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Adjacency Theory: The Science of the Twigs, Discovering the Forgotten, and the Omens of the Present

Nuance is our birthright. If speculative futures paint a picture of the future using our senses, Adjacency Theory is an inward journey beyond the senses. Adjacency is about subtlety that transforms. This dives deep into the fiber of our collective being and relaxes the human condition just enough to let a glimmer of light shine through the cracks. It is the first step towards systems crumbling to make room for a new level of thinking.

At my best, I seek approaches to increase human capacity for creating better futures. Non-dualistic, open minds are our default. Observe any young child and you'll see an openness and fluidity that eventually gets replaced but needs to be reclaimed as we get older. 

At my worst, I'm a rigid rule follower with no space for non-dualistic thinking and for those of us in this Western, well, American context, I'm not alone.

There is a system designed against leaving space for more. It is usually a linear, best-case/worst-case scenario to be considered. Particularly the various levels of government and large organizations with which I have interacted, hierarchy and linear forecasting burned into our brains. In these contexts, I've spent countless hours trying to convince stakeholders, even those who champion and ache for the future, to see beyond their day-to-day that has been defined for a generation and see what is possible, probable and merely plausible for their and others’ futures. In these people, there is a need for Adjacency. 

Adjacency is Contemplative and Liminal

Adjacency is both an outside-in and inside-out practice. It is always in transition and in that tension is where futures flourish. 

Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation describes contemplation as “entering a deeper silence and letting go of our habitual thoughts, sensations, and feelings in order to connect to a truth greater than ourselves?

To me, contemplation is the basis of adjacency. Letting go to connect inherently leads to discovery beyond the present. In some ways it’s a healing process of futures moving from a post-cold war VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) to one that connects deeper and beyond recency biases. TFSX (The Futures School) uses the terms Abductive, Liminal, Interconnected, Vibrant and Emergent in their ALIVE framework to expand further. This is the trauma-informed framework for being able to sit in that tension, the transition that creates adjacent futures.

Adjacency is Self-organized/ Ecological

In her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit tells the story of Bill McDonald and the Malpai Borderlands Group in creating a radical center, which holds space for groups to come together and evolve. It is an ecological approach to organizing adjacent and even contradictory ideology towards a shared future. Living in contemplation and liminality is often the first step. The next step is organizing. This allows   us    to   see   how   the   top - down, hierarchical winner takes all structure and starts to crumble.

Enter Ecological Governance. One piece of inspiration to which I often refer when establishing the governance for my projects is “Ecological Governance: Organizing Principles for an Emerging Era” by Peter J. Robertson and Taehyon Choi. In their 2010 paper, they write about the principles that guide the radical transformation, from mechanistic, reductive, and competitive governance in standard public sector governance (and I would argue most large organizations) to an ecological approach, which more closely resembles natural systems. It is designed to effectively employ our interconnectedness (or cross-functionality, in modern business speak) -- our capacity to self-organize around common goals and objectives for the long-term and to evolve dynamically based on those goals and objectives. 

Adjacency must allow space and movement to create strong futures. Strong governance drives the power of adjacency in active futures work. And I don’t mean strong in the sense that it is top-down controlling, highly rigid and predictable governance. I mean strong in that it allows the organization to develop by itself for the greatest possible chance at unearthing, developing, and creating strong futures. When we strive to frame the futures, the best way to organize the future is to let the organization organize itself. 

Adjacency is Part of a Holistic Heuristic

In my digital transformation and strategy work we often get stuck in the past when we engage with our stakeholders. It is our duty as digital transformation professionals, to live in and bring our stakeholders along with us to the future. We have competing frameworks from project management to organizational change management and everything in between that must be considered while driving     towards     a     preferred    future. 

Competing executive visions and bureaucratic decision-making built upon each other can make space for vast interpretations of how to think about the future. All these need to be considered. 

Adjacency is for those of us who need to sit in this present long enough to straddle both the edge of the pull of plausible futures, which in context, is often much greater than those who need to create it anticipate, and the weight of the past, which is often much less important than those who need to move on from it realize, in order to fit a range of futures into a successful  outcome. Adjacency  is  how  to both go bottom-up and top-down at the same time to create both a strong, acceptable vision of the future and make it understood and actionable for those executing.

