Notable passages from
The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson
Harvard Business School, Boston, 2006
Ultimately, in order for an area to be called a field, a person should conceivably be able to spend a lifetime involved with it.
Fields consist of concepts such as knowledge and practices. Changing a tire can be called a concept. So can the item tire, in and of itself. The two concepts are both included in a field called mechanics. In order to understand a field, one has to understand at least some of its concepts. The more concepts one understands within a field, the more expertise one has built within that field.
The difference between a field and an intersection of fields lies in how concepts within them are combined. If you operate within a field, you primarily are able to combine concepts within that particular field, generating ideas that evolve along a particular direction—what I call directional ideas. When you step into the Intersection, you can combine concepts between multiple fields, generating ideas that leap in new directions—what I call intersectional ideas.
Intersectional innovations ... change the world in leaps along new directions. They usually pave the way for a new field and therefore make it possible for the people who originated them to become the leaders in the fields they created. Intersectional innovations also do not require as much expertise as directional innovation and can therefore be executed by the people you least suspect. Although intersectional innovations are radical, they can work in both large and small ways.... In summary, intersectional innovations share the following characteristics:
- They are surprising and fascinating.
- They take leaps in new directions.
- They open up entirely new fields.
- They provide a space for a person, team, or company to call its own.
- They generate followers, which means the creators can become leaders.
- They provide a source of directional innovation for years or decades to come.
- They can affect the world in unprecedented ways.
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Cultural diversity does not only imply geographically separated cultures. It can also include ethnic, class, professional, or organizational cultures. The mere fact that an individual is different from most people around him promotes more open and divergent, perhaps even rebellious, thinking in that person. Such a person is more prone to question traditions, rules, and boundaries—and to search for answers where others may not think to.
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All of this suggests that it makes sense to spend significant amounts of time reading and drawing, learning and experimenting, without guidance from instructors, peers, and experts. It is ironic, then, that many people who wish to innovate find that they do not have time for such side ventures. But if innovation is the goal, such experimentation is precisely what one must aim for.
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Assumption reversals are a remarkably effective way to challenge the way you think about almost anything. The example outlined here comes from the outstanding book Cracking Creativity by Michael Michalko. The purpose is not necessarily to come up with a specific idea, but to shake your mind free from preconceived notions. This is how it works:
- First, think of a situation, product, or concept related to a challenge you are facing, and think about the assumptions associated with that situation. [Restaurants have menus, change money for food, serve food.]
- Next, write down those assumptions; then reverse them. [Restaurants have no menus, do not charge money for food, do not serve food.]
- Finally, think about how to make those reversals meaningful. [Diner selects desired food items and the chef creates a dish from them for the diner, café charges for the time spent instead of the food consumed, restaurant provides a unique and beautiful décor that people who bring their own picnics pay for.]
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You can view a situation from any number of perspectives. So why always choose the one that comes easiest? By forcing yourself to view a project differently, you can break down associative barriers between fields and uncover unexpected connections. This sounds a lot easier than it actually is, of course. To make it work you must choose perspectives that are radically different from the ones you usually work with. Once again, as with assumption reversals, the point is not to come up with a specific idea per se, but rather to free up the mind and escape the routine chains of association. Here are a couple of suggestions:
- Apply the idea to something or someone else.
- Create constraints.... By creating constraints, you may break down the barriers and think of ideas that would never have occurred to you otherwise.
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Intersectional ideas are groundbreaking, then, because they concepts involved are so different and the combinations so unusual that no one would have thought them possible. Although such combinations do not always lead to anything useful, sometimes they do—and in those cases they can work just like magic.
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Intersection hunting means that you search for connections in unlikely places and then see where those connections lead. When Edgar Allan Poe had to come up with a new plot for his next story, for instance, he would look up two or three words at random in a dictionary and then attempt to tie them together. If he succeeded he would start writing; if he didn't, he would just look up three new words and try again. Michael Michalko [author of Cracking Creativity, Berkeley, Ten Speed Press, 2001] whom I mentioned in the last chapter, describes another way of going intersection hunting, something he calls "taking a thought walk."
