How Would You Beat?

How Would You Beat? Guest Steven Johnson and the "Adjacent Possible" | Jobs-to-be-Done

January 04, 2022 thrv Season 2 Episode 1
How Would You Beat? Guest Steven Johnson and the "Adjacent Possible" | Jobs-to-be-Done
How Would You Beat?
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How Would You Beat?
How Would You Beat? Guest Steven Johnson and the "Adjacent Possible" | Jobs-to-be-Done
Jan 04, 2022 Season 2 Episode 1

In this episode we talk with special guest Steven Johnson. Steven is a New York Times bestselling author of 13 books, including books on the history of innovation. He is the host of

We discuss innovation, the history of ideas, and what Steven calls the "Adjacent Possible." The podcast includes practical ideas and method product teams can use to improve their success.

✅ Download our Executive White Paper: "How to Use JTBD To Grow Faster" 👉

Key moments with today's guest Steven Johnson:

00:00 Introduction to Steven Johnson and what exactly the "Adjacent Possible" concept is. 

08:00 Steven talks about figuring out what technologies could be useful to use the "Adjacent Possible" concept and Jobs-to-be-Done.

13:09 Jared and Jay talk about integrating the  "Adjacent Possible" with Jobs-to-be-Done for competitive analysis and more.

21:18 How to fit related "jobs" into the "Adjacent Possible" framework

30:17 Trying to be a Gutenberg-like innovator in today's society,  the Metaverse and other product examples

42:31 Blockchain transforming from play to an actual need.

Be sure to subscribe to learn more about JTBD! 

✅ Download our Executive White Paper: "How to Use JTBD To Grow Faster" 👉

Learn more about JTBD:
Follow Jay Haynes on Linkedin:
Follow Jared Ranere on Linkedin:

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode we talk with special guest Steven Johnson. Steven is a New York Times bestselling author of 13 books, including books on the history of innovation. He is the host of

We discuss innovation, the history of ideas, and what Steven calls the "Adjacent Possible." The podcast includes practical ideas and method product teams can use to improve their success.

✅ Download our Executive White Paper: "How to Use JTBD To Grow Faster" 👉

Key moments with today's guest Steven Johnson:

00:00 Introduction to Steven Johnson and what exactly the "Adjacent Possible" concept is. 

08:00 Steven talks about figuring out what technologies could be useful to use the "Adjacent Possible" concept and Jobs-to-be-Done.

13:09 Jared and Jay talk about integrating the  "Adjacent Possible" with Jobs-to-be-Done for competitive analysis and more.

21:18 How to fit related "jobs" into the "Adjacent Possible" framework

30:17 Trying to be a Gutenberg-like innovator in today's society,  the Metaverse and other product examples

42:31 Blockchain transforming from play to an actual need.

Be sure to subscribe to learn more about JTBD! 

✅ Download our Executive White Paper: "How to Use JTBD To Grow Faster" 👉

Learn more about JTBD:
Follow Jay Haynes on Linkedin:
Follow Jared Ranere on Linkedin:

How Would You Beat with Guest Steven Johnson

Jay Haynes  0:00  

Well, today we're very excited to have our guest, Steven Johnson. He 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's got a new substack newsletter that just launched called Adjacent Possible. You can sign up at I highly recommend it. Already in it's launch. It's growing very quickly and has incredible content that I think anybody listening to this podcast would be interested in. 

So Steven, thanks for being here. Can you tell us a little bit about the Adjacent Possible? What is it?

Steven Johnson  0:48  

Yes, it's a it's a concept that has been in my work for a long time and I kind of came back to when I launched this newsletter, because I was going to do a newsletter in many ways about innovation, about new ideas and how they come into the world and how they circulate and a lot of the things that that you guys are interested in here. And I was looking around for a name and I had written this book that you alluded to Where Good Ideas Come From which is probably the book about innovation that is the closest to a theory of how innovation happens of anything that I've written. There is a chapter in that book called the Adjacent Possible. That book came out about 10 or 12 years ago and that phrase has just always, in my experience, kind of resonated with people. I've met so many people over the years that have kind of brought it up.  I can say that because I actually didn't coin the phrase, it's not actually my innovation. I just borrowed it and maybe popularized it a little bit. 

So I thought it would be a really nice way of thinking about what I was interested in. What I was going to be writing about in this newsletter. But it's also just something I like to kind of bring into circulation. So the term itself actually originates really in biology and evolutionary theory in a way. It was coined many years ago by a guy named Stuart Kaufman who was a complexity scientist. If you ever read the book Chaos a Million Years Ago, Kaufman is a major figure in that book and a really interesting guy. At some point in the late 90s, he developed this theory about the adjacent possible He was basically saying that in any system that is evolving over time. And this can be a biological system, like we think about evolution, or it can be a cultural system like technology or markets. 

