By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist
The Medici Effect, touted by Clayton Christensen as ‘one of the most insightful books on innovation I have ever read,’ is book by Frans Johansson which talks about the power of intersections. The key thesis of the book is- great ideas are born at the intersection of disciplines. The author has borrowed the word Medici from the fifteenth-century philanthropic Italian family- The Medici Family- that funded people and led to a burst of creative activities culminating into the renaissance period. In this book, Frans offers very insightful and engaging narratives of how creative people outperform their peers by deliberately exposing themselves to a multitude of disciplines and being open to counterintuitive possibilities.
At the very outset, the author identifies two types of ideas- directional and intersectional, where the former are born out of investigation into a single discipline, while latter emerge from intersection of disparate disciplines. He argues that intersectional ideas are often both novel and useful, and also plenty in number.
According to the author, the rise of intersections is a result of three concurrent forces- massive movement of people, convergence of science, and the leap of computation and communication. He cites several developments, both in science and business, to highlight that solo creations are increasingly rare.
For the people who live at the intersection, one of their chief traits is their ability to overcome associative barriers, and subsequently engage in divergent thinking. They do so by exposing themselves to different cultures, learning differently or mostly self-learning, reversing assumptions, and trying on different perspectives. Such people often exhibit diversifying professions, interact with a diverse group of people, and consciously go about intersection hunting.
The beauty of intersections it that one could be exposed to a volume of ideas there, at least theoretically, and then one needs to pick up the appropriate ideas. This calls for striking a balance between depth and breadth, actively generating many ideas, and allowing for time for evaluation. Further, the author impresses on the fact that, just as in nature, quality comes out of quantity, and hence, go for quantity when it comes to ideas.
Frans also highlights a severe limitation of brainstorming, citing that large groups generate fewer ideas that the same individuals in a virtual group. Apart from the issues of free-riding, and evaluation apprehension, the biggest concern why the productivity of a large group in brainstorming is low is because of ‘blocking’, which means you have to hold an idea in your mind till you get a chance to speak and our brain is incapable of storing an idea and generating another simultaneously. So next time, be careful in not blocking people’s creative flow.
Finally, an idea is as good as its execution.
To build a capability of execution, the author laments that one should be prepared to embrace failure, reserve resources for trial and error, and to remain motivated all through the process of discovery as to what works and what does not. Equally important is for one to break out of the value network which, though helps in generating directional ideas, inhibits intersectional thinking. For doing so, one must deliberately break the chain of dependence, and be prepared to fight. Here again, the author advises to avoid the behavioral traps related to risks, and to acknowledge the risks and fears, instead of brushing the whole issue aside.
In my second read of the book, I am convinced that I won’t stop just yet.
Anyways, here are some interesting quotes from the text.
Breakthroughs are a result of different people from different fields coming together to find a place for their ideas to meet, collide, and build on each other. (pp. 12-13)
People who are fluent in multiple languages tend to exhibit greater creativity than others, for language codifies concepts differently. (pp. 47)
Learn as many things as possible without getting stuck in a particular way of thinking about those things. (pp. 49)
Expertise, for all its strengths, can make it more difficult to break out of established patterns of thought. In fact, formal education often looks like an inverted U when correlated with one’s success as a creator. (pp. 52)
Creativity comes from combining concepts in an unusual fashion. Further, it is difficult to trace the origin of an insight. (pp. 67)
If you wish to develop fresh, ground breaking ideas, highly varied experiences are critical. (pp. 75)
You have to be willing to ‘waste time’ on things that are not directly relevant to your work because you are curious. (pp. 76)
Hire people who make you uncomfortable, even those who you dislike. (pp. 82)
Those who created the most are also the ones who have the most significant innovative impact. This was true in the past; Pablo Picasso, for instance, produced 20,000 pieces of art; Einstein wrote more than 240 papers; Bach wrote a cantata every week; Thomas Edison filed a record 1,039 patents. This holds true today. Prince is said to have over 1,000 songs stored in his secret ‘vault,’ and Richard Branson has started 250 companies. (pp. 91)
Thomas Edison conducted more than 9,000 experiments to develop the light bulb and over 50,000 experiments to develop the storage fuel cell. (pp. 107)
The best results would come in an environment where success and failure are rewarded equally- and where inaction is punished. (pp. 129)
Intrinsic motivation, a key driver for innovation for the intersection, can get pummeled when external motivation competes for its attention. (pp. 139)
If you have spent years within a field, that fact alone can convince you to stay put even if it’s a lost cause. (pp. 176)
This is by far one of the most well researched and readable book on innovation and creativity. A good read of students and managers alike. I would highly recommend this one.