If you are working on a specific problem or are just beginning to structure an idea, you can take a thought walk to enhance the chance of random combinations. During a thought walk you might stroll through your office, into the parking lot, or down the street. Pick up, borrow, purchase, or randomly note items during your thought walk (e.g., fishing rod, water cooler, perfume bottle, door hinge, daffodils, etc.). Do not select things that you think are related to the problem or idea because that would be a planned, rather than a random, combination of concepts. Instead, select items with no apparent connection; your job will be to find one.
When you return from your thought walk, write down the characteristics of each word or item you picked up or made note of. The word painting, for instance, could include various characteristics: done in different media such as oil, water, computer, or pencil; can be big or small; usually hangs on a wall; often appreciates in value over time; collectors' item; is found in museums; and so forth. Now try to force a connection between these characteristics and the problem you are working on. Some of the ideas generated might give you a unique insight that could solve the problem.
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On this island top, so far away from computers and technology, the question of his navigational system suddenly came into focus. Looking over the glittering sea, he had an idea. What if an airplane could broadcast its position only when it was approaching another airplane? After all, wasn't that the only time a collision was possible? Wouldn't that free up some airtime, allowing planes to communicate in a more orderly way? Maybe it would, he thought. Maybe it could....
– Description of Håkan Lans coming up with the idea of Self-organizing Time Division Multiple Access (STDMA).
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[G]roundbreaking innovators also produce a heap of ideas that never amount to anything. We play only about 35 percent of Mozart's, Bach's, or Beethoven's compositions today; we view only a fraction of Picasso's works; and most of Einstein's papers were not referenced by anyone.
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Brainstorming is the most widely used method for a group to generate a large number of ideas on any topic. In his influential 1957 book, Applied Imagination, Alex Osborn suggested brainstorming as a method for groups that were solving problems. According to Osborn, brainstorming would greatly increase the quantity and quality of ideas generated by the group. The rules for brainstorming were easy. The group should:
- Produce as many ideas as possible
- Produce ideas a wild as possible
- Build upon each other's ideas
- Avoid passing judgment of ideas
Brainstorming has since been used in nearly all of the world's largest companies, nonprofits, and governmental organizations. And the reasons seem obvious. Osborn wrote, referring to brainstorming, "The average person can think of twice as many ideas when working with a group than when working alone." With such odds, it is no wonder that it would be spreading wide and far. But is it true?
The first study to test Osborn's claim came in 1958, only one year after his book had been published. Psychologists let groups of four people brainstorm about the practical benefits or difficulties that would arise if everyone had an extra thumb on each hand after next year. These groups were called "real groups" since they actually brainstormed together. Next, the researches let "virtual groups" of four people generate ideas around the "thumb problem," but they had to brainstorm individually, in separate rooms. The researchers combined the answers they received from each individual and eliminated redundancy by counting ideas that had been suggested multiple times only once. They then compared the performance between real groups and virtual groups.
The results were not what you would expect. To their surprise, the researchers found that virtual groups, where people brainstormed individually, generated nearly twice as many ideas as the real groups. This result, it turns out, was not an anomaly. In a famous 1987 study, researchers Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe from Tubingen University in Germany concluded that brainstorming groups have never outperformed virtual groups. Of the twenty-five reported experiments by psychologists all over the world, real groups have never once been shown to be more productive than virtual groups. In fact, real groups that engage in brainstorming consistently generate about half the number of ideas they would have produced if the group's individuals had pondered the problem on their own. In addition, in the studies where the quality of ideas was measured, researchers found that the total number of good ideas was much higher in virtual groups than in real groups.
Diehl and Stroebe set out to understand why brainstorming was such an unpredictable methodology.... [I]t was a phenomenon called "blocking" that was responsible for the vast difference between brainstorming in a group and doing so individually.
