The Adjacent Possible – What I’m Learning about Change

I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a lot of change during this past year.  I’ve watched individuals and institutions struggled with massive shifts in thinking and behavior.  Seeing all of this go on around me has helped me reflect on my own transformation and how I operate as a change agent…and I think I’m learning some stuff…maybe.

Recently I was listening to the Radio Lab pod-cast and picked up a phrase that has brought more depth to my understanding of how change works – “adjacent possible.”

By the by, Radio Lab is fantastic.  If you have and inquisitive mind and currently aren’t listening to it, I would recommend you go try it out.  Not only is it entertaining, its brilliantly informative and creative.

The episode that brought about my current enlightenment is called “What Does Technology Want?”  It is a conversation between Robert Krulwich (one of the Radio Lab hosts), Steven Johnson (author of Where Ideas Come From), and Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants?).  One of the things they talk about in the episode is how ideas develop.  They make the point that people in medieval times could not have conceived of the internet because the necessary steps to the idea of the internet hadn’t been made yet.  Ideas, they explained, develop through the “adjacent possible.”  Change is evolutionary.  To achieve something the proper steps of development have to happen first.

One of the deacons at Valley, a brilliant leader who I admire, pointed this out to me earlier in the year.  We were talking about large system change in the organization and he made the statement, “You have to take people there in steps.  Before they can do it themselves they need to see someone else doing.  They need transitional moves.  They can’t just take a huge leap from A to B.”

I’ve observed that this is true about personal change as well, not just organizational change.

I will put myself up as my own example.  Why were Wendy and I able to embrace the ideas of guys like Alan Hirsch and Neil Cole so quickly?  How were we able to turn on a dime, move away from institutional church, and start thinking about being the church differently?  There were two steps that made the evolution in our thinking possible.

1) My parents were missionaries.  We heard and saw the missionary lifestyle through them.  Missional theology therefore wasn’t such a hard leap.

2) We experience a form of the Cell church model while we were in college.  It made the shift from institutional thinking to more organic thinking easier.

So now I’m really struggling with this statement – “before a leap from A to B can be made by an individual or an organization the adjacent possible has to be present.”

If this is true, should I be approaching change differently?  The vision-centric approach I’ve been taught says put the new picture out their and have people conform to it.  Give them the big end vision and start working to it.  The adjacent possible model (I think) would argue, don’t flood people with the whole all at once.  Work them in a series of steps putting the next necessary step of evolution before them, helping them move toward the goal a little at a time.

The problem is, this concept assumes we can figure out what the steps are toward the goal.  Is that even possible.?

Welcome to the chaos of my mind.  Pull up a chair and join in.  I would love to hear the thoughts of others.

The Adjacent Possible – What I’m Learning about Change

4 thoughts on “The Adjacent Possible – What I’m Learning about Change

  1. I’m thinking that’s why Jesus walked day after day with those guys…each day brought a new step towards a different way of seeing the Kingdom. He walked with them for three years…then sent a guide to continue them on their journey. It is a process! And we are all in different stages….that’s what I love about the Walk!

  2. John says:

    The comparison of technology to intentional institutional change is a bit troublesome, isn’t it? Although it is true that the adjacent possible must be used as steps for technological advancement, it is also true that most technological advances are made (often by accident) attempting to do something greater than the adjacent possible step. People envisioned a computer (that looked much different than what we have now), then reverse engineered their dream in adjacent possible stages to make it work. So it seems like the vision must be present and aimed at. However, I wonder if your question should lead us to consider a more loosely defined end vision? But it seems like people (at least in our country) crave definition. So how do we communicate a loosely defined missional vision without giving too little definition and loosing the people we try to lovingly lead into it?
    Also, I think the vision-centric approach is very American of us. American history seems to lend itself to this approach. (I’m not trying to say others don’t, but I am an American and our history does support that statement.) Which would raise another question, “are we capable of sharing in the more eastern, Biblical approach without abandoning our Americanism or is a cultural abandonment required? further, what are the differences?” (I know you have written some on this before, but eh… I thought I’d ask again.)

    1. jeffandwendy says:

      I really appreciate the thoughts. I was serious at the end of the post when I asked for feed back. I’m seriously unsteady here.
      So one thought at a time…
      I would struggle with comparing something that only occurs technological advances with direct institutional change…but I think the idea of adjacent possible is actually from biology – specifically evolutionary theory (no one throw stones at me…seriously…put the rock down!). Because it is a cross field idea I think applying it is safe…not saying it is true…just thinking that trying to apply it is worth a go.

      For loosely defined vision – how often is specific vision actually achieved? Is the path to vision a line or a tree that is constantly reshaping as the vision encounters new things? Having new really had a “Vision” with a capital “V” to see to furition I’m not sure. For me I feel like my “visions” are vague directions, not specific pictures…but maybe I’m just vision lacking? You?

      For people craving it – I think this is totally true. Is it a by-product of our consumer culture? a.k.a. They need a product to consume? Or is this a component of human nature?

      I have to ponder differences of Biblical approach to American visionering…that’s heavy…I actually hadn’t considered it before in that way. Immediately Abram in Genesis 12 comes to mind. Kind of a vague vision, yes? But that is God demanding faith. Human leadership is different? Hmm….

      While my head spins with that one pick a different one up top and lets chase it.

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