I read ten years ago that all successful innovation expands into the ‘adjacent possible’.

Whether it’s spines becoming feathers, swords becoming ploughshares or mobile phones becoming iPhones; successful innovation depends on adapting technology to expand into an adjacent – and sometimes very different niche.

It’s also a useful metaphor for work and life. It’s a dangerous business trying to change everything all at once, or trying to leap from one paradigm to a completely different one.

I worked for two technology companies which set out to change their whole market in the 1990s… In one we got it right, by applying an ‘adjacent’ idea from the restaurant business to mobile phones.

The other had exactly the right strategy – cloud computing – just ten years too early. That organisation largely destroyed itself; trying to create a ‘non-adjacent’ future before people or the technology were ready.

Even Steve Jobs famously failed with the Apple Newton: too big, too slow, too expensive, no market. And then a decade or so later came the iPad…

Seizing the ‘adjacent possible’ doesn’t necessarily mean incrementalism though – there are huge advances to be made by looking at the opportunity next door or putting familiar ideas and capabilities in new configurations.

I learnt some years after applying ‘set menus’ to mobile phones that there is a well established marketing creativity trick called ‘related worlds’; namely, looking for new product ideas and inspiration in other sectors.

‘Think different’ was Apple’s strapline in the 1990s. It’s good advice. Neither a big phone nor a small computer, iPad is less than either. But it is more than both. Steve Jobs got there in the end.

As soon as iPad became ‘adjacent’ Steve Jobs made it possible, and created new adjacent possibilities for millions of people.

Like Newton though: if it’s not adjacent; it’s not happening.

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