Stephen Douglas




United States


Public Administration


Jan 2016 - Sep 2017

By Stephen Douglas

What’s the adjacent possible?

I didn’t get the feeling, as my Executive MBA at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School began exactly one year ago, that many of my classmates intended to use the EMBA course as a career transition mechanism. Yet, a transformation in many of us has taken place over the past twelve months. From business case studies in the classroom and from getting to know in detail what each of us does in our daily work around the world our understanding of the opportunities now available to us and of our capacity to grasp them has grown up on us gradually.

At our respective professional levels what’s required of a career transition strategy is a large number of in-themselves relatively unimpressive steps which collectively spin together into a practical career transition strategic web that develops further as it’s being implemented.

I’ve spent a year now meeting as many friends of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School’s careers’ service as possible. Often the meetings take place by video conference. While I’m in Oxford once in every six weeks I always try to meet one or two of the individuals who are particularly focusing on guiding me towards a transformation of my offer – hat tip Sarah Chesser and my executive coach Professor Sue Dopson.

I’ve written before about the impact of the Strategy & Innovation module. Now that we have just completed it, I’m even better qualified to understand how it fits within the Oxford Executive MBA.

Strategy & Innovation’s governing idea, as taught by the brilliant Marc Ventresca, is that the process of converting an invention into an innovation that creates a new market requires a fluid understanding of the (eco)system from which that market will emerge. The process of Claiming – Demarcating and, ultimately, Controlling a new market space for the new product you envision requires a whole set of skills this course has given us the power to compose and to fine-tune.

For example, understanding that an innovative entrepreneur must consciously aggregate a vast array of pre-existing and new conditions for a new product’s success unlocks a number of disparate but necessary skills many of us already possess without knowing it: like a capacity for storytelling, for example. Storytelling is essential to the acts of claiming, demarcating and ultimately controlling a new market space.

If I consider myself as a product seeking to claim a productive part in the value constellation of a newly emerging industry: remarkably, a lot of the skills the Strategy & Innovation module teaches also apply to the challenge of bringing an upskilled me into a new industry as a profit making contributor to a new kind of firm’s bottom-line.

An Entrepreneurship Project is a part of every MBA.

My team’s project is different, precisely because of the extraordinary skills of the two others I am partnering with. Together the three of us have very different professional and academic backgrounds. Yet our skills and mind-sets seem to work well in complementing one anothers’ respective strengths. Working together is fun. If you had seen us through the venetian blinds of our study room in Saïd Business School’s Margaret Thatcher Executive Centre battling away last weekend on the porous boundaries of an emergent industry, you might have thought: well, that’s precisely how I pictured Oxford MBAs before I arrived here.

We’re working together on integrating insights from cutting edge research into the practical uses of convolutional neural network deep learning powered artificial intelligence computer vision technology into an immediately commercially viable product. The research we are using to inspire this prospective enterprise has only appeared in peer reviewed scientific journals within the last six months! It’s truly a completely new market that we must consciously compose out of bits of existing markets and out of existing capabilities in various related markets. The immediate output of the Entrepreneurship Project is a presentation at the end of February and then the submission of a detailed business plan by the end of March.

What I realised quite suddenly two days ago is that the CEOs, managing partners and industry participants I shall be speaking to over the next months for my Strategy & Innovation final practical work assignment; for my Entrepreneurship Project; and to advance my career transition strategy are actually the same people.

My practical work in both of those courses, and the kinds of firms I see myself working in in the future, are all concerned with the marketing of the product of cutting-edge deep learning techniques’ driven political and environmental risk models.

This is what I mean when I say that, suddenly, a lot of disparate threads of my Executive MBA at Oxford University have suddenly starting weaving themselves together.

It’s also a realisation of an idea that’s central to Strategy & Innovation: that part of what generates a something new that is greater than the sum of its unaggregated parts is the melting of the adjacent possible* into what is already clearly possible.

* see KEYWORDS: Building a language for systems change 001

Corporate Finance Exam Oxford Executive MBA

An EMBA13 colleague and me just before our Corporate/Finance final examinations at Examination Schools, High Street

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