As the system evolves, at any given moment in that history, there's a kind of a finite set of ways that it can be changed or transformed. And a much larger set of ways that it can't be changed yet. The ways that it can be transformed, that's the adjacent possible at that particular moment in time. So the metaphor I used to describe this is imagine a chessboard. Okay, you play a game of chess. Halfway through the game you pause and you look down at the board. And given the configuration of the pieces on the board. And given the rules of chess, there's a certain set of moves that you can make at that point in the game. That's the adjacent possible at that moment in time in the game. There's a much larger set of moves that you can't make given the rules of chess.  What Kaufman was saying is that generally, interestingly, over both evolutionary history and modern history, in terms of culture and technology and science, the adjacent possible is getting bigger. There are more things that can be done. 

Part of the lesson for innovators and thinking about this and product people, anybody who's trying to think about new ideas and how they can be brought into the world to solve people's needs, is that you're very much kind of a creature of your moment in time. And in a way, if you think about it, there was no way in 1650 to invent a microwave oven, even though the job of making food quickly in an efficient way is still something that people wanted back then. But it just wasn't possible. However smart you are, a microwave oven was not thinkable in 1650. But because of changes in technology and science and a lot of fields kind of coming together and electricity and consumer appliances, a bunch of different ideas and markets developed by 1950 or 1960. The idea of a microwave oven was thinkable. It had become part of the adjacent possible. So when we think about how do we bring a new idea into the world, or how do we make a great new product that really satisfies someone's needs, that background sense of what's available out there and what new door has just opened in the adjacent possible that was closed 5 years ago or 10 years ago but but is now available to us. That's a big part of thinking in an innovator's mindset way.

Jay Haynes  5:01  

Yeah, that's great. It makes me think that I hadn't thought about this until now hearing you talk about it. But we mentioned all the time that one of the beauties of Jobs-to-be-Done in jobs theory is actually risk mitigation. Because companies invest an enormous amount of money in their product roadmaps. And if you  invest in the wrong amount like Blackberry you're going bankrupt, or Kodak, or all the other examples. So one of the things with Jobs-to-be-Done  is to help mitigate that risk. adjacent possible is actually a very interesting idea from a risk mitigation standpoint. Because it's probably the word possible in the phrase because you can only pursue those things that are essentially low risk right now.

I was talking to someone who works with entrepreneurs yesterday. And he was talking about entrepreneurs being risk takers. We always say, wait, that's a big mistake. If you're an entrepreneur, you're going to  leave your job to start a company or whatever it is.  You want to be a risk mitigator.  You want to make sure you have no risk in doing it. And the adjacent possible seems to be a way to map out what is possible. 

Cooking is a great example. We use that a lot because  preparing food is an interactive, basic job. But I also think what's fascinating. If you take that example where there's a microwave, of course, like there's a lot of technology that had to come together to make that and who knows what goes on his magic box, you put food in and heats up.  What I think is really interesting is there's still so much innovation in preparing food today. Because part of the adjacent possible today, if you're considering how you are going to innovate within the preparing food market is not, how do we get our food on the shelves of a grocery store? You would want to literally think outside the box of the grocery store. And now that we have a very efficient supply chain where you can ship food and you have the ability to store it and keep it cold and have it arrive.

I love all these new products. The Brava is this one that uses light and a new way to eat food. The other one that's Tavola where the food comes ready to prepare and just put it in the steam oven for 15 -20 minutes and it's ready. It's a full meal. No prepping. And those things I think are really great. One of the things about, obviously, microwave food is not the greatest and sometimes not the healthiest. But I think that's really fascinating. It really becomes a risk  mitigation system. And how do you think, Steven, that people should think about this in relation to technology? Because obviously we work with a lot of companies that  think of themselves as a technology company. Maybe they shouldn't but that's their core? How does this relate to how do you figure out which technologies could be useful? 

Steven Johnson  8:07  

Well, I think part of the lesson here and in this is what happens. I think, when you look at the history of innovations and technological platforms in the past, that sometimes the the new possibilities spaces that are opened up by technologies are kind of surprising ones and hard to kind of anticipate in advance. Sometimes they're visible, right.? 

We've talked a couple of times about the example of the kind of Netflix /Blockbuster kind of transition, right? So Netflix, for people who may be too young to remember, initially had its early success mailing people physical DVDs in the mail through the Postal Service. That was how you satisfied the need. It satisfied the Job-to-be-Done of watching a movie, or at the time it was really clever, and you had a que. There were lots of things they actually did with software that made it a really seamless process. There were no late fees. That was the big innovation.  You can hold on to it as long as possible. You just have to send it back at some point. But they realized, and to their great credit, they realized kind of early on that this was not how people were going to be watching movies. Streaming was going to become an inevitable part of this because people were going to get high speed internet connections and with overall infrastructure, the Internet was going to be able to support streaming HD movies. Now 4k movies and all that. And so even though they built this incredibly successful, profitable business. They pretty much cut it off in the middle of a lovely run where they've gone public, had great success and made a lot of money, because they realized that the adjacent possible of how you would transmit  this form of entertainment had fundamentally changed. There was so much risk, as you said, of being stuck in the postal service business when everything was going to go in the other direction and so they were able to kind of make that change really quickly. And it was very controversial at the time, but it ended up being a brilliant move. So, that's something that you could kind of see. Right?  

