The adjacent impossible

Posted by on Jan 21, 2011 in commentary, education | No Comments

Pre-Ramble:  Among the many characterizations of the mechanisms behind creative thought, creative thinker and author of the book “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Steven Berlin Johnson suggests that a necessary pre-condition to innovation – one presumably born out of a creative process – is trafficking in the high potential waters of “the adjacent possible.” 

Who’d a thunk it? According to Johnson, at any given point in time, the environment or surrounding landscape becomes synergistic … which is to say that certain thoughts or breakthrough ideas become thinkable/come to light at certain points in time, depending on what has been thought or done prior to and in proximity to it.  When lots of ideas and discoveries in lots of different realms (science, sociology, technology, … ) are being thrown out into the common pool of  “the known,” these seemingly random variables shift and bump into each other in new ways.

I hate that the only example I can think of right now is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups ads …

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, a series of commercials was run for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups featuring situations in which two people, one eating peanut butter and one eating chocolate, collided. One person would exclaim, “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!” and the other would exclaim, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” They would then sample the mixture and remark on the great new taste … “

Mash-up: So, in the “realm of the known” we have: 1) the heated debate spurred by Chinese ninja-parent, Amy Chua’s new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,”  (If nothing else, the ensuing ruckus is a stroke of publishing genius … ); 2) the call from Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar at a recent “Innovation Summit” to make the U.S. more competitive against the rising economic power of China and India by “jumpstarting innovation”; and 3) an observation from NY Times columnist, David Brooks which turns out to be a point of intersection between #1 and #2.  

Adjacent impossible – So, … Chua brings her extreme, beyond-no-nonsense parenting style that preaches laser-focused academic rigors and take-no-prisoners perfection, while Klobuchar recites the now requisite (and misguided) strategies for bringing about innovation … more math, science and engineering for high school students … blah, blah, blah.  (How long have we been investing in that strategy?  Since Sputnik maybe?) … We’ve got desperate Americans “soft” and in decline trying to compete with the hard lined practices of the Chinese education factory (e.g., Amy Chua “and a billion more parents just like her”) … heading for total domination of the global marketplace …  These two ideas may be swimming in the pool of “the known” at the same point in history, but tying a kid to a chair until they complete calculus equations while playing the violin is no guarantee of success or innovation and it is not the magic bullet to America’s education/innovation problem.

David Brooks to the rescue, raises two great and relevant points: First, he cites Chua’s critics who righteously claim that these over-controlled, socially stifled children may be skilled and compliant, but “can’t possibly be happy or truly creative” … And second, he cites compelling  research which suggests that a highly functioning collaborative effort trumps singular, nose-to-the-grindstone slogging every time.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are skilled at reading the emotions of others, when they take turns speaking, when inputs of each member are managed fluidly, and when they are able to detect each other’s inclinations and strengths … This skill set is not taught formally, but is imparted through arduous experiences … exactly the kinds of experiences Chua [denies] her children by making them rush home to hit the books.

The Take-Away:  If being competitive with a highly-regimented, straight-A Chinese workforce is the goal, … and innovation is the strategy (?) … then creating an environment that fosters creative/innovative thinking is the solution. 

I think Steven is right.  If you want innovation to happen, you need to be actively dangling near the “adjacent possible.”  You have to create an environment that fosters dabbling around in the messy, non-linear playground of openness, communication and collaboration … where ambiguity, tinkering and making mistakes rule the day. I’m not saying we should be running with scissors, or forgoing challenging coursework in math, science and engineering, but there needs to be room to get our kids and/or ourselves out to the “edges” on a regular basis to troll for some random synergy. 

Post-Note: Personally, I exploit the “adjacent possible” as often as possible, particularly in writing the blog. Granted, what I have to say isn’t always well-reasoned or insightful, but it always comes out of a fun mash-up of thoughts, ideas and situations that I encounter on the edges of my sphere.


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