In a brainstorming group only one person can speak at a time, although not necessarily in any particular order. If everyone spoke at once, no one would hear what the others said. But this presents a big problem for us as humans. Our short-term memory is not capable of developing new ideas and at the same time keeping the old ones in active storage. If we become blocked in reporting our ideas because we have to wait for someone else to describe theirs, we may forget them altogether. This makes a big difference in our output since we cannot simply call out an idea when we think of it; we have to wait until the current speaker has finished. And when we do get a chance to describe an idea, we may get to offer only one or two comments before someone else breaks in. This explanation also supports the general finding that the larger the brainstorming group, the fewer the ideas produced compared to the number generated by a virtual group of the same size.
So should we all stop brainstorming? No, I don't think so. Done right, brainstorming is a highly effective way to actively generate intersectional ideas. Research results suggest that some small, but very significant, changes to common brainstorming greatly enhances effectiveness. First, before the group meets, schedule fifteen to twenty minutes for members to brainstorm individually. Then they do not have to worry about forgetting their original ideas when the group phase of the brainstorming begins. This also forces the facilitator to develop a well-formulated problem statement, which has been shown to make brainstorming more effective. Second, bring the members together and start a group session. Don't let people just take turns reading down their list. (It will stifle the momentum and make it difficult for people to actively build off each other's ideas.) Instead, keep everyone involved, and keep the pace and action high. By the time you're finished, the combined ideas from all individuals should be on the board, and most of them should have been discussed.
Diehl and Stroebe's research results suggest yet another way to sidestep the problems with traditional brainstorming—a technique called brainwriting. While brainwriting, people simultaneously generate written ideas on the same problem, building off each other's ideas without speaking at all. Here is how you do it: Everyone sits at a table together, each person with a blank sheet of paper. Another blank sheet is in the middle of the table within everyone's reach. The basic problem to be solved or explored has been clearly described or written down. At the start of the session, each person writes (or sketches) one idea on the sheet in front of them, tosses that sheet into the center of the table, and then picks up a sheet put in by someone else. The person reads the idea on that sheet and tries to build on it in some way. Whether or not they can directly build on it, they write another idea, toss the sheet into the center, and continue. Whenever anyone picks up a sheet from the center of the table, they read through prior ideas, trying to make connections and ignite sparks of new ideas. This approach could also be used successfully in an online virtual environment where people continuously comment and build off one another's ideas.
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In one of the most comprehensive and ambitious attempts ever at understanding creativity in action, Harvard Business School professor and leading creativity researcher Teresa Amabile showed that this perception is a myth [that we do our most creative work whle high on adrenaline and caffeine but low on resources]. In the study, Amabile and her colleagues followed 177 employees in twenty-two project teams from seven companies for the entire duration of a project, in some cases as long as six months. These teams were not just any teams; they were considered the "creative lifeblood" of their organizations. The researchers e-mailed all team participants a daily questionnaire asking them about their project and how they felt about it. With over nine thousand responses, they could then search the data for trends.
What they found was fascinating. Not only did they find that people are less creative under serious time pressure, but people actually believe that they are more creative during these times. In addition, they found that creativity decreased not just on the day of intense time stress, but also on the following day, the day after that, and the day after that.
In a few instances time pressure did inspire creativity for some people. Specifically, the person had to be fully focused on the project at hand, not distracted by meetings or memos, and working with just one or two other collaborators; also, the time pressures had to be real. Situations like this, however, were exceedingly rare in the companies they studied. Sometimes the teams were placed under artificial time limits, but this often backfired. Amabile writes, "management perennially put teams under severe and seemingly arbitrary time and resource constraints. At first, many team members were energized by the fire-fighting atmosphere. They threw themselves into their work and rallied. But after a few months, their verve had diminished .... because pressures had proven meaningless.
In fact, if you want to capture intersectional ideas, your best bet may be to take your time. There are at least two reasons for this, First, it is critical to postpone judgment of new ideas. Our minds will quickly judge the value of an intersectional insight by comparing it to what is known to work within an established field. But these fields are not good guides for evaluating ideas that result from random and unusual concept combinations. Instead, intersectional ideas must be evaluated from a different perspective, one that does not come instinctively. You are therefore better off waiting to judge your insights when you have some time to think them through....