You could look out and say the internet's transmission speeds are getting faster and people are getting high speed in their homes. And yeah, this is coming. But I think that the more interesting part of this is developments that are harder to predict. In the newsletter, I retold this story that was actually in How We Got to Now, the show and book that you mentioned earlier. It is a really great story from history of innovations, which is a story about this late 19th century physics professor named Charles Boys. He is trying to make a kind of a very thin piece of glass to use to develop a kind of a measuring device, which is one of the things he specialized in. So he does this crazy stunt, which we recreated, actually, for the show, which was hilarious.

Jay Haynes  10:55  

I do remember it, I recommend anybody watch the show. 

Steven Johnson  10:58  

It's very funny, because I have a giant crossbow.  We take some molten, semi liquid glass and attach it to the arrow or the bolt and the crossbow and then fire it, which is what Boys did, this this physicist 130 years ago. It's intrinsically just very funny in the show because anytime I handle a large weapon it's very funny, because I just am the last person to do this at all.  So he fired this thing and it produced this incredibly thin strand of glass that became the first glass fiber. And it turned out to be remarkably strong. And so glass had been around obviously, as an important material in the modern world for a long time. But it was mostly because of its kind of transparency that it was interesting, but this thing was strong. 

The first thing that happened is that people began creating things out of fiberglass. So suddenly, they were making boats out of fiberglass and helmets out of fiberglass, and things like that. But down the line those glass fibers when you combine them with another technology that was developed, 6-7 years later, lasers. You thought about light as being something that could transmit information and forms of zeros and ones.  Suddenly, people were like, Oh, we can take those glass fibers and we can shoot lasers down with these little pulses of light that will signal information. And suddenly, we could connect the world at the speed of light with with data. And that opened just a vast new space of possibility that didn't exist before. And in fact, ultimately made something like Netflix possible, right? You had all this fiber optic cables that you could you could send movies through them. This is what I mean about the unpredictable nature of adjacent possible because if you would have told Charles Boys in 1890 that the glass fiber you just created is going to be credibly useful for sending movies to people all around the world. He would have said, that's ridiculous. I'm just trying to make a  measuring device here as it has nothing to do with information. And yet, it turned out to be incredibly central to that to exactly that kind of objective. 

Jared Ranere  13:09  

One of the things that I think is really interesting is there is a difference between the invention and the commercialization of an invention. So you've got the idea that we could use fiber optics to send light, which somebody then figures out could be used to send information. And then by the time Netflix uses it to stream movies, it's suddenly controversial that you might use it for that. The question is why would you have that big question, when, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say, Oh, well, it's all going that way anyways. I think it has something to do with the conflict and commercialization where you've got this great business going on on the one hand, but then you've got to take a risk to invest in this new infrastructure in this new technology, which you think may be better in the long run. But it's a change and that change is going to cost money. And what we hope to do through Jobs-to-be-Don, and as you were talking about, I was thinking about this is to make it obvious that that change is the right thing to do. 

If you think about that job of watching an entertaining movie in my home, I was remembering how you reminded me you've got the software cue, right? You've got the website that you go to with your cue and Netflix. And here's the thing I want to watch. I'm so excited about this, and you click send it to me. And then days later, it shows up. When you think about the job steps, we're always talking about that you want the job to happen faster and more accurately. Now, if somebody came to you and said, Now instead of clicking on what you want to watch, and then waiting days, what if it happened instantly? You'd be like, of course I want that!  That's so much obviously better. How would I ever say no? It's far faster and more accurate.  I think what's interesting is that difficulty of figuring out, a) if technology can do this and then if you can apply Jobs-to-be-Done to that moment to show look, this is obviously better. It's definitely worth going through the exercise of investing more. I think it's a nice marriage of two concepts.

Jay Haynes  15:12  

Yet, let me add something there, just because I think this is a great discussion. It's making me think that the adjacent possible is also very valuable for competitive analysis. And Steven, the example you gave, I think is a great example of what companies actually don't do. They don't think about how can we compete with ourselves. Because Netflix basically said, Let's compete with ourselves, let's create a whole different business. If you're a Wall Street analyst, it would look like you became a totally different company. That's incredibly important, because as Jared was saying, you need to separate invention, which is just a pure technology discovery of something that given the laws of physics we've never done before. From innovation, which is that commercialization aspect. So the adjacent possible enables you to stay customer focused, which is really what product teams are in companies today at least give lip service to being customer focused, but at its core, it really makes sense that you should be customer focused. If you think you should just continue selling film or keyboard devices or whatever, you're going to go out of business, because your customers don't care about your technology. They care about getting their job done. 

