Monday, December 27, 2010

Which Priority First? The Adjacent Possible.

The best laid plans....

It's that time of year for personal goal-setting. Similarly many new strategic plans are set in motion or get updated. But, it is always a challenge to determine what to do first. Everything seems to be a priority.

I discovered a term from biology called "adjacent possible" when reading Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From that helps in choosing which big thing to do before another. As he explains, "the adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can re-invent itself."

But, only certain changes can happen first. In simpler terms, it's like being in a room with four doors where one door is the best possible to open. The others lead nowhere "on the edges of the present" either because it's too soon for them to be opened or they never were a good idea.

However, once a door is opened the boundaries change and the next big thing might be different than you conceived it to be back in time. A new "adjacent possible" is before you, as if you were on a continuous exploration.

So, what does this mean for setting priorities? Current mind research indicates that we can focus only on about four big ideas at a time. So, narrow down your priorities to something manageable. Then, choose the one which "hovers closest on the edge of the present". The one that will help all the others along.

Project management types might call this breaking things down into milestones or smaller steps. Yes, that's true. But, this is really about what path to choose in the first place before breaking it down further or making a work plan or road map. The priority determines the path. The path shifts the world as you explore.