Eureka Moments Or Just Adjacent Possibilities?

Many stories of “eureka moments” are, in fact, just stories about the most widely known origins of ideas that were already being explored at the same time by different people in different places. What was becoming increasingly common knowledge, spread through expanding networks where ideas were shared, often led to near simultaneous identification of future possibilities. 

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation looked at the types of environment that fuel innovation with the concept of the ‘Adjacent Possibility” at its core. The importance can be seen by looking at product innovations such as personal computers and cloud computing.

Personal Computers – legend has it that the first single circuit board microcomputer, Apple I, was created by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in 1976. But many microcomputer models had preceded it including the Altair 8800 produced by Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems. The Altair was sold as a kit in 1974 building on technology that had previously been developed for their 816 calculator, launched in 1971.


Cloud Computing – often viewed as a new development it was in fact based on the concept of an Intergalactic Computer Network, from 1963. The concept was first described as a ‘Cloud’ by the Advanced Research Projects Agency in its presentation of networks of computers as clouds in 1977 – the ARPANET architecture. Then in 1994, General Magic built on this concept to develop virtualised services and devices, separating the user and networked devices from processor.

These are often hailed as ground-breaking innovations enabled by radical outside-the-box thinking. The reality is they were often built based on a series of innovations from adjacent opportunities, one-step on from the last. 

The Timing of Innovation 

Adjacent possibilities explain why many similar or near-identical ideas and innovations can come about wholly independently, but at or around the same point in time. From a distance these simultaneous innovations can appear to be coincidences, but the likelihood of their simultaneous occurrence is high. The ideas are often only one-step from the current reality, meaning they are one of many adjacent possibilities for innovation. 

Eureka moments based on wholly new concepts are rare. Even then, they are potentially only two or three steps away from common understanding and ideas.

The supply of new ideas, the seeds of innovation, increases when there are more adjacent possibilities. Those that will catch-on are hard to identify in advance so using a fail-fast approach to test and identify those warranting further exploration can lead to first-mover advantage.

What does this mean for business innovation? 

Existing businesses, start-ups or entrepreneurs may well have spotted the same or similar adjacent possibilities. Market information, developments in technology, knowledge transfer, and spillover from user-supplier collaboration can lead them to believe they have had their own unique eureka moment. 

However, only a handful of these simultaneous ideas will lead to a successful innovation.

And the successes are usually the first or near-first to market.

So how can you increase innovation and the likelihood of success?

In a globally connected world where there is a high likelihood that someone, somewhere, will have had the same idea as you – but there are two ingredients to establish a platform upon which to build a sustainable system of innovation that can help you succeed:

  • Increase the number of adjacent possibilities for innovation
  • Fail-fast when exploring possibilities

Increasing the number of adjacent possibilities means businesses will be better served by connecting ideas than they are by putting walls around them. Businesses that can create more possibilities by developing a culture where ideas can be nurtured and explored will the most innovative. Entrenched thinking often means there will be fewer opportunities to identify the adjacent possibilities to the current reality. Diverse thinking will uncover disruptive innovations.

Beyond exploration, there must be a focus on being first to market. One of the reasons that so many single-product or single-service business start-ups fail to deliver a return on their investment is the endless pursuit of a single ‘new ground-breaking’ idea and their aversion to loss means they continue to invest 

The business becomes focussed on one single possible solution to solve one specific problem and, as time goes by, the likelihood of business success decreases. Other businesses may have identified different adjacent possibilities that solve the same problem and make their own investment as the need for a solution is more widely understood. Critically, those businesses may be developing solutions much faster – unencumbered by loss aversion.

This is why adopting a fail-fast agile methodology will increase the likelihood of success. Fail-fast means accepting that many avenues for exploration will ultimately fail, but by spotting failures early and learning from them, new opportunities for future success are identified – and at a much faster rate.

How can you increase the supply of ideas and rate of innovation in your business?

Increasing innovation demands changes to existing and complex business systems and, more often than not, culture change. This type of change is hard. However, you can still create the right environment to identify future possibilities and explore them using a fail-fast approach.

These steps alone can help kickstart or reinvigorate your innovation journey. 

Get in touch if you would like to find out more.

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