You join a demanding project with a new team of collaborators. It feels like you’ve walked into a misty room where nothing’s in focus. The mist represents everything you don’t know about the project itself, and the people you will need to work with. You do what you can to help move things along. You learn from others and they learn from you. As you make further progress you look ahead through the clearing mist to see three doors in the distance. Those doors represent alternative future projects you might join when the present one ends. You look harder at each of the doors by learning more about the opportunities it represents. At the end of the present project you choose a door and enter another misty room.
Each of the exit doors described above reflects what scientist Stuart Kauffman calls the “adjacent possible.” Adjacent because you have earned the opportunity to see the door clearly. Possible because the work to be done after passing through each door now seems realistic. A great example is the launch of YouTube. The collaborators came to the same room because they knew that recent innovations – a graphical user interface (allowing the use of icons), video sharing software, and a high-speed Internet service – made their new product viable. Having glimpsed what was possible, the collaborators cleared the mist and completed a highly successful project.
Science writer Steve Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From suggests you can use the idea of the adjacent possible to pursue successive projects in your career. That is, you can step into the adjacent possible one project at a time, building on your experience from previous projects. In this way, for example, management consultants can build industry knowledge, IT professionals can work with new software or applications, advertisers can draw on successful previous campaigns, and so on. Your own use of the adjacent possible will depend on your present situation, as follows:
Moving from one project to another: As described in a previous article on film-making, the nature of projects is that you must one day choose a new door. The question is, what criteria do you use to select that door? The best opportunity is usually one where you don’t chase the money. Instead, you look for an opportunity to apply and extend the skills you’ve already learned, and to take advantage of any relationships you’ve already built with other people. You also try to look through the mist to anticipate what each new door can mean. As far as possible, you’d like to see career growth for yourself aligned with changes taking place across your occupation and industry.
Looking for a new job: If you’re out of work and looking for a new job, or in a job you don’t like, you can seek out some mist of your own! Pick a project that will provide useful learning for yourself, and lead toward some new doors you might want to go through. Talk about your project in interviews to demonstrate your commitment and openness to new experiences.
Working with a contractor: If your present project has been arranged through an employment contractor, you may already be following this advice. It is to ask your contractor’s representative about possible future projects, and the learning you might gain from them. If your contractor doesn’t show enough interest, go ask other contractor firms the same question. The idea is to widen the range of new doors ahead, and select one that will best take you in the direction you’d like to go.
Part-way through a project: What has happened since you first entered the room? How far have you come? How much has the mist cleared, and are the exit doors coming into focus? If they are, what else can you do to sharpen that focus? Does one door stand out, providing a compelling vision of where to go next? If so, what particular steps can you take to make that door more accessible? If you wish, you can engage with a book like Anne Kreamer’s Risk/Reward or Larry Smith’s No Fears, No Excuses to develop those steps.
Leading others: The adjacent possible can also provide a powerful reference point for leading other project members, or even direct reports. Can you talk with them, and help them think about their own career futures in a similar way? Can you pursue trusting, enduring relationships with your team while acknowledging the temporary nature of existing work arrangements? If you wish, you can refer to Sydney Finkelstein’s Superbosses to refine your leadership approach.
The idea of the adjacent possible provides an innovator’s guide for choosing future projects, including future career projects. It can help you see your career in a fresh way, and to better anticipate what’s next. You can also employ the idea with others to seek more support for yourself, or to provide more support for them. Perhaps you can have some fun with it, too?