Monday, January 16, 2006

An Extraordinary Book – “The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights At The Intersection Of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures” by Frans Johansson

I review a lot of books in this Blog (and I read many more that I do not find worthy of sharing with my readers, or that I do not think would command your interest). I do not want this particular book to get lost in the crowd. “The Medici Effect” had the most profound impact upon me of any “business book” I have read since reading Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” This book is an extraordinary achievement. If you regularly return to read this Blog because you find my disparate and eclectic choice of topics informative and compelling, then I can guarantee that you will find value in reading “The Medici Effect.”

Frans Johansson graduated from Harvard Business School, and works in NYC as a writer, consultant and entrepreneur. His book is based strongly on the influences of some of his HBS professors – most particularly Teresa Amabile, a leading creativity researcher, and Clayton Christensen, who is best known for his pioneering work in the field of disruptive innovation. Johansson has taken these works and moved them forward to describe a place where “innovators are changing the world by stepping into the Intersection: a place where ideas from different fields and cultures meet and collide, ultimately igniting an explosion of extraordinary new discoveries.”

The author is the very embodiment of the intersecting phenomena that he describes in the book. Frans was raised in Sweden by his African-American and Cherokee mother and Swedish father. The title of this work derives from the historical fact that the explosion of creativity and innovation that emanated from 15th Century Florence, Italy - and spawned what we now refer to as "The Renaissance" - had its genesis in the Medici family. The Medici’s were a banking family who became patrons to artists, artisans and scientists in a dizzying array of fields and disciplines. Through their patronage, we still speak of and admire the works of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Donatello, Raphael, Ghiberti and countless others.

Johansson makes a very lucid and compelling point that it is possible for us, in this present age, to replicate the outburst of creativity that was the hallmark of the Florentine Renaissance – we simply must have the wisdom and courage to step into the Intersection.

One of the early examples that the writer shares is the story of Marcus Samuellson, who became an overnight success as the chef at New York's Aquavit restaurant by creating astonishing combinations of ingredients and cooking styles. Johansson attributes much of Samuellson’s propensity for innovation to the cultural diversity of his heritage and upbringing.

“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, rule and boundaries – and to search for answers where others may not think to. Research also indicates that people who are fluent in multiple languages tend to exhibit greater creativity than others. Languages codify concepts differently, and the ability to draw upon these varied perspectives during a creative process generates a wider range of associations.” (Page 47)

Johansson next turns the spotlight on Paul Maeder, a venture capitalist with Highland Capital. Maeder boasts a strong track record of identifying young companies led by innovative founders, and predicting which of these companies will succeed.

“What, then, does Maeder think are some important aspects of innovative people at the Intersection? Over the years he has spotted two recurring characteristics: ‘Innovators are often self-taught. They tend to be the types to educate themselves intensely,’ he says, ‘and they often have a broad learning experience, having excelled in one field and learned another.’ Broad education and self-education, then, appear to be two keys to learning differently.” (Page 51)

The Chairman of Bain & Company is Orit Gadiesh, a brilliant woman who came from Israel to Harvard Business School while barely able to speak English. Two years later, she graduated from HBS in the top 5% of her class. Johansson quotes Gadiesh on the concept of “Renaissance Man”:

“’Some people say that the modern-day Renaissance man is an investment banker who likes to go horseback riding on the weekend he has off, or something like that,’ she says with a laugh. ‘That’s not a Renaissance man, that’s a man with a hobby. A Renaissance man is someone who can see trends and patterns and integrate what he knows. To me, the modern Renaissance man is curious, interested in different things. You have to be willing to “waste time” on things that are not directly relevant