So I think this wraps back into Jobs-to-be-Done very nicely, because as Jared mentioned we measure everything by speed and accuracy.  If you're looking at something that's in the adjacent possible, and you're saying, Well, okay, that thing's interesting, should we investigate it as something that would be valuable to our customers? You have to do that exact analysis which Jared was saying. Is it going to be faster and more accurate to have to walk to a store and get a movie to rent? Or do I have to just get it mailed to me? Or what if I just click play? And instantly I watch that movie? Obviously, that is the way the markets are going to go. And I think what's so valuable about the adjacent possible and why I really do think people should sign up for Steven's  Substack. Because it is about all this type of thinking. It applies to risk mitigation within your product roadmap. It applies to competitive analysis and where ultimately, is the company? Should you make that investment decision?  Do you want to be Blackberry or Netflix right? BlackBerry said, We're going to keep making keyboard devices. And Netflix said, We're going to reinvent our business to go to the adjacent possible and one of them succeeded. The other didn't.

Steven Johnson  17:39  

Blackberry is a really interesting example, thinking about where you started, which was companies really being willing to compete with themselves when something in the overall landscape has changed. When fundamental changes come like high speed internet,. And so you think about BlackBerry like, okay, the touch interface of the phone, ultimately ended up being a Blackberry killer, because they stuck with that keyboard kind of model. But you know what also the iPhone killed? The iPod, right? Apple knew that the future was headed towards a single unified computing device that would be able to simulate a music player and a million other things. And that was going to destroy dedicated music players. And yet, here you have this company that literally almost died. And the thing that brought it back to life was this little iPod device, a dedicated music player, and they were just like what, we're going to go and shoot that because we know where the future is going. And we're fine with shooting the iPod, because the iPhone is going to be so much bigger than that. But it does take a lot of courage, I suppose.

Jay Haynes  18:43  

Yeah. Well, I think you're right. Courage is such a great word for it. There's a few things I love about that story. One is that people forget that the iPod was 50% of Apple's revenue. So if you're the VP of Product and don't have an idea, we're going to destroy 50% of our revenue in telecommunications. A business that they clearly had never been in. That seems insane. And the other thing that they did, which other people have written about too, is that people try and copy Apple's products. They don't try and copy the company. And  they set up a red team, or whatever you want to call a tiger team. There are different ways to call it but a team that was isolated from the iPod that was just going to focus on this new thing. It was obviously going to be very valuable to customers. But it didn't have all of the antibodies fighting it in the organization because it was isolated from them. Then my other favorite thing is when they launched the iPhone, you may remember the app was literally called the iPod. They actually destroy it.

Steven Johnson  19:55  

Yeah, we shrunk the iPod. We put it on the screen here. There is another story that Steven Levy tells. A wonderful writer about Apple and now technology, in general written a bunch of great books by tech. He tells a story about interviewing Steve Jobs, right after the revamped, or the first iMac came out. The translucent, colorful ones that was the first thing that started to turn Apple around. Levy was talking to Jobs. And he was like, Well, this is a nice looking machine, but this isn't really fundamentally going to change anything, is it? I mean, maybe it'll make Apple slightly profitable now, which will be great. But is this really a game changer? Jobs apparently said  "No, what we're doing is just stabilizing. And then we're just waiting. Because there's going to be another major seismic shift in technology, something's going to come along. And if I've got the right team, and if I understand my end users and what they want to do. As soon as that change comes in terms of what the underlying tech is capable of, we're going to jump on that. They didn't use that language. But that is, we're just going to wait for the adjacent possible to open up a new door. And if we've got the right team, we understand our market and what our consumers actually really need and what they want to do. we're going to be able to create something new, and we're going to be able to do it better than anybody else. And that was first the iPod. And then it became the iPhone.

Jay Haynes  21:18  

Yeah, that's so that's so great. That is literally waiting for the adjacent possible. And that's why I'm such a big fan of your work, obviously. And I do recommend everybody read your books and sign up for the substack. But the reason I think it's so important to just have these conversations with people like you who have so much knowledge about the history of this stuff is because you're partially a historian too. Look at all these things, and how they happened over time. And I think that's really, in the language of Silicon Valley these days, it's pattern recognition. You're trying to say, can I get really good?  Kind of the same way that you study music. You listen over and over again, to major minor chords.  Eventually, you pick up on those patterns, you're like, Oh, that's a major, a minor chord. And that's the same thing for innovators and product teams. To be able to figure out the adjacent possible, because this stuff is not easy. I mean, we can all look back and tell these stories, but we're really trying to help people figure out what's going forward in the future. I think to get that kind of pattern recognition, just the stories you tell in your books, and obviously, your television shows, but also now just in the adjacent possible, your substack. That is the muscle memory. That is doing the scales every day that you need, which is why it's so important. 

