Cultural priming, the “adjacent probable”, and changing the cultural equation

Within any particular culture, prolonged participation in the cultural climate has a tendency to prime people to reproduce the dynamics of that climate (either in that culture or upon having moved to another). When a cultural climate is dominated by the dynamics of enclosure this is one of the primary contributing factors in the acclerative intensification of enclosure. While it is possible to overcome this priming to a greater or lesser extent, for the most part in cultural priming people turn towards what I call “the adjacent probable.”

I have developed the term “adjacent probable” from the term “adjacent possible” in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex systems researcher. As reported by Stephen Johnson (2010), Kauffman’s work on evolution and self- organisation gave rise to the notion of “the adjacent possible”. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility: “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of 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 things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

In the context of my Cultural Climate Framework, the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that are already dominant in the cultural climate we inhabit. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses in a particular situation, both tacit and explicit, that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant expectations in the cultural climate.

Importantly, the gravities of the adjacent probable within enclosing organisational environments are much stronger on account of the high directivity of the corresponding cultural climate. In the context of culture change interventions within cultural climates of organisational enclosure, this strong tendency to default to the adjacent probable leads to what I call “cultural feedback”. This is when we systematically reinforce and recreate the enclosing dynamics we are seeking to change, despite (or often because of) our best intentions. What seems like a good and very fresh idea at the time often ends up having very similar consequences to the thing you are trying to avoid. The “adjacent probables” of goal-driven and profit-driven organisational or institutional practice are what take their toll on employee engagement, organisational direction, and the health of the organisation’s future. They strain the social contract by limiting the expectations and quality of the social contract. If defaulting to the adjacent probable runs the risk of doubling us back into the dynamics of enclosure, the need for helpful culture change interventions invites us to challenge the priming logics of the cultural climate within the situation and within ourselves and to reach for the “adjacent unlikely” that will change the cultural equation.


Stephen Johnson. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation. London: Allen Lane.