the edge of the world you inhabit every day. If you want to find the next big idea, look right next-door.

In his insightful book Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation, author Steven Johnson did something most of us rarely do. He decided to look behind the myths surrounding the greatest human innovations to see if there was not something more to those stories than Hollywood heroics. Cataloging revolutionary innovations over centuries, Johnson identified not an 'X' factor, nor proof of a lightning strike, but instead a more revealing and pertinent pattern. Ever single one of those big ideas had gradually emerged through a slow accumulation of smaller ideas, never all at once. In other words, the so-called aha! moment was not that fabled flash when an idea appeared as if for the first time and complete, but instead took the form of a natural culmination woven from many previous moments and thoughts. It was only in the rearview mirror that it looked like one big idea immaculately conceived.

This insight into where good ideas come from is a helpful start. It takes us away from the notion of seeking to innovate in 'moon leaps' that is, jumping directly from what we have or know today to some magical new and valuable place far out in the future. But how is it that this accumulation of smaller ideas begins? And more pertinent still, where do these micro ideas come from? Ask Stuart Kauffman these questions and he'd tell you to look in the adjacent possible.

Kauffman is himself a kind of accumulation. He is a complex systems theorist, a founder of several successful ventures, a medical doctor, and a theoretical biologist. Even with all that potential for complexity, Stu will tell you quite plainly that if you want to raise the odds of arriving at a breakthrough idea, all you've got to do is play in the adjacent possible. The adjacent possible is exactly what its words imply. It is the "place", mental and physical, just adjacent to what you know and where you dwell right now. It's in that place that the possibility of anything new resides. How do you see what's possible? Three simple ways: 2 of them obvious, and 1 unexpected and truly powerful.

The first way to see something new arrives with that unassuming willingness to go beyond what you know, not in a moon leap, but in regular toe-in-the-water forays across your borders. You might think of it as, "Go someplace new, see something new." The second means for seeing new happens when you come back to what you know. It is virtually impossible to venture outside your world and not return seeing what you knew in a different way. The third way is less obvious but more powerful. Stu will tell you that just the simple habit of stepping into the adjacent possible actually expands the possible landscape in which new ideas can emerge. No longer is it just the terrain within your borders or the lands beyond them that become potential sources of new ideas. New terrain emerges, thoughts, ideas, intersections, and possibilities that simply did not exist before. Johnson describes it is a kind of "shadow future, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself." However you describe it, all it takes to access it is a willingness to explore just beyond your edges and just a little at a time. Once again, habit, not formula, proves to be the key.

Here's a really powerful added insight: This idea of mining the adjacent possible works equally and often more powerfully at the cultural level. When you encourage individuals across an organization to pursue a culture of exploring this way - gradually, in a steady stream of small forays, and with a focus nearby rather than far away - it naturally amplifies the possibilities and can even quicken the pace at which ideas accumulate, get sorted, bind, and grow into something 'big'. And all of it begins just by heading out of your yard and right next-door.

Published on: Jun 27, 2017
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of