Again, I refer to TFSX and their Natural Foresight as a Panarchy model. Like many similar models, Natural Foresight is a cyclical or connected phase framework. Their Collapse, Renewal, Growth, and Conservation framework is infinitely generative within itself or between cycles. However, what makes Natural Foresight so powerful in practicing Adjacency is that it is treated as a panarchy, or a dynamic, interconnected, even overlapping series of phases that more closely resemble the complexities of the worlds in which we develop and execute futures. While the model feels almost linear, each phase can be entered into at any time and at varying times and scales of a project. I use it on top of my previously mentioned project management and organizational change management tools to drive everything from policy change discussions down to system requirements design. By employing this larger framework to guide my work, I’m able to create the space to bring it all together and manage it all holistically.

Adjacency is Active and Actionable 

Adjacency does have some potential pitfalls if not put into action. Without action, we run the risk of sitting in a void. If we are not careful, an adjacent approach can easily spin wheels in theory and scenarios. Expansive possibilities can be fun and exciting once momentum gets going. However, it creates a natural place for line straddling – participants within the project continuously revisit the baseline, the range of possibilities, add in a new stakeholder’s perspective, and constantly re-engage just because the information is available. Persuading interest groups to think about a longer timeline and take action, when they’re already distracted by the day-to-day, can be daunting. There is a paralysis paradox that needs to be avoided.

Current conversations around whether the futures cone is a cylinder or how futures are cycles or waves are the perfect illustration of the complex settings for which adjacency plays in my work.

As a project manager and futurist, it is my role to provide enough space for individuals and organizations to get beyond the present to think of the hoped-for future through contemplation and liminality, while simultaneously keeping that space sacred enough to self-organize to develop ideas about the future and then executing with a holistic framework guiding our work. Paulo Coehlo wrote in The Alchemist “I know the science of the twigs…to penetrate the place where all is written…I can read the past…discover what has already been forgotten, and understand the omens that are here in the present.” 

Adjacency theory is how I hope we can all begin to hold that space for all.

Applying Adjacency Theory: State of Washington Medicaid Transformation Project

In my experience, there is great opportunity for developing and executing a range of futures in government, especially in health and human services. Approaches to transforming health and human services require nuance that lends well to practicing adjacency theory.

One such project I worked on was developing and delivering the future of public health through the State of Washington Medicaid Transformation Project program. Supporting three (3) Medicaid service delivery organizations, called Accountable Communities of Health (ACH), we developed and delivered an approach framework to improve the lives of Washingtonians by addressing a range of social determinants of health. Efforts include transitioning from a fee-for-service to a value-based care model that focused on prevention and primary care and integrating behavioral health services with physical health.

Like many health and human services projects, approaches to design and systemic implementation of transformative ideas need to be flexible enough for nuance to drive and flourish. For this project, each ACH serves a different geographic region and stakeholder groups but required us to make space for a range of stakeholders, including some of whom had never had a seat at the table, to provide their input into what the futures could be across the state.

Driving the initial framing of the system transformation was a series of strategic workshops with self-selected service provider executives and community members. The initial outcome of this facilitated series of workshops established the range of potential futures and a scenario planning model to help drive considerations for casting the vision and developing transformational outcomes of the program. 

The ultimate, tangible outcome of this work was successful grant applications that has led to nearly $250mm in funding toward improving the service delivery systems for providers and outcomes for individuals over a five-year period. Most recently, the program was extended and expanded for an additional five years based on the successes in the previous phase.


About the Author:

Michael Valania is a project manager for the California Department of Developmental Services focused on combining futures and project management to transform systems, programs, and people to better serve those with developmental disabilities in the state. As a futurist, he has presented his work through The Full-Time Dreamer podcast, the Sacramento Metro EDGE Emerge Summit, and the Punk Scholars Network annual conference. As an entrepreneur, he is always dreaming of ways to create the future of food and beverage with his natural wine brand, Wild Rejoice Wine Company. He has a BBA from Georgia State University, an MPP from the University of Southern California, PMP from the Project Management Institute, studied satire writing with Second City and is a Certified Foresight Practioner from TFSX. Contact Michael at

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