The Adjacent Possible and POD life

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Forward-thinking companies like to form small groups of bright minds into “pods” to tackle big questions. They equip these pods with the latest LEAN principles and clear their calendars of all daily duties. All in the hopes that their full attention will be 100% focused on the task(s) at hand and that a positive outcome will emerge. But, something is missing.

I’ve been in a few pods and, I’ve thrived in this very scenario. I’ve also witnessed, first-hand that sudden isolation from your coworkers and the lofty expectations of a pod just aren’t for everyone. Asking someone to dramatically change their daily existence for months at a time can be a huge boost to their morale or it can be an emergency break slide into a productivity struggle. More often, it’s both in the form of a peak, a trough, and a rebound. Words made popular by Dan Pink in his most recent book — When. In his book, Pink notes how a persons day typically plays out in this predictable pattern, but we all have different cycles of peaks, troughs, and rebounds based on our natural circadian rhythm. You’ve likely heard it referred to as morning larks, night owls, and third-birds.

I say all of this to make the point that, I think the same pattern applies to projects. We often start strong, then dip into doubt, burnout or a feeling of imposter syndrome after a while. Then, we fight our way back out of the trough to rebound and finish.

So what makes a pod work for some and not for others?

My hunch is that POD life isn’t for most of the corporate workforce. In fact, it’s not for most humans in general. But being asked to participate in a pod, or any special project is such honor and a career opportunity that it can’t be turned down. What many people find on this pod journey is that the steady and predictable nature of work as we know it in everyday life is distributed with false starts, dead-end roads, and flat out failure. Getting the job done doesn’t have a finite finish line and failure is more common than success. It takes a certain mindset and it takes psychological safety to be able to fail.

You have to be able and willing to find the nine wrong ways to find the 1 right way. If your portfolio of ideas is diverse and you “kill it” (the efforts) quickly, you will hypothetically have a large enough success with your one win to make all of the failures all worth it. And, your sponsors and supporters have to make that okay for you. This is, in its essence, is the world of venture-backed start-ups. It’s also why I’m quick to proclaim to anyone who will listen to me that …

 “We need to create and act like start-up companies, within our own enterprise.”  

What does it mean to be a start-up company, inside of a large company? A few things must be true to even attempt this.

Obstacles must be turned into opportunities, fast. If a team/pod is chasing down “what emerging technology can do for us” they don’t have time to fight with IT/IS about equipment. If the standard workstation doesn’t cut it for an AR/VR project, that obstacle needs to become an opportunity for IT/IS to create a new category for fast-moving pods. They need to run down to the local Best Buy and get a gaming PC that can handle the load, with a drive big enough to house a ton of development files and a processor speed that over-achieves the specs. If you stall inspiration and motivation, you stall projects and process, and you kill morale. It’s not about prima donnas and status of individuals, it’s about speed and progress.

Why can’t we just use the standard-issue machines we have in-house to create and work on the jobs of tomorrow” is the lawn-dart to the eye of innovation.
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Sponsors/stakeholders and the powers that be have to invest in the people, just as much, if not more than the projects. Are these the kind of people who can solve any problem, or are they, specialist? The role of a generalist who can speak to coders, UX talent and the business is going to be much more valuable and hard to fill than a specialist who can code in ARkit.

 Build the core team of problem solvers and G.S.D.s and then call in the specialists as needed. 

Start flat and stay flat. Most pods are started with a lofty statement about “there is no hierarchy here” that stays true until the first snag is hit. Then the hierarchy begins to morph back into “we talked to so and so, and they say they want this,” and everyone goes back to “because that is what _ wants” work.

So how do we decide who gets assigned to pods?

Don’t assign people to a pod! Let them find a pod. Put the word out on the corporate streets that a pod is being formed by a thought leader and anyone who is interested should reach out to find out more. It might be a tour-of-duty role that lasts a few weeks or a long-term role that fits their skill-set until further notice.

If you want to eat, set more traps

It’s a bit misguided to say that “these 6 people who have never worked in a focused pod are going to solve a previously unsolved problem by coming up with one solution and spending 6 months on it.” Why these people? Why 6 months? Why not a few pods exploring different approaches to the same problem.

If you want to catch a meal when you’re lost in the wilderness, you’d increase your odds of eating that night by having more than one trap set.
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 Just as soon as you think you have a winner, explore the adjacent possible or find a group who can. 

This, like all ideas, is a collision of ideas that sparked a new idea. These are the primary References and Resources:

“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 reinvent itself. “

-Steven Johnson

“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.”

-Steven Johnson

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