Slow hunches and the adjacent possible

Where do good ideas come from?
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If good ideas do not come from a sudden flash of genius, where do they come from? Steven Johnson tells the Guardian’s excellent Oliver Burkeman that “Eureka moments are very, very rare”.[1]

Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is an attempt to sketch out a radically different theory. Burkeman summaries:

At the core of his alternative history is the notion of the “adjacent possible”, one of those ideas that seems, at first, like common sense, then gradually reveals itself as an entirely new way of looking at almost everything. Coined by the biologist Stuart Kauffman, it refers to the fact that at any given time – in science and technology, but perhaps also in culture and politics – only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

It struck me that the “adjacent possible” idea of complexity theorist Kauffman overlaps with the concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ developed by Soviet psychologist, educationalist and social constructivist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).

The principle behind both these ideas is that a self-organising system, be that a cell, an individual, a society or the internet can only evolve it’s form and function based on it’s current configuration. While you might like to go from A to C, if B is as far as your current system will stretch then you need to go to B before you can get to C. Equally it might be easier to get to C from B but if you are at A, that’s where you have to start.

For those of you who have read Metaphors in Mind (2000) this should all seem very familiar:

Because each new organisation emerges from the fundamental features of its predecessor, the system maintains a continuity of identity—despite changing over time. Therefore the current organisation is a product of its entire history of changes.

Change requires a context, a Metaphor Landscape, from which to emerge. And as Landscapes can only change in ways that are congruent with their current form and organisation it is not the past that keeps clients from changing, but the way their perceptions are presently organised. Equally, the current organisation will be the source of, and set the direction for, the client’s next creative development. (p.36)

When spoken about in the abstract like this, it seems obvious. Yet the minute a person considers their own life, the obvious becomes strangely elusive. As a psychotherapist I often see people attempt to jump beyond their proximal zone. Someone who has been a timid door mouse all their life suddenly decides they are going to confront their boss or their spouse. Off they march, only to discover they haven’t the faintest idea how to be assertive. The end result is likely to be blood on the carpet and a retreat back into the mouse hole, probably vowing to never come out into the unsafe world again.

The general format is: choose a goal that’s too big; don’t achieve it; stop trying. And, I would add: confirm a belief that you’ll never achieve this goal, or that you were dumb for trying, or anything that reduces your chances of learning from the experience and trying again. As Paul Watzlawick wryly noted, such “solutions” are in fact “the problem” since they divert attention from actually making practical changes. [2]

Burkeman reports that:

Good ideas, as Johnson puts it, “are built out of a collection of existing parts”, both literally and metaphorically speaking. What all this means, in practical terms, is that the best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas … is to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”


From a therapeutic viewpoint, a “good idea” could be an insight, an ah-ha, a solution, a novel desired outcome, a new perspective or a deep acceptance of what is. Whatever we label it, it is a change in the system. And most personal development seems to follow the kind of trajectory that Johnson calls a “slow hunch”. Which like a slow lunch takes time to prepare, cook, eat and digest

David Grove introduced me to the notion that “change takes place in a context” – a context where “good ideas” can germinate. Once you accept that metaphor, part of the facilitator’s role is to support the emergence of that context. How does that happen? Basic complexity theory tells us. You need a “collection of existing parts”, coupled interactions between those parts, and enough iterations for a higher-level organisation to emerge – in this case, a “good idea”.

For the facilitator, developing a nose for a scent of the first shoots enables embryonic hunches to be nurtured and given the time and space needed to see if they develop into anything useful. Our investigation into the Maximising Serendipity gives some clues.

Johnson develops Louis Pascal’s maxim that “chance favours the prepared mind” by noting that a mind becomes prepared by connecting. And those connections are both internal and external, physical as much as metaphorical. New internal connections are the stuff of personal development. But “expanding the perimeter of your potential” involves what Penny Tompkins and I call ‘encouraging the conditions’ rather than more traditional metaphors of ‘problem solving’ or ‘relief of suffering’ etc.

So, thank you to Steven Johnson and Oliver Burkeman. Hopefully making these mechanism more well known will have the effect of more people trusting their system to change at the pace it changes. While in this day and age the great God is ‘efficiency’ – often slower is better. [3]


1 Complete interview, The Guardian, 19 October 2010: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/oct/19/steven-johnson-good-ideas

2 Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution, by Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland and Richard Fisch (1974)

3 As recognised by the Aesop fable and incorporated into the title of Guy Claxton‘s, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind (1997).

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