If you really are a product team, you really want to be better at innovating to have this kind of recognition. And the thing that I think is interesting about adjacent possible as well, is what we always call related jobs. Which are some basic examples. If you're in the diaper business and you're looking at parents.  Parents also need to get a baby to sleep through the night. So, that would be related to the business you're in. And do you think that that is a good way to think about the adjacent possible as well? Because we would define those as kind of related markets. Since we define a job as a market, does that fit into the adjacent possible framework? 

Steven Johnson  23:23  

Yes it does in two different ways I would say.  I will give you two quick examples of how it relates.  One is, it's almost like there's kind of a metaphor that this other job is kind of like the job I'm doing. So I can learn something in a kind of abstract way. There's not a direct technology transfer, but it's similar enough that you can do it. 

So for instance, I once heard this great story.  I went and gave his speech for General Mills, the people that make cereals. And they had a partnership with a bunch of other  Minneapolis, Minnesota based companies, where there were companies that were in different fields. They weren't necessarily in the same field, they were just geographically near each other. They had a shared idea board where people could kind of post questions and things like that. And they told me this great story about somebody who was working on fruit roll ups.  The little food for kids. A plastic stuck with the kind of pressed fruit and you peel it off and eat it. And they were stuck, literally stuck, like the fruit kept getting stuck to the plastic. It was really hard to eat because you can not get the plastic off of it.  So somebody posted that to the shared board and someone at 3M, the office supply company was like, sticky but not too sticky. That's post it notes!  We made a billion dollars on sticky but not too sticky. Like we know that we know how to do that.  It was a related job.  One was food and one was sticking things in your white border or in your book that you're reading. But there was a shift phenomena there that was useful. So that's an argument for keeping your eyes on other fields in that way. 

The other side of the adjacent possible that was one of my favorite talks going back in history. Actually, it's one of my favorite stories from Where Good Ideas Come From. Think about, arguably the other biggest invention and Information Technology next to the internet, the printing press. Gutenberg, when he was inventing the printing press, he had done all this very pioneering work with metallurgy and inks and everything like that to figure out how to set type and all that stuff. But technically didn't have a pressing mechanism. He wasn't sure how he could actually create a way where you could imprint the type of inks onto the page. And he was kind of stuck and he ended up going just to take a break. He went to a vineyard, and was drinking some wine. It turned out that there was this technology of the screw press that had been invented, actually, many decades before, many centuries before by winemakers to press grapes. And he watched them doing this. He was like, Wait a second, that's exactly what I need. And so he basically borrowed this device that had been designed to fulfill the job of manufacturing wine and ported it over and put it into a new context and turned it into a device for making Bibles. That's the kind of thing where there's almost sometimes direct technology transfer, where you can literally take the device and just put it to use in your new contraption, whatever you're working on. And so that's an argument for  keeping your eye on different fields, different adjacent fields to your own, and not just being kind of stuck in your own silo of your own business in your own industry. But having a bunch of peripheral  leads into other fields.

Jared Ranere  26:53  

I want to pick up on a nuance of the story just told about the printing press that, I think, would be easy to overlook, if you didn't have the right lens on the story.  Gutenberg had a really, really clear and constrained problem in mind when he went to see that wine press. And if you don't have that, then the double edged sword of this, keeping your eye on fields, and the new technology developments is what we call in product management, the shiny object syndrome. Where everything out there is so exciting. And then you go and throw it at the technologist in the team and say, figure out how to use augmented reality. Figure out how to use crypto. Figure out how to apply this to our business. And you just think that slapping the technology to your business is going to create some great unlocking of growth. But the key is to know very precisely what problem you're trying to solve either with the functionality of your own product, or the customer's problem even better. That way, when you're scanning that landscape for new technological developments, you know what to apply, and how to apply it effectively. And I think that's inherent in your story, but can easily be missed.

Steven Johnson  28:02  

Yes, that's a great point. 

Jay Haynes  28:04  

I definitely agree with that. And I think what's fascinating, also and again, is why it's so important to always be learning more about the actual stories of what happened, and the way they happen, because they're never the way we tell the stories, right? We tell the stories that Steve Jobs is a genius. He sat down one day and invented the iPhone. Of course, it never happens that way. And, and that's why when you get these stories, like Gutenberg, which I think is great, because I didn't know that either. And, again, a great reason to sign up for your substack. You get more of these incredible stories from Steven, who is such an expert on this stuff.  

That story is much more interesting if you are trying to innovate today. Because if what's in your head is, I need to be a Gutenberg type innovator where I need to sit down and come up with this incredible product that's just going to start like flying off the shelves or spreading virally on the internet is the way we would say today. That's just not the way it happens. And that is so risky to try and do. It really takes this kind of working the problem over and over again, as Jared was saying, having the problem in focus. So you're constrained. This is the problem I'm trying to solve. And then during this adjacent possible scan of saying, Okay, now, I've got my eyes open to all these new technologies out there, but I can evaluate them from the point of view of my customer? Is my customer going to care at all about machine learning or blockchain or  whatever the shiny new object is? When you're trying to answer that question, then you have the job in focus. And what's interesting, if you go back to Gutenberg, all the way from Gutenberg to now, the jobs that we're hired to do are the same jobs, they haven't changed. Hundreds and hundreds of years, technology has obviously changed enormously. So then if you were looking to that today, what is the adjacent possible today to get that job done that would commercialize and make it successful?

