Back in 2017, I wrote an article titled Letterboxes matter for transformation in which I challenged the reader to consider what came before and after the bit of the process they were directly involved with. As we seek to bring about innovative change the challenge is to do so without creating chaos – as with the letterbox analogy, there needs to be an awareness of what system any change you’re proposing to make sits within.
The mindset that needs emerge is one of adjacent thinking. Everything we do is connected to or adjoining something else. As the author John Donne said: “No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
This isn’t just a focus on the system that your idea, initiative or change may exist within to keep things running nicely and avoid making enemies. It is in the adjacency that the opportunities for greater impact and innovation often lie.
The extent of the adjacent thinking needs to go beyond just the things that you can immediately see. Businesses are used to making a choice to explore vertical or horizontal growth within existing markets (or creating new ones). There is value in doing this, but the innovation comes when you manage to also achieve something greater than the sum of the parts, or growth increases as a result only of increased market share.
Rather than taking a literal view of the adjacent spaces, to create new ideas then it can be beneficial to apply a functional lens at things which may be adjacent – shift thinking towards the outcome rather than the activity.
Rory Sutherland gives one such example that resulted in the creation of the suitcase with wheels. For anyone who had travelled it seems absurd that this idea was rejected during 1970 by the department stores of New York when Bernard Sadow was first making his sales pitch.
The first barrier is a common one – the question born out of our own experiences “why would anyone want to do that?” This has been repeated many times through the years – who would buy clothes online, who would want to pay using their own, who would want to speak instructions to a device and so on.
The second barrier is that we don’t see the opportunity in the adjacency because we’re limited in our thinking. Around 1970, suitcases and wheels didn’t exist in the same market space. The fact that they are both objects that are used to move something from one place to another wasn’t how the opportunity space was viewed.
Many other innovative ideas have emerged from thinking less about what the activity is to why the person may be doing it. For example, most people don’t get on a train or a plane because that is what they want to do rather it is because they want to get somewhere else. You can now start to think about making the experience of the thing that isn’t wanted better (for example providing in-transit internet connectivity) or you can explore how you avoid the activity altogether and meet the need in another way (video conferencing for example).
Rory Sutherland gives many more examples (with a far better narrative) in his TED talks and recent book – Alchemy. At the heart of this approach is an understanding of perspective, that we are less rational than we think we are and our decision making as illogical as it often appears.
Another way to explore adjacency is to look at what people do when things aren’t as they want them to be. I’ve previously stated that customers hack the future. When a product doesn’t natively do the things, they want they’ll find a way. IFTTT is an example of this happening – their purpose is to make things work better together. It’s a great service but its one that should almost be unnecessary. By thinking about the outcome from the customers perspective the focus is less on what does the thing do and more on what have we enabled to happen. If there is an insufficient solving of the outcome problem then there is space for innovation to happen.
To access this potential goldmine that exists in thinking about outcomes and adjacency we need to start looking for an opportunity in a different way. The first step is to leave to one side the labels we are applying to objects, our understanding of what they do and refocus onto the things that are achieved in their most basic form.
If the barriers of personal experience and our limited thinking weren’t enough we’ve also another barrier in the complexity of language that we use. The UK Government has started to do a reasonable job here with some of its citizen services – they no longer have confusing names but are known as the thing the person wants to do. There’s a good list of examples here but it includes things like Tax your vehicle, book your driving test and buy a rod fishing licence.
I hope you can start to see already that there is an outcome adjacency opportunity just in those three examples. Taxing a vehicle isn’t that dissimilar in outcome to having a fishing licence – in both cases you’re paying for compliance with the law and receiving a token to demonstrate you have done so. This builds to create iterative innovation as you understand the commonality in the entities, for example, a person who had to prove their identity. If you can make it better for one service, you can make it better for all and so innovation scales.
If you want to start to identify your outcome adjacency goldmine then I would suggest you start here:
- Think about the things that you’re doing in one place which are also done in other places. Making it better once and applying it elsewhere creates scalable incremental opportunity.
- Focus on the simplest description of the outcome that you can think about and find examples from a diverse range of places that are all doing something similar. Look for an opportunity to combine them.
These things become a lot easier to do when you have cognitively diverse teams, are aware of your own bias and silo mentality, and invite challenges from others.
At the heart of all innovation, success is the behaviour of the people involved and a willingness not just to see the world differently, but to look to take someone else’s solution and apply it in a new space.