The adjacent possible

‘The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. ‘ (Steven Johnson)

As we’ve been edging our way through the pandemic, organisations and individuals seem to be increasingly looking at the adjacent possible, even if they’re not labelling it that way. A small example is the way work and community activities have moved from face to face to online: choir members may not have thought on-line practice and concerts from individual homes possible before the pandemic, but it was there as an adjacent possible – a reinvention of one way of doing something into another way of doing the same thing.  There you have an adjacent possible method. 

Or consider the ways organisations have started to actively consider their adjacent possibles. One such, is retailer, John Lewis who is ‘seeking partners for conversion of former stores to affordable rented housing.’ In this case store closures and changes to shopping patterns have been outcomes of the pandemic, but the stores and estate remain as physical space.  Converting them into affordable renting housing is an example of an adjacent possible asset use. 

The adjacent possible sprang to mind in my own life as I started an ‘Introduction to designing your own garden’ course.  The instructor briskly opened the course with the 6 principles of garden design: ‘unity, simplicity, balance, scale/proportion, rhythm/repetition, focal point.’  She then told us, ‘These can sub-divide and overlap, but are a guide to designing a pleasing space.’  This sounded strikingly similar to the principles of organisation design that I talk about, and similarly I note that they are a guide not a prescription.

Beyond the principles are then choices to be made about style in garden design. I discover, ‘There are approximately 7 distinct styles in garden design although they can overlap and sub-divide, but the main groups are; Formal, Modern, Cottage, Naturalistic/eco, Mediterranean, Exotic and Japanese.’ As she told us this, my mind turned to organisation structure, culture and leadership style.  Also note that one of the McKinsey 7-S‘s is ‘style’​.  I was amused to think that almost any organisation could be described in terms of one of those garden styles. Which one is yours? 

Moving on to the method for actually doing garden design. I felt, for the moment, in my comfort zone. The approach and capabilities are pretty similar. If you know the fairly standard project approach to organisation design which follows the phases, Assess, Design, Plan to Transition, Transition, Optimise you’ll know the garden design approach. 

I went off to assess my garden. This involved clarifying the purpose of my design, taking baseline data, identifying constraints (time, money, amount of light, orientation of garden, condition of soil and so on), mapping the stakeholders (wildlife, children, neighbours, etc). The terms used in garden design for this phase are ‘survey and analysis’.

At the start of the design phase for a garden, the advice is to develop a ‘functional list’​.  Our handout on it says, ‘It is a useful way of gathering all your thoughts about the design together, to get the best use of the space for your needs. It allows you to think about the practical considerations of the garden, not about design details but loose ideas.’ Briefly, it’s a list of essential and nice-to-have aspects of the design, that can be grouped and played around with as you consider the purpose, constraints, and design criteria.  Should we be including functional lists into organisation design methodology?

We then went on to develop design criteria for our garden design, and were then told to come up with 3 or 4 options that conformed to the principles, met the design criteria, were within the constraints, and included items on the functional list.  In any organisation design project, I recommend developing options to discuss – preferably with those impacted by the design.

As we presented our options to each other for critique, suggestions, challenge, the instructor provided familiar notes of caution: ‘There isn’t one right answer.’​ ‘Don’t just copy what someone else is doing.’​ ‘Do not think about the items in isolation, think about them as interactions in the whole, ask yourself how will the elements work together?’​  ‘Think of your garden holistically.’​   I thought of the multitude of times I’ve said similar words doing organisation design work. 

We’ve also been encouraged to visit a lot of gardens and develop a mood board. These too, could be transferable into an organisation design method: visiting other organisations to get a feel for them and noticing what catches your attention. The idea of a ‘mood board’​ is intriguing. How could one be used in organisation design? Should we be encouraging organisational members/leaders to develop one.

Then came the planning to transition phase from current garden to new design of garden. Because you’re dealing with plants not people it may seem easier, but it turns out that plants can be similarly resistant to change, can also be completely unpredictable,  may well give up if conditions are poor, or conversely flourish if the conditions are right for them. Plants seem to provide a reasonably good analogy for people.  

As in organisation design project planning, software programmes are used to develop the detailed plan. Rather than Microsoft project or similar we are using design software like Sketchup and GardenPlanner, that allows you to build your garden transition plans on line. In most of my organisation design work I’ve worked with a project planner who does all the detailed planning. But here I am learning a new skill, in my case Garden Planner, a visual tool.

Then comes the transition and optimise phases. The instructor warns us that implementing the garden design plan is difficult as all sorts of obstacles arise, and things grind on slowly – she keeps telling us to be adaptable and innovative so we can quickly respond to changes to the plan. Again, familiar organisation design phrases, but worth repeating.   

She also says that even when you’ve got to the end of the plan the garden is not fully functional in its new state and takes a couple of years to fill out and become what was intended and even then requires constant care, attention and encouragement.  For those who want immediate performance improvements from organisational design work that’s worth remembering.

So, I think I may have found my personal adjacent possible. It looks as if I might be able to swivel from organisation to garden design, should I choose to.

More generally, how necessary is it for organisations and individuals to consider the adjacent possible? Let me know.