Steven Johnson  30:17  

It's really interesting. What you both are saying is kind of crystallizing something that I've been thinking about a little bit recently. I'm actually working on a piece about this that may, I think, be in the Wall Street Journal at some point, which is, you're talking about pattern, the importance of kind of history in terms of pattern recognition, and seeing these things as they happened in the past. And Jared, you're talking about the shiny object syndrome. We need to get some crypto in this thing right now.  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 going to change everything in terms of what's possible.  And I've been thinking about that a lot. 

In my life, I feel like I've had, certainly with computing, there have been kind of three moments where I saw something, and was like, eventually, everyone is going to do this, this thing. And the first one was a graphic interface when I first saw the first Mac. And the second one was when I saw the first browser page, in  '93 or something like that. I saw links on a page, I was like, This is it. This is how people are going to organize information space. And then and the third was the touch interface of the phone. The original iPhone. No one is going to go back to the keys. And this is absolutely how we're going to use our handheld devices from now on. 

What was really interesting the other day, as I was watching the Facebook hour and a half long thing about the metaverse that Zuckerberg was introducing. And what's fascinating to me is that Zuckerberg clearly thinks that we are transitioning. We're right on the edge of another one of those things, and everyone is in some fundamental way going to be wearing some kind of VR/AR set of goggles on their head. And that's going to just be a big bet. It's fundamentally coming to everyone. It's an inevitable next step in computing.I think he's wrong.  But it's your ability to sense is this really an inevitable wave that is coming that all future products are going to be based on this in some fashion or another? Or is this something that's going to appeal to 10% of the market, most of them are going to be gamers, and it's not going to be a big deal. Your ability to get a sense of which it is, is huge. Because if it's just going to come to 10% of the market, you don't need to reorganize your entire business around this future inevitable development that's going to change the whole possibility space. You can actually choose to ignore it. If it's not helping your customers get their jobs done. But if it's coming to everything, then you need to take it seriously.

Jared Ranere  33:10  

Yeah, I think that's really interesting, because it's often positioned as a question of, can you read the tea leaves? Are you in touch with the zeitgeist?  Do you know what the trends are and where and you're basically asking people to be a prognosticator. And I think there's an easier question to answer that might be more accurate, which is, if this were true, what would it mean for how people get the jobs done that we're trying to serve? So instead of trying to predict whether or not it will happen, you can just ask what would it mean if it did? And then if you envision that world, and it becomes significantly faster, more accurate, easier to engage in the jobs you're trying to serve, then you have to adopt it, or else somebody else will and you'll go out of business. But if it's going to actually make the job that you're trying to serve worse, and I can certainly imagine jobs that would be worse, if I were wearing a headset and experiencing the virtual. Then it tells you okay, I don't have to bother. I don't have to worry too much about that.  That makes me really comfortable. Because I don't know that I'm terribly in touch with trends, guys, but I can analyze a very straight particular goal and a specific goal. So instead of as a PM, you don't need to ask, is this going to change everything?  You need to ask, Is this going to change my job that I'm focused on? The job that I want my customers to be able to do better?

Jay Haynes  34:37  

Yeah, I think that's a great way to walk through the adjacent possible analysis if we can say that.

Steven Johnson  34:45  

We're inventing a whole new field. This is fantastic.

Jay Haynes  34:52  

I didn't see the whole Facebook launch. I should go look at that and we should analyze it. What's interesting is I've never seen Zuckerberg specifically say what jobs are getting done better because of Facebook. I mean, there's this general thing, we need to connect people with each other. It's great to connect to these old friends. But there's no real specificity to that. I think one of the problems with Facebook is the job they think they're getting done is keeping people on Facebook. That's a whole other discussion. But their algorithm and everything they're doing it's not helping humanity, but it's keeping you on Facebook all day long because you get addicted to it. So what I think the question is in this Metaverse, these 3d virtual worlds, as Jared says, what is a specific job to get done? And there may be lots. Remote surgery is obviously one of the ones that people talked about. Very practical if you get the best doctor, but they're 3000 miles away through some sort of three dimensional operating room they can help you. There could be educational benefits. Clearly gaming might be a great experience.  I think the other thing you have to factor in is what we call consumption jobs, which I don't think are as relevant to the adjacent possible because consumption jobs just generally how do you use the product? Not what is the product being used for? But literally, how do you interface with it? How do you learn to use it? How do you turn it on? How do you create an account? How do you purchase itt?  All those things are about consuming the product.  

