The Adjacent Want

“I will formalize this push into novelty as the mathematical concept of an ‘adjacent possible’ persistently explored in a universe that can never, in the vastly many lifetimes of the universe, have made all possible protein sequences even once, bacterial species even once or legal systems even once. … We ourselves, in our biosphere, econosphere, and technosphere, gate our rate of discovery.”

Stuart Kauffman

The concept of the ‘adjacent possible’ has entered the lexicon of innovation with the work of Stuart Kauffman and subsequently Steven Jonhson and Kevin Kelley and others. The adjacent possible is a term first proposed by Kauffman to refer to the biological and economic observation that small, incremental or ‘adjacent’ changes are the norm. The big, quantum step change is rare at best and is often rejected. This constant expansion of current forms into the adjacent possible is a fundamental property of complex, evolving systems, both biological and economic as Kauffman has observed, and technological as Johnson and Kelley have suggested.

As Kelley points out, it would have been virtually impossible for someone to conceive of a Microwave Oven in the 1600’s, the 1700’s, the 1800’s, and the 1900’s up until the time of the discovery that microwave radiation could heat food in the early 1940’s. This is because the components and knowledge that go into making a microwave oven work needed to exist in some form or another before the ‘adjacent possible’ of a microwave oven could be conceived. Did anyone, say in the late 1800’s after Michael Faraday and James Clerk-Maxwell formulated the fundamental theoretical understanding of electro-magnetism, have a thought that ‘maybe we could use this to cook food’? Perhaps yes, but, even if that were the case, it could only remain a thought, a remote one at that, until the 1940s.

The concept of the adjacent possible provides an important insight into the nature of technology and how it evolves as a human driven endeavor. In the context of innovation, however, the adjacent possible is only half the picture. For a ‘good’ idea to succeed it must be adopted and affect people’s lives and behavior. For it to be adopted, it must be wanted. What Kauffman, Johnson and Kelley hint at, but never explicitly state, is that the impetus behind technological evolution, the expansion into the adjacent possible, is always accompanied by a similar expansion into the ‘adjacent want’, the set of immediately accessible needs and desires of a community of adopters. To discuss the possible without discussing the wanted is to ignore a key driving force behind the process of innovation. It is the want[1]  that is the other ‘attractor’ in the complex system of innovation.

A want is an individual’s or community’s need or desire for something new. Here, the term ‘need’ refers to a rational expectation to achieve a quantifiable effect – e.g. I need a car that doesn’t cost me more than $300 a month. The term ‘desire’ refers to an emotional expectation to achieve a qualitative experience – e.g. I desire a car that is exciting to drive. The term want refers to both needs and desires. A want therefore is something that someone, or some community of individuals, needs or desires. A want can be conscious or subconscious, known or unknown, tacit or explicit. In other words, it is entirely possible for people to not know that they want something. Indeed, this is the driving force behind most innovative initiatives – finding unknown wants.

History is full of examples of technologically possible products that have gotten out ahead of the wants of society and have failed. As a matter of fact, there is a name for this phenomenon. It is called ‘technology in search of a solution’. One famous example is the Apple Newton. This device was a technological success, but, except for very specific, niche uses, was very much ahead of people’s everyday experiences, it was too far beyond the adjacent want. Similar examples of the possible getting ahead of the wanted can be seen in the early tablets, network computers, any one of a large number of dot-com failures or even the EV1 electric car of the 1990’s.

So what is meant by the ‘adjacent want’ as it complements and completes the adjacent possible? The adjacent want is the want that is just out of reach. It is the want that is conceivable, if one looks at human motivations and behaviors in just the right way, but also the want that is not yet obvious. The adjacent want, just like the adjacent possible, is one that is not so far removed from current experience that most people cannot conceive of having it, yet it is just far enough outside current experience as to make discovering it difficult, either a matter of serendipity or, in the case of a scientific approach to innovation, a matter of process and method.

While the concept of adjacency owes its intellectual pedigree, in part, to the work of Kauffman, Arthur, Kelley and others who have analyzed the dynamics of technological innovation. It also owes its pedigree to the Product-Market matrix (and all its derivatives) developed by Igor Ansoff in 1957 and used by countless MBA’s, consultants and businesses since then. Where the adjacency canvas differs from the traditional Ansoff matrix is in its focus on non company centric measures. In the product-market matrix (sometimes a technology-market matrix), the assessment of ‘newness’ is always relative to the company’s current  situation. The adjacency landscape, in contrast, is a measure of how far an existing or newly contemplated offering pushes the currently possible in the universal design space and the currently wanted in the universal demand space. It is independent of company situation and therefore complementary to, and an extension of, the traditional Ansoff matrix assessment.

Using the two concepts of the adjacent possible and the adjacent want, the metric of ‘adjacency’ becomes available as a means to describe, measure and test innovation efforts at both a macro and a micro level. Developing a measure of adjacency, both for what is possible and what is wanted, allows the evaluation of any and all past, current and contemplated artifacts with respect to ‘how adjacent’ they are within a landscape of alternatives.  Here are just some of the things that such a measure could provide:

  • A measure of innovativeness. Very adjacent, it’s incremental, farther out, it’s disruptive, too distant, it’s not possible or wanted.
  • A means to understand the dynamics of organizational innovation and reveal competency and ‘personality’, as well as strategic and tactical insights.
  • Evaluate a portfolio of concepts. The pattern of the adjacency of current and contemplated artifacts reveals who you are as an organization
  • Anchor (or calibrate) contemplated concepts based on actual past offerings, yours and others
  • Evaluate competitors, partners and acquisition targets

It is the innovator who must recognize the adjacent possible and the adjacent want and create the artifact that will be both possible and wanted. To the extent that we can develop methods whereby adjacencies, both what is possible and what is wanted, can be explored, identified and measured, we will have developed another tool for the innovator to use in their quest for the new.


[1] The terms ‘want’ and ‘desire’ are often used as synonyms as is sometimes ‘want’ and ‘need’. To avoid confusion (and make an important distinction) , the term ‘want’ is used here to refer to both rational needs and emotional desires, two different and distinct aspects of a person wanting something. 

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