The Limits of Innovation

Sir Isaac Newton once said, "If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." His point was simple. Without the works and contributions of those that came before him, his discoveries would have never happened.

In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson refers to this concept as The Adjacent Possible. The idea is that the boundaries of innovation expand as you explore them. Or as he puts it:

Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven't visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn't have reached from your original starting point.

This means that innovations are almost destined to occur based on the existence of the necessary pre-conditions for their discovery. Each new innovation sets the stage for other future innovations. Innovations are less the product of singular genius, and more the product of a perfect conditions. This is why you often see the same innovations discovered in different places, by different people, in the same time period (ex. calculus, the telephone).

Without flash video, html standards and high speed internet access there would be no Youtube. The computer wouldn't have been possible without the existence of vacuum tubes, and GPS wouldn't have been created without Sputnik.

Innovations can only evolve to the adjacent possible. Successful innovations are never ahead of their time. They're merely waiting to be discovered. They're biding their time for a creative soul to build upon the disparate accomplishments of those that came before, and through that combination of existing ideas, create something entirely new.

Written by Adam Harrell on February 16, 2011


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Adam Harrell