Taking time to evaluate new ideas is important for another reason. In chapter 5 I talked about the incubation period and how it leads to flash-in-the-sky discoveries. The incubation period is the time between when one stops thinking heavily about a problem and when one suddenly, subconsciously, comes up with a solution. The incubation period is so well documented in creativity research that it is simply bad planning not to include time for it while working on a project.... The incubation period suggests that we should work in a very different way. It suggests that we should start by working hard and in a focused manner on a problem or idea and develop it as far as possible. Then we should wait, move on to something else, and forget about the problem for awhile. When we return to the project a few days or weeks later, other ideas, usually more original ones, will have presented themselves.
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Since quantity of ideas leads to quality of ideas, we should pursue many ideas. This, however, leads to the inescapable paradox that in order to be successful at the Intersection, we must have many failures. The solution to this paradox is to incorporate failures into our overall execution plan. In other words, we have to execute past our failures.
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Innovative people, then, experience more failures than their less creative counterparts because they pursue more ideas, It is thus very difficult—indeed, this book argues practically impossible—to realize ideas at the Intersection by flawlessly executing well-defined action plans. Yet this is how most of us are trained to think about strategy and implementation. We are, in fact, conditioned to approach any new challenge with questions such as: What is our goal and how will we get there?...
Such an approach, however, presupposes that one understands what needs to get done and in what order. Unfortunately, the Intersection is a place where our understanding of what to do and how to do it is opaque, at best. An intersectional idea can go in any number of directions. We don't know which one will work until we start trying them out. Successful execution of intersectional ideas, then, does not come from planning for success, but planning for failure. It is a counterintuitive idea, but a critical one. Since we cannot rely on past experience to devise a perfect execution path, we must rely on learning what works and what doesn't. Failures and mistakes during such a process are inevitable.
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The smartest managers and best-trained teams understand that failure is part of innovation, and they therefore expect it to happen a certain percentage of the time. Dean Kamen, the prolific inventor of the dialysis machine and the Segway human transporter, was said to be "displeased if he and his engineers weren't frequently failing in preposterous ways, because impressive failures signified impressive aspirations." Clearly, this is not a typical corporate attitude. Even if managers know that failure encourages future innovation, it is not easy to manage for it. It is much easier to manage for success. After all, if someone has done a job well he or she should be rewarded for it—a pat on the shoulder, a bonus, a raise. People expect to be rewarded when they succeed. But how should we handle failure?...
What clearly should not be rewarded is doing nothing—not executing any creative ideas at all. Robert Sutton, professor at Stanford Business School, suggests that inaction is far worse than failure in terms of assessing innovative effort. Failure, after all, implies some sort of output. Since the quality of innovation is linked to quantity of ideas, it makes sense to manage according to metrics based on quantity of ideas. Examples of such metrics include the number of prototypes built, patents filed, papers published, projects completed, and so on. Without quantity of ideas, there can be no innovation. Therefore output, whether generating success or failure, must be rewarded.
This may seem unrealistic without additional action items. So how do you reward failure? Sutton has a couple of pointers on how to navigate this terrain.
- Make sure people are aware that failure to execute ideas is the greatest failure, and that it will be punished.
- Make sure everyone learns from past failures; do not reward the same mistakes over and over again.
- If people show low failure rates, be suspicious, Maybe they are not taking enough risks, or maybe they are hiding their mistakes, rather than allowing others in the organization to learn from them.
- Hire people who have had intelligent failures and let others in the organization know that's one reason they were hired.
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Explicit rewards ... can be an effective way to kill off our creativity. Why, exactly? [Harvard Business School psychologist Teresa] Amabile has found a connection between our internal drive, or intrinsic motivation as she calls it, and our creative efforts. If intrinsic motivation is high, if we are passionate about what we are doing, creativity will flow. External expectations and rewards can kill intrinsic motivation and thus kill creativity. When intrinsic motivation drops off, so does our willingness to explore new avenues and different ideas, something that is crucial at the Intersection. This means that in order to stay motivated and execute an intersectional idea,... we must be careful of explicit, external rewards. Stephen King puts it this way: "Money is great stuff to have, but when it comes to the act of creation, the best thing is not to think of money too much. It constipates the whole process."
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