Growing your career with the adjacent possible

Just because you don’t know where you’re ultimately going doesn’t mean you can’t start poking around. I didn’t know where I was going, but it was no accident that I’ve arrived.

I started my career in technology as a “Quality Assurance Analyst”; today, I’m a “Director, Product Marketing”.

These two roles are almost completely dissimilar, so how did I move from one into the other? Incrementally.

My progression so far has been characterized by small, but significant changes, as I explored the adjacent possible. I didn’t know where I was going, but it was no accident that I’ve arrived.

The adjacent possible is a term coined by the scientist Stuart Kauffman, in reference to the set of things that can happen now based on what has happened previously.

I think it applies wonderfully to managing one’s career, because exploring adjacent functions and roles is perhaps the most effective means of self-directing your own professional growth and of discovering what aligns with your abilities and passions.

But to explore the adjacent possible, you have to avoid some common mistakes.

The differences between being a “Quality Assurance Analyst (co-op)” and “Director, Product Marketing” are immense, and a direct jump from one role to the other would be impossible for a number of reasons (e.g., domain knowledge, management experience, etc.), so let’s look a little deeper at the complete path:

  • Quality Assurance Analyst (co-op)
  • Aerospace Engineer (utility coding in a lab environment) (co-op)
  • Quality Assurance Developer (test tool development) (co-op)
  • Java Developer (co-op)
  • Project Management Assistant (assisting the VP of engineering) (co-op)
  • Product Management Specialist (co-op)
  • Product Manager
  • Product Marketing Manager
  • Manager, Product Marketing
  • Director, Product Marketing

It’s worth pointing out that more than half of the roles listed above were co-op positions. Co-op programs give people a fantastic opportunity to try out different roles and to accelerate exploration of different career paths. In the so-called “real world”, employers tend to frown on employees who want to move to a new position after four months – so the exploration tends to slow down a bit – but you should still keep exploring until you find the right fit (just do so with a reasonable timeline).

I first encountered the term “the adjacent possible” in Steven Johnson’s book How We Got to Now, but I believe he first referred to it in Where Good Ideas Come From (I’m going backwards through his books, so I might discover that he mentioned the concept even earlier). Kauffman coined the term while exploring the conditions that led to life on Earth, but I was immediately struck by the beauty and elegance of the term, and it’s parallels with career progression.

Coincidentally, when I spoke at the University of Waterloo last year in an address to undergraduate engineers – before I’d read any of Johnson’s books – I characterized my diverse co-op experience as an exploration of adjacencies.

Here's part of a slide I presented to a group of undergrads.

Here’s part of a slide I presented to a group of undergrads. There might be several paths to the same destination, and maybe you don’t even have a destination in mind.

I couldn’t agree more with Johnson when he says, in Where Good Ideas Come From, that the term “the adjacent possible”:

“…captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of all things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.” (p31)

Johnson uses the following metaphor to illustrate the vast, but still limited, potential:

“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. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But 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. Keep opening new doors, and eventually you’ll have built a palace.” (p31)

Your career is exactly the same. At each step, you pick up new skills and experience that can take you in new directions, but your options are still finite. When you explore adjacent roles, you open new doors by picking up still more skills and increasingly diverse experience. And it is only through this step-by-step approach that you can achieve enormous change.

On my own journey, I didn’t have an end goal in mind (and I still don’t), but I was always looking around and ahead, and I had a keen idea of what I liked and did not like about each role. Using these simple heuristics as a guide, I explored the adjacent possible:

  • In my initial role in QA, I created Perl test scripts; to be as effective as possible in my testing, I needed to understand what was being developed and why, so I came to understand the development process
  • With an appreciation for the importance of good code and a familiarity with development concepts, I managed to land a job writing C utilities in an aerospace lab
  • My next job was a bit of a hybrid – I was developing test tools – but the change was that I was now at an early stage start-up, rather than a gigantic government organization
  • From there, I moved into full-on development, coding small components of larger projects; by the end of the term, I knew that I didn’t want to spend my life coding (as interesting as I actually found it), so I was set to explore another adjacency…
  • Based on my experience with both QA and development, I secured a job as the assistant to the VP of Engineering at a software company; my role was to track projects and keep forty or so engineers on track to hit their deadlines. In this role, I participated in feature reviews with the head of product management, and I got some exposure to how products are actually defined
  • That product management stuff seemed neat, so I applied for, and managed to land, a role in product management at another local start-up; once I graduated, I stayed on full-time in this role and my responsibilities grew. I worked very closely with engineering (e.g., development, architecture, QA) on hardware and software projects, so my past experience and academic degree (Computer Engineering) were tremendously valuable. I also worked very closely with our marketing communications team, which gave me fantastic exposure to all sorts of new things (e.g., tradeshows, public relations, web content, marketing collateral, product launches, etc.) Over the next couple of years, the company grew and the functions of the product management team grew in conjunction. One day I consciously tallied the things I enjoyed and the things I did not enjoy about my role, and I realized that my enjoyment aligned almost entirely with the functions of the emerging product marketing team.
  • So, I moved laterally into product marketing.
  • I’ve stayed in product marketing ever since (~6ish years), but have explored the adjacencies of management…which opens up an entirely new set of intriguing adjacencies.

The change from one step to the next was small, but significant, and the overall journey was only possible in a piece-wise manner.

So, where am I going with this? Well, every so often I hear from people who aren’t happy or fulfilled in their current role, and from people who fear that their role isn’t going to exist in a few years (they know that they need to change roles, but don’t know how), or who aren’t experiencing the advancement that they’d like. From these conversations, I’ve spotted a few things that I think are mistakes:

  • Typecasting yourself – The person who has just stayed, unhappily, in one role for so long that they’re completely typecast. Maybe they see themselves in another role, but no one else can. Your best bet in this situation is to look at another company, either for a similar role to your current one (as a stepping stone), or in a desired adjacency.
  • Not being inquisitive – A person who is in a role and just does their job without seeking to understand all the adjacent functions with which they interact. This person won’t see the opportunities all around them, or won’t pick up the knowledge that will help to present and to open the doors.
  • “I don’t know where I’m going, so where do I start?” – The person who does not have an end goal in mind, and thinks that’s a reason to not take any steps in any direction. Just because you don’t know where you’re ultimately going doesn’t mean you can’t start poking around. Identify aspects that you like and move towards them. Or, start with what you don’t like, and distance yourself.
  • Not thinking incrementally – “I’m in role A and I want to be in role C.” OK, have you considered role B? “No, I don’t want to do role B.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but your odds of going from A to C are slim-to-none; B will give you the domain knowledge and experience to smoothly transition into C. Or, on an even larger scale, someone is in role A and wants to be in role F. That’s just unrealistic without a plan, and that plan demands increments.
  • Negative thinking“I can’t get that job because I don’t have all the experience.” Well, OK, but you’ve worked closely with that department for three years, which means you understand their processes, priorities, the tools they use, etc. Sure, there might be gaps, but those are manageable. Alternatively, just listing all the reasons why you’re unsatisfied in your current role. Um, maybe that feels cathartic, but it’s not very productive. What about the things that you like? Now that you’ve identified those, is there an adjacent role that has more of what you like and less of what you don’t?

To achieve career growth, you need to explore the adjacent possible, but doing so requires some effort on your part to open doors from time-to-time and peek inside.

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Posted in Careers, Leadership, Management
2 comments on “Growing your career with the adjacent possible
  1. […] go about getting there. I wrote about (essentially, although not specifically) this subject in Growing your career with the adjacent possible. If you’re uncertain where to begin, then a thirst for knowledge is a good place to […]

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