So much of leadership, management, and change narrative is about “gap analysis.” The thinking goes that we achieve a desired future by describing a bold vision, defining our current location, mapping the gap between here and there, and then planning and adjusting our route at check-points along the way.
This is what grant proposals and change strategies assume and describe. This is what mission, vision, and value statements are designed to serve. But this is also orienteering, which works only when you have a working compass, an adequate map, and a reasonable expectation of persistent terrain.
But what if you and your colleagues are not independent travelers on a static landscape? What if you, the terrain, the compass, and the map all change each other in ways you can’t unbundle? And what if describing an optimal and aspirational future tells you nothing about how to take a next step, and might even blind you to other futures?
In that decision space, all you have is the current reality and the available options immediately around you. Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman calls this space the “adjacent possible,” and considers it an essential part and partner of natural selection. Says he:
It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next.
Evolution doesn’t have a “true north” or a long-range target. Rather, it has an array of options it explores with whatever traits or tricks it can bring to bear. Steven Johnson adapts and expands Kauffman’s idea to innovation and creativity in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, where he writes: “The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”
So how does this all provide an alternative to “gap analysis” in management and leadership? Dave Snowden suggests that rather than describing an idealized distant future and mapping the way (which he finds to be ludicrous in a complex system), we instead should attend to current, everyday stories, and listen for their qualities and impacts. Some stories will show positive motion toward a more productive reality. Others will show negative motion toward a less productive or more destructive reality. The manager’s job is then to ask “what can I do tomorrow to create more of the positive story and less of the negative one?” And door-by-door you move through (and construct) the palace. Says Snowden:
We need to start doing small things in the present rather than promising massive things in the future.
This approach is less about managing to long-term outcomes, and more about moving through immediate-term vectors. In environments without a working compass, an adequate map, or a persistent terrain (which is pretty much every environment these days), exploring the adjacent possible might be the only kind of movement that gets you somewhere new.