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Adjacent possibilities can transform a mediocre idea into something amazing

Adjacent Possibilities and the Crick Institute

On 4th August 2016 a once run-down district of London gave birth to The Francis Crick Institute and baked right into its architecture is something very clever ... something that can benefit anyone who has ever had a business idea, or an idea of any kind (more on that little secret in a moment).

The Crick, as it has become known, has nothing directly to do with business. Its aim is to transform the world you and I live in, and the lives of our children, our grandchildren, and for many generations to come. It plans to do so in a very special way.

Here are the headline facts so far:

  • It has cost over $1000 million.
  • It has taken four years to build.
  • It is receiving roughly $200 million in funding each year from the UK Government and other organizations.

Its aim is to conduct:

'ground-breaking research across a range of scientific disciplines'

and to help

'laboratory discoveries to be turned into treatments as quickly as possible.'

The focus is on medical research, but the essence of genius that makes this such an exciting and revolutionary project is applicable to businesses of all size --- from one man-start-ups to multinational mega-corporations (more on that in a moment).

The raison d'être behind The Francis Crick Institute is a simple concept, but one that transforms it into something very special. This magic ingredient was summed up beautifully by a microbiologist called Stuart Kauffman in two words: adjacent possibility.

Adjacent Possibility

Kauffman's theories were focused around cells, biology and evolution, but in the four decades since he first described these concepts they have been applied to everything from how life on earth progressed from single cell organisms through to the global success of products such as the iPhone or web services such as Facebook.

The wonderful thing is that you can use the concept of adjacent possibility to achieve amazing things in your life, your career or your business. You don't need to be the CEO of a multi-billion dollar Silicon Valley start-up to benefit from adjacent possibility. You might be a newly redundant ex-bookkeeper wanting to start your own online business selling your accounting services, or maybe you're a teenager who wants to take the corporate business world by storm; this concept is just as applicable.

The power behind adjacent possibility lies in creating randomness that encourages and allows new things to happen.

For example, The Francis Crick Institute has been designed so that when scientists working there want to go for coffee they are channelled into a central area where they are forced to interact with scientists from other projects.

The same is true when they want to exit the building. Once again, they are funneled into elevators and stairwells that force them to rub shoulders with scientists in other projects.

This idea of forcing scientists to meet researchers from other disciplines and other projects even extends to visits to the shared restrooms.

All of this is intentional.

If scientists researching cancer, for example, only ever meet other scientists that are working on similar cancer-related projects (which is the norm at the moment) then their knowledge will always be contained within the cancer-research bubble.

But what happens if a scientist researching cancer ends up having an informal coffee with a scientist researching an infectious disease? This random meeting could connect two disparate ideas in a totally new way that leads to a revolutionary breakthrough which changes the world. This may never have happened if that chance meeting had not occurred.

History is littered with amazing discoveries that were made purely by serendipity. Inventors can be working on a project for years and not make any major breakthroughs, but then a chance meeting with someone sparks off a new avenue of thought and, hey-presto, that momentous life-changing discovery is made.

This is the idea behind adjacent possibility and you can use this idea to take your new business, your existing business, or your career to a whole new level.

Here's how adjacent possibility works

Discoveries are rarely made in a non-linear fashion. They tend to progress in a numerical fashion. So, for example, we can't get from 1 to 3 without going through 2. The number 2 is the adjacent possibility. It is the item directly next to where we're at.

For example, Youtube might be an amazing idea, but it would have been completely useless in the 1940s before computers and the Internet were available.

Even in the 1990s Youtube would still have been a non-starter as there were several other things that needed to come into play before it could succeed. Yes, the Internet existed in the 1990s, but the slow dial-up Internet connectivity of the time couldn't handle video streaming, and many computers at that time were not even capable of playing video let alone streaming it from an online source. These factors, and many others, needed to happen before Youtube could succeed.

All these factors are adjacent possibilities and they almost always have to be worked through before the final result can happen. In the example of the above we needed to have better Internet, then more powerful computers, then the necessary video streaming formats needed to be invented, and then online tools needed to be released that allowed a site such as Youtube to be built.

The problem is the adjacent possibilities rarely happen if we lock ourselves in a bubble. Historically, this has been the norm with scientists and this has often hampered progress. Researchers working for Cancer Research UK, for example, probably rarely (if ever) speak to academics at Imperial College London and King's College London. It is this multi-disciplinary interaction that provides the possibilities for massive progress.

This is why Silicon Valley is such an incredible hotbed of creativity.

Every day, programmers from one high tech company are rubbing shoulders in coffee shops with marketing guys or financial people from another company, and these serendipitous meetings can quickly take an idea from first base, to second base and then to third base.

In a place where people are encouraged to meet and mingle, the germ of an idea can work its way through all the necessary adjacent possibilities to take it from nothing to being a multi-billion dollar IPO in just a few months.

If you want to take your idea, or your business, to a whole new level make sure that you are making as many connections as possible. Capitalize on the power of adjacent possibilities by networking with others either in person or via social media, and when you're not networking with others read books, magazines, and watch videos on as wide a range of topics as possible, as you never know who or what will spark that adjacent possibility that takes your idea, or your business, from 1 to 2, which can then lead you to 3, 4, 5, 6 and beyond.

Photo Credit: Crick Institute by Elliott Brown from Birmingham, United Kingdom.

Stuart Kaufmann
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