I have a funny story. I bought a one of the whatever they call it goggle things to talk to flight simulator. You had to set up these tracking things on a tripod as well.  You couldn't just do it in the goggles itself, right.? So the consumption experience that was so horrible, I finally did after hours get it working. Mostly because I like flying. I'm a pilot and I wanted my kids to have some flying experience with less danger than actually trying to fly a plane with them. And it was just so terrible. I mean, literally, I couldn't do it. After I didn't do it for a couple months, I tried to turn them back on, but it didn't work. And those are really important too. 

If something like a new technology is going to help get a job done, it also has to have incredible consumption jobs. Meaning it has to be very easy to learn to use and maintain purchase, etc. And I've mentioned this before, in other conversations about the iPhone. It’s incredible that you have a tiny supercomputer in your pocket. It literally comes with no manual. Steven, you and I are old enough. Jared, you're getting up there. But like, the days of buying a piece of technology, like without a manual, the whole thing you did when you got some new thing was like, Okay, open the manual and read through pages and pages and how to use the thing.

Steven Johnson  37:55  

It is interesting . Apple just kind of just decided, let's just make the product manual free, because it's so intuitive to use, but you still buy other kinds of consumer electronics. If you buy a TV,  the manual could have been made in 1985.  It's got 17 languages and got all this, it's explained horribly.  Don't reinvent the experience of actually how you tell people how to use your product is just part of it. 

But the other thing I was going say about the kind of consumption side of things when you think about, just on the example of the metaverse and Zuckerberg, so much of that is about social time.  Having meetings but also hanging with your friends and stuff like that. It's a weird idea that like a core part of that job, I want to be able to gather with other human beings and have a conversation about something which is effective whether it's at work or or for fun. Zuckerberg's assumption is that the existing version of that right now, there isn't enough technology between you and the other people. So it needs more mediation, right? Let's make sure that we have  a big thing on our head. And no one can see anybody's face but you'll be able to be an animated dragon. So that'll be fantastic. That's what people want. I don't think they want that. I think they want just an incredibly good zoom where the audio is perfect and the images HD and there's no lag and they can really see people's facial expressions because that's what they want to interact as human beings. And the more goggles you put on the harder it is to do that. So it's literally going against the actual grain of the core job itself.

Jay Haynes  39:51  

This, I think, is again a great way to use  adjacent possible to analyze these. If you're on a product team. How would you figure this out? Well, one thing I think's interesting so let's say you're just using this in a business context. So you're trying to create an alternative to Zoom that enables people to have better meetings, right? More efficient meetings. What's that entail? That job of conducting efficient meetings. That's a very complicated job.  A lot of stuff is going on. You need information for the meeting, you need to make sure you understand these inputs, what's the outputs? What's the agenda? Why are you here? Having an efficient meeting is not an easy thing to do. In fact, you may remember Steven, Andy Grove, when he was CEO of Intel, literally, he would do the new employee orientations to teach them how to have meetings, because that was so important to Intel, which I always found incredibly fascinating. So if you were to analyze this and say, well is Facebook's new meta product going to help me have meetings? You could go through and do it and say, Is this going to be any better? Is it going to be faster and more accurate than zoom? One of the things I think what you write about, which is so great, is if you were doing that combining it with Jobs-to-be-Done to say, is this technology ready to be commercialized.  You would have to consider the fact that hooking everybody already up in HD and Zoom is pretty hard. And there's bandwidth issues and connectivity and all that. If you're not going to add in three dimensional data over those same lines, even though we do have fiber optics. That's a lot of data. Is that going to give you any incremental benefit to that at all?  

That's what we always  think about this in terms of examples like the Zune. The reason the Zune failed, it was a good iPod, it actually had a thing called a podcasting feature, but it didn't do anything differently. So if all you're getting differently in being in some 3D meta space for your meetings, is that you're in the 3D meta space. And yet, the  technology is not there, it's not in the adjacent possible to send three dimensional data in HD.  You have to be a low rez cartoon character.  Then that's not going to add any value to the job, and it will not be adopted. But you can keep your eyes open. And maybe Facebook has invented some new way to send three dimensional data down the pipes that we already have --the tubes. And I think that could be an interesting way to evaluate, but I don't know.

Steven Johnson  42:31  

Well, this is actually something that came up in the current conversation that I'm doing at Adjacent Possible, which is a mix of essays by me and thoughts by me and conversations with interesting people. One of them we're having right now is with this guy, Chris Dixon, who is the leading VC in the crypto space to talk about China's particular shining object right now. This is this whole thing he's talking about the blockchain and whether there's something really profound there, or is it just another kind of bubble that's happening?  It's not really useful for anything. His argument is, we're seeing these really interesting new economies that are developing in game spaces because they're based on a blockchain architecture, all this commerce is happening, and people are trading virtual goods and things like that, but because it's not a closed, proprietary, top down corporate gaming environment.  It's this kind of peer to peer environment.  All this value is being created and it's being shared really equitably with all the people who are actually playing the game. So they're actually making the money. There's not a company that's making money behind it. 

