Your Adjacent Possible - An Opportunity to Innovate

In last week’s post I made an argument for the importance of finding a niche within the fitness industry.  I explained how and why I would go about securing a specific area of expertise if presented with the challenge of starting fresh.  What I didn’t do, however, was explain how we stumbled upon the opportunity to capture market share within the baseball-specific strength and conditioning segment back in 2007.

I often catch people off guard when explaining that Eric Cressey became “the baseball guy” within the fitness industry without having played the sport competitively beyond little league.  How did Eric, and Cressey Sports Performance as a whole, manage to capture so much market share within this niche without having “walked-the-walk” on baseball fields at a high school, collegiate or professional level?

This summer we will celebrate the 9th anniversary of business operation here at Cressey Sports Performance.  It was on July 13th of 2007 that Eric, Tony and I set out on a mission to create a self-employment scenario which would allow for us to show up to “work” every day in gym clothes and listen to loud music.  Long before becoming “the baseball guys” within the fitness industry, we were the guys trying to identify anyone willing to give us their money in exchange for our services.

No one ever specifically told us to identify a niche and capture it.  We discovered the opportunity within the baseball community for a couple of simple reasons.  For starters, our first gym was a 2,200 square foot unit carved out of the back corner of a pitching and hitting instruction facility.  You couldn’t enter our space without walking past five hitting and pitching “cages”. 

The second reason we attracted baseball players was Eric’s unique working knowledge of the shoulder.  His time spent both instructing and playing tennis as a teenager had resulted in shoulder damage that arguably warranted surgical repair.  In the years following this diagnosis, he spent extensive time trying to identify a training approach that would allow for him to avoid going under the knife.  While not his initial intention, he accumulated a wealth of knowledge that could be immediately applied to training the baseball community.  As it turns out, throwing a baseball is surprisingly similar to the mechanics of serving a tennis ball.

This tennis-to-baseball transition is a nice illustration of how we embraced the concept of the “Adjacent Possible” in order to capture our unique niche here at Cressey Sports Performance.

A theoretical biologist named Stuart Kofman coined the term Adjacent Possible.  It is applicable to every industry or field in need of constant innovation.  Steven Johnson described it best in a piece he wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2010: 

As we opened our doors for business eight years ago, our team included a shoulder rehabilitation specialist (Eric Cressey) and an accomplished strength coach with division-1 baseball playing experience (Tony Gentilcore).  As a result, the baseball-specific strength and conditioning niche sat well within our “shadow future” if we were to be effective in reinventing our present.

Eric realized that baseball players were an underserved population when it came to off-field training, so he took his unique shoulder assessment and programming knowledge and applied it to the adjacent community of overhead-throwing athletes.  Since that time, CSP has managed to innovate by delivering baseball-specific individualized training materials to athletes hailing from all 30 MLB organizations.

By employing a collection of strength coaches who are masters of their craft, we are able to maintain control of our niche.  Their working knowledge of the needs of the baseball community is unparalleled, and allows for us to remain at the cutting edge of our segment.  Resting on our laurels would render our first-mover advantage within this niche moot.  There is always someone willing to outwork you if you slip up.

Creating a profitable niche within the fitness industry is about more than simply identifying an underserved population and claiming a first mover advantage.  Every type of athlete has a unique set of problems.  In order to solve unique problems, you need to acquire unique skills.  You could read every single word of shoulder-related material Eric has published and cover every study he’s ever consumed during his own self-study, and still be more than 1,000 in-person shoulder assessments away from the volume of hands-on experience he has accumulated during his career.      

Before you can create true innovation by tapping in to your Adjacent Possible, you need to accrue the career capital that will allow you to differentiate yourself with a rare and valuable skill set.  Master your craft by focusing on deliberate practice.  Consume as much continuing education material as much as you can.  Work with athletes from all walks of life.  Step outside of your coaching comfort zone. 

Achieving expert status with your specific craft puts you that much closer to the opportunity to capture a unique niche.  If you’re lucky, that niche may lie within your adjacent possible.