Professionals who have been in project management for a while have no doubt come across situations in their career where the odds were tilted so much in the favor of failure that mere thought of continuing forward was considered simply insane.

Most have probably heard that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.” Indeed often the situations that I mentioned earlier regarding the seeming impossibility of certain projects are accompanied with the feeling that the team or organization is attempting to do the same thing while expecting a different result.

Much of this obvious in hindsight. We end up beating ourselves over mistakes and decisions that should have gone differently because the simple fact is that in the heat of battle we are not able to keep an eye on strategy and tactics at the same tine.

In my own career I’ve observed that it is not easy to discern the difference between the seemingly impossible and the actually impossible on projects. As people observe the line between genius and insanity is a very thin line. Perhaps this is why so many geniuses are thought of as eccentric at best.

Yet how do we really know if the effort that we are about to embark upon is an exercise in futility or heroism? I found one plausible answer in a book that I started reading a few days ago called “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson. I actually referenced this book in a previous post In the book Steven does a great job talking about innovation. However one particular area that I found very relevant to project management is his exploration of a concept he called the adjacent possible. He explains that when it comes to ideas we are bound by the environment that we are examining. In other words trying to imagine the invention of a jet plane one thousand years ago is simply impossible because it is way too big a leap given the environment and technology of the age.

He uses an example of someone standing in a room that has several doors and a choice to go through one of these doors. Once the person goes through that door he gets inside another room with three doors and a decision to select one door to another room. Once he gets to the next room he is faced with similar decisions. The concept here is that ideas are like rooms in a palace where one has to decide which door to go through and that is how ideas evolve.

This is very interesting but how does it apply to project management? Well, projects in essence are based on an idea (or many) and it is up to us to figure out whether the specific idea is within the realm of the adjacent possible or whether it is too big a leap that renders it unrealistic.

I believe that this analysis is not a one person exercise but rather one that requires the team members to work together to help challenge each other and stretch boundaries.

However, the fact that the team members are involved and are providing input does not guarantee a successful decision and is why projects by definition are inherently risky. In projects we take leap of faith in some instances and we hope that we land in the space of adjacent possible.