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How Would You Beat? with Guest Steven Johnson

In our latest episode of How Would You Beat?, we were joined by Steven Johnson. Steven is the best-selling author of 13 books about the history of innovation, including Where Good Ideas Come From and, most recently, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer.

He hosts the podcast American Innovations and was the host and producer of the PBS series How We Got to Now and Extra Life. He also has a new Substack newsletter called Adjacent Possible.

During this podcast, Steven talked with us about the concept of Adjacent Possible. We also dove into a variety of topics, from Zoom and Apple to the Metaverse, Netflix, and blockchain.

What Is The Adjacent Possible?

As explained by Steven Johnson, The Adjacent Possible originated in biology and evolutionary theory and was a term coined by the complexity scientist, Stuart Kauffman. In the late 90s, Kaufman developed his theory that every system evolves over time, whether it’s biological, cultural, technological, or financial. As the system evolves, at any given moment, there are finite sets of ways that it can be changed and a much larger set of ways that can't be changed yet. The ways that it can be changed at that particular moment in time is known as the “adjacent possible.” Kauffman believed that, over both evolutionary history and modern history, technology, and science, the Adjacent Possible has gotten bigger.

For example, there was no way to invent a microwave oven in 1650, even though the job of making food quickly in an efficient way is still something that people wanted back then. No matter how smart you were, a microwave oven just wasn’t possible technologically in 1650. However, thanks to advances in technology, science, and consumer appliances, the microwave oven finally was possible by the 1950s. It had become part of the Adjacent Possible. The lesson here for innovators is that although we’re bounded by our moment in time, advances in a variety of technological disciplines expand your ability to create innovative solutions to timeless problems.

Staying Customer Focused with Adjacent Possible

Pairing Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) with The Adjacent Possible can help companies connect invention to innovation. 

Thinking through The Adjacent Possible helps to identify new technologies, while JTBD helps you determine if the technology can create value for your customers.

New technologies can be a paradox for companies. Before the investment, the risks are obvious. After a winning investment, the gains are obvious. 

JTBD can make both obvious before the investment. Netflix's transition from DVDs to streaming is a great example.

Netflix

Netflix initially had its early success mailing people physical DVDs through the Postal Service. That was how people satisfied with the job of watching a movie. Netflix's DVD mailing business was growing fast. Then they decided to stream movies directly to your tv. The public markets were not kind to Netflix in the wake of this decision. Streaming was hit or miss at the time and could be knocked for being a poor viewing experience. Many analysts thought Netflix should stick with the DVD-by-mail business but Netflix forged on with streaming and was ultimately proven right. 

If you consider the steps related to choosing and accessing a movie to watch as part of the job-to-be-done, you realize that streaming satisfies the needs related to those steps far faster and more accurately than waiting for days for the mail to deliver a DVD. As a customer, would you rather sit on your couch, turn on your tv, press play, or go on your computer, choose a DVD to get mailed and then wait for days before you can enjoy it? When you put it this way, it's obvious streaming wins. That's how JTBD can improve your risk-benefit analysis when you're considering a push into The Adjacent Possible.

Keeping Your Eyes Open and Problems in Focus

Steven pointed out another great example of this during the episode. When Gutenberg was working on the printing press, he got stuck on how to actually imprint the inks onto a page. He took a break and visited a vineyard for some wine tasting. There, he discovered a technology called the screw press that had been invented many centuries earlier and was being used by winemakers to press grapes. Seeing this device in action, he realized it was exactly what he needed to finish his printing press.

This is the perfect example of why it’s so important to keep your eye on fields and industries adjacent to your own, rather than getting stuck in a silo of your own business in your own industry.

The key is to know very precisely what problem you're trying to solve, that way, when you're scanning the landscape for new technological developments, you know what to apply, and how to apply it effectively.

Without a clear problem in focus, you’re prone to suffer from Shiny Object Syndrome, where every new technological or scientific development is so exciting that you actually distract yourself from your real and original goal.

As Steven observed,

“To me, one of the important things about having some deeper timescales that you're familiar with is being able to separate out the shiny objects that are just the thing that there's a lot of hype about right now, from the deep, transformative changes that are truly revolutionary and are going to change everything in terms of what's possible.”

As Steven pointed out in his book Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World, finding interesting technological solutions in leisure and play is surprisingly common. 

This fits in with the disruption theory preached by Clay Christensen, who popularized Jobs-to-be-Done and Disruption Theory. New technologies and products are often not taken seriously at first, but they satisfy unmet needs for a narrow segment, improve over time, and sneak up on incumbents, overtaking their markets.

Such events can be platform shifts that require new mindsets and behavioral patterns. In analyzing those behavioral patterns, you’ll notice whether those technologies are changing the Adjacent Possible in your market.

Rather than overwhelming yourself trying to predict trends or see the future, it’s easier (and more accurate) to ask yourself, “If this trend is legitimate, what would it mean for how people get their jobs done that we're trying to serve?” Is this going to change the job that you’re focused on? The job you want your customers to be able to do better?

If you have any questions about the topics covered in the podcast episode, or if you’re interested in learning how to apply JTBD to your products and innovations, send us a message and we’ll do our best to answer your questions. If you enjoyed this article and the podcast and want to find out more about Adjacent Possible, be sure to sign up for Steven’s newsletter and follow him on Twitter @stevenbjohnson.

Posted by Jay Haynes

View all posts by Jay Haynes