Chris's point is that you can look at that and say, Well, those are people spending all their time making imaginary goods and imaginary swords and trading them with other people for their imaginary swords. And that's silly. And that's what kids do. But Chris says,, this model is actually being developed here in a game world first. But as is often the case, if you look back in history of technology, things that start and these weird kind of fun game spaces end up becoming mainstream. They get ported over and get applied to new things. What they're doing is coming to commerce or traditional creators or ride sharing or a bunch of other technologies out there. They're going to work the same way. So keep an eye on that space because there might be hints of what's coming there. New doors opening up in the adjacent possible because people are exploring them in that kind of more playful mode.

Jay Haynes  44:31  

Let me just recommend Steven’s other book Wonderland. How play invented the modern world.

Steven Johnson  44:42  

Yes, there's a lot of stuff about games and innovation in that book. 

Jay Haynes  44:45  

Yes because the reason I think that's important is and, again, sign up for Steven Substack with Chris Dixon. You'll get all this stuff because it really, really is interesting. Not just that as a historian, you give us tons of examples of where this happened over and over again. So that's a pattern we should be aware of. But also that actually fits right in with disruption theory. Clay Christensen, who's one of the big godfathers of Jobs-to-be-Done and disruption. He always talked about this too.The technology was just dismissed as a toy. It's not serious.  No one's going to use all the blockchain stuff because it's just used for gaming. But then that's how it actually gets more mature and then takes over the mature markets. It gets dismissed initially but then becomes the dominant force. So again, the more interesting pattern recognition if you're on a product team and you want to learn more, this is valuable stuff.

Jared Ranere  45:43  

The thing I was thinking about, as you were talking to Steven, the difference between the internet gets a little bit faster and the internet is now here, right? Or we've got better security for transactions versus we have a totally new platform for security like we do in the blockchain. Because they're essentially platform shifts that require new mindsets and behavioral patterns, as well as the utilization of that technology. You have to really think differently to participate in these new economies that are being developed on the decentralized blockchain than you do if you want to get an NFT.  You have a different mindset than if you're buying a piece of art that you're going to hang on your wall. It's actually a different job, I might argue. And, so the play investigation is so interesting, because the stakes are lower there. And people are being more adventurous with their play. So they're more ready to behave differently. They're more ready to explore different mindsets. And then you can see the behavior, you can analyze those behavioral patterns to see is that changing the adjacent possible in my market.  Where maybe the stakes are higher, and it's just harder to explore.

Steven Johnson  47:04  

It's funny that I mentioned this in the interview with Chris Dixon. This whole conversation actually came out of this thing that happened this summer when my then 19 year old son came down one morning and said, Alright Dad, I'm investing in a virtual NFT racehorse. I literally thought to myself, Is this the point where I just stopped trying to figure out what the new technology is happening with the kids? I'm 53. I've had a pretty good run at it. Understanding the new things and staying current. And maybe the NFT racehorses is just the time where I can get off the merry go round. But then I decided, no, I'm going to want to interview Chris Dixon. He's going explain this to me. And that's how I got to the interview.

It's the great thing about it. It's a play thing. And it's kind of a generational thing.  Watch what the kids are doing and learn from them. One of the reasons why they're useful is that they come into the world without any expectations about how the tech is supposed to work. They're not like, How can I turn this into a VCR? I understand VCRs. Do you have a fax machine? I'd like to use a fax machine. They're just like, What is this thing? And what's it good for? And that gives them a kind of freedom to explore  what has opened up in the possibility space, because they don't come at it with biases that limit their kind of imagination with these things.

Jared Ranere  48:28  

They're probably less habituated to the current solutions we use to get jobs done. And so therefore, they're less likely to think they're good enough. They're like, Ah, I don't know these zoom things. They're not really doing it for me guys. I need something different. Will it be the metaverse or something different? I haven't analyzed it closely enough to know. But it does seem that kids are more likely or people gaming to not put up with the current state. 

Jay Haynes  48:54  

Well, that's great. I think that's a great, great place to stop. And I will say I'll recommend again that everybody sign up for Steven’s Newsletter at

You can follow Steven onTwitter @stevenbjohnson.  Anybody can email us if they have more questions, we can send you Steven’s way. Steven, thank you so much for being here. I think this is really valuable for anybody interested in products and innovation to follow you and learn more about all of your incredible history of innovation.

Steven Johnson  49:47  

Thank you for having me. It's so cool to kind of connect these ideas to the stuff that you guys do, which is so fascinating too. So I'm really honored to be here.

Introduction to Steven Johnson and what exactly the "Adjacent Possible" concept is. 
Steven talks about figuring out what technologies could be useful to use the "Adjacent Possible" concept and Jobs-to-be-Done.
Jared and Jay talk about integrating the  "Adjacent Possible" with Jobs-to-be-Done for competitive analysis and more.
How to fit related "jobs" into the "Adjacent Possible" framework
Trying to be a Gutenberg-like innovator in today's society,  the Metaverse and other product examples
Blockchain transforming from play to an actual need.