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The Adjacent Possible Part Two: Applying the Concept

I wrote yesterday about the concept of the Adjacent Possible, featured in Steven Johnson’s new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From”. I’ve thought for the past 24 hours about how I may have encountered the effect of this idea in my own attempts to move innovative ideas through our local school district.

A few years ago, I was asked by my principal to begin an integrated arts program for grades 7 and 8 students. Although this was going to start out as a local initiative, there was some indication that the District would be interested in moving the program we developed into the wider system. I told my principal that I wasn’t interested in starting an auditioned “elite” arts program for students that had an already-demonstrated proficiency in the arts. Instead (at the risk of sounding self-righteous), I agreed to build a program that sought to position the arts—music, visual arts, drama, dance, and media production—as a set of powerful languages. In learning how to communicate effectively in these languages, students would actually be building a more expansive sense of literacy. They would, in fact, be learning to read and write the world in a variety of ways!

Well, the program ran successfully for three years and the time came for the District to make a proposal for a school of the arts. Much to my disappointment, my model–the one that had been running for three years–wasn’t even acknowledged in the report. I can’t accurately express how I felt when I found out! Instead of putting energy behind a new and innovative way of looking at the idea of integrated arts, they were willing to raise up an old and familiar model of what a school of the arts would look like.

It wasn’t until this week, some two months after getting the initial news, that I was able to frame the decision in a different way. In his explanation of the idea of the Adjacent Possible, Steven Johnson talks about the need to choose innovative solutions that are in the adjacent realm of possibilities. The model on which I had been working would have required collecting a whole battery of teachers together that had the same perspective on the arts that I did. It would have also required to recruit a building level administrator that bought into the vision enough to lend strong support to it. It would have required challenging many of the assumptions that we make about school including issues of scheduling, staffing, assessment practices and even curriculum. And, quite honestly, I now recognize that these were resources that we had not yet developed and work that, as a system, we were not yet ready to do.

I had developed and implemented a model that I was able to manage in a local setting on my own, but the systemic expansion of this thinking is something that is going to require a few more “in between” steps. As Johnson indicates in his own thinking about innovations that have been successful, and those that have fizzled quite quickly, our particular system is very likely not ready to support this idea.

Instead, it is first necessary to move to one of the adjacent possibles first. In our District’s case, this may be the initial establishment of an elementary level arts-based school using a more traditional and already familiar model. From there, we can push the boundaries a little more as to how the arts can be used to explore traditional curriculum concepts. Then–and only then–will we be able to look at the fuller implementation of an arts as literacy approach.

So, my initial reaction was to walk away from the project altogether. That’s when I viewed their choice of another model as a reaction of the work that I had done over the past three years. After exploring the concept of the adjacent possible a little more, however, I’m thinking that I may just need to follow this innovation through the various stages of development, hoping that there may come a time when we my idea might bump up against someone else’s idea, and bang!

My only question is, do I have the resilience to stick around and help nurture this process? Hmmm…

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


13 thoughts on “The Adjacent Possible Part Two: Applying the Concept

  1. thanks for sharing this Stephen,

    I think i might have to read this book. I personally want to fight against this idea…. that we must wait….or dream of only possible change….but then again I have always been a big dreamer and not always the most successful….but always willing to continue to dream…. I hope you write more on this in the future….your reflection is very helpful!


    Posted by dloitz | January 4, 2011, 2:19 am
  2. whoa.. your post was an incredible adjacent possibility for me. sent me on a spin last night. here’s the lovely mess it left.

    thank you so much Stephen.. loving it all.

    like David – looking forward to more..

    Posted by monika hardy | January 4, 2011, 10:04 am
    • Monika, I wandered over to your site. You’re right on both counts: quite lovely, and a mess!!!! But, I think that you’ve captured beautifully the metaphor of thinking about innovation that Steve J. describes. Tons of neurons firing, making random connections and emerging (maybe) with something creative, if not innovative.

      Thanks for the comment, the link and the early morning experience of WHOA!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | January 4, 2011, 10:14 am
  3. Stephen – I admire your impulse toward perseverance.

    I think that in starting a new school it’s imperative to have like-minded teachers and administrators ready to go with complementing skills and pedagogies and ready to have discussions like those we have here. When KIPP opens a school, it’s leader and teachers have all been indoctrinated to longer hours, cell phone contact with students, behavior management techniques, explicit lesson planning and review protocols – just as successful KIPP students get indoctrinated to the culture KIPP adults construct for them.

    KIPP is an example of how the private and quasi-private education industries can move more nimbly, for better or worse, in designing and implementing new schools and with new/louder riffs and/or innovations on teaching and learning.

    Of course, I call KIPP nimble when it’s taken years to develop, as well – though now it is indeed positioned and resourced to train leaders and teachers and open schools at a more expansive clip than progressive and public charters/labs/magnets/specialty-centers can.

    I think we need patience, but we need patience from the system for innovators in the public sector to build up and refine new kinds of learning environments without closing them down before the end of an acceptable shake-down period; we don’t need educators to be patient with the system for stalling change.

    Given time – of course 😉 -I think we could develop a third culture that fast-tracks teachers ready to re-assemble themselves in new formations, but that also allows for the more gradual transformation of traditional schools into specialty centers over time.

    Ultimately, however, I think that in each local case, negotiation and compromise are realities that can add judiciousness and value to new schools. I trust that if you think this is the best opportunity for building the school you see – for moving gradually into the adjacent possibility – then you will achieve it.

    Thanks for bringing the idea of the adjacent to the table – I love Johnson’s talk on where ideas come from, and would love also to see schools designed on the principles therein.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 4, 2011, 10:43 am
  4. Stephen, I’m just saying again how much I value your thoughtfulness and the work you are doing. Your reflections here are inspiring to me–I’m a big leaper for sure, and impatient–and most especially the reframing of something that seemed like a defeat, a put down of all your efforts and brilliance and three-year track record. Now it is a possibility, and your brain and heart will regard it that way and keep working the problem. That, to me, is great learning.

    With respect,


    PS I especially love the idea of thinking of the arts as literacies, as powerful sets of languages. That is so evocative and suggestive, and feels true and exciting.

    Posted by Kirsten | January 4, 2011, 5:04 pm
  5. Therein lies the rub for many innovators and idea creators. Do we have the perserverence to see it out within the system and rules we have to play within. What keeps us going is that end goal, the realization of things the way they really should be. Sometimes I consider offering a Trojan horse and slipping in under the radar, changing the way things are done without anyone realizing what has even happend.

    Enjoyed the post!

    Posted by ktenkely | January 5, 2011, 12:35 am
  6. I find myself here thanks to a tweet by @fredbartels and am intrigued by your post. Not having read Johnson’s book, I interpreted “the adjacent possible” as describing an idea that isn’t too far removed from the current state of affairs.

    My experience is in the world of academic tech support at a school where all students in grades 7-12 have their own laptops. Often times the case has been that pedagogical initiatives take hold only when there is a sufficient base of supporters who have bought into the initiative. I have seen this play out in a 3-year time frame that ranges from the early supporters (a few people in year 1) followed by the larger community (a growing group in year 2, and a mass in year 3) adopting the initiative.

    On the other hand, my experience following idea streams from people who are known as the thought leaders and catalysts at their schools has shown that ideas sometimes either get traction but in a different guise years later or do not get traction at all. In the first instance, it seems like the idea simply needed time to jell, to be taken hold of by others and run through their creative mills, before coming back as something similar and seemingly more adaptable. I would call these scenarios “adjacent ideas” – ideas that aren’t yet ready for prime time, but tickle someone else’s ideas and eventually come back to the mainstream as “adjacent possibilities” that can take folks to the next level.

    On the basis of your post, I attribute the second case, when ideas do not take off, to the ideas being too far from the “adjacent possible” and therefore not in the realm of what will work for most people. Similar to a number of people who have commented on your post, I get find myself impatient when these type of ideas do not take hold. Change in schools can be arduously slow, and while it is important that ideas are thoroughly fleshed out, it is also important that we take initiative and risk to make that change, or we will continue the status quo.

    I totally understand your last line questioning your resiliency level! About five years into our use of laptops, I asked myself the same question. At least for now, six years later, I’m still there. Whatever your choice, may it prove interesting, stimulating, challenging (just enough 😉 and satisfying!

    Thank you for getting me thinking. Perhaps my next step is to read Johnson’s book.


    Posted by synapsesensations | January 5, 2011, 7:34 am
    • Hi Laurie,

      Thanks so much for your very detailed reply to my post. The adjacency idea is new to me as well, and I’ve been rolling it around in my mind since reading about it in Steven Johnson’s book. I’m trying to let it inform my thinking, but not limit it. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m second guessing whether an idea is one, two or three steps down the road.

      That said, it is helpful to have a lens to look at why a particular idea may be slow in gaining “traction” (I like that word!) or why it may die on the drawing table.

      I had a conversation with an itinerant teacher today who comes into our school on a regular basis, trying to get Gr 1-3 teachers using some of the new literacy strategies tht the district is big on. She’s found that she has needed to become really aware of her surroundings when she walks into a classroom. She needs to observe what is already there and what practices are already in place. In her own words, she then needs to take small steps and work the teacher to change small “corners of practice.” I sense that, if she moves too far ahead, too quickly, she begins to look like the enemy!

      Your technology example resonated with me so much. I’ve had similar experiences in my own district around the adoption and implementation of technology. One of the things that can happen with new technology–and I don’t think that this is helpful–is locking down the system so much that teachers have to jump through a lot of hoops to use the types of technology that they want. If we don’t allow access to social networking, access to youtube, the ability to use of personal computers on the network, we become rather ossified. This is the opposite of creating the liquid networks (Johnson) that allow for more possibilities to emerge!

      As you can see, you got me thinking more about this…now I’m going to be up all night reading and pondering! Thanks!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | January 5, 2011, 5:58 pm
  7. Richard – have you heard the term connected adjacency? Saul Kaplan, founder of Business Innovation Factory in Providence and Len Schlesinger Pres of Babson College are working together as a system both in and out of the system.
    in a sense – a way to publicly slip that trojan horse in under the radar.
    how we are doing it:

    Posted by monika hardy | January 5, 2011, 7:25 pm
    • connected adjacency? I’ve not heard of it, but it sounds engaging! I’m off to follow your link.


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | January 5, 2011, 8:28 pm
    • Monika, thanks for this link to your work. I also found the entry “Innovate through Connected Adjacencies” to be intriguing. I know that you’ve seen it, but for others…

      You know, I’m thinking that, at one time, the idea of Charter Schools could have fit here. What hasn’t happened in the CS movement, however, is the flow of ideas back and forth. And now, the battlelines are clearly drawn leaving only disconnect between traditional public schools and charters. Hmmm…

      Thanks for contributing this exciting idea to my evening.


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | January 5, 2011, 10:18 pm
  8. I think that the key to the adjacent possible is, as I think you imply, is starting where you are, locally. “Engineers” tend to look for any solution in a storm, but you see beyond that to an organic-I-know-not-what. At least you don’t know yet, but your antennae are up and you have begun the journey of leading from the future. You might take a look at the work of the Presencing Institute and specifically of Otto Scharmer in his amazing book Theory U.

    Posted by Terry Elliott (@tellio) | July 19, 2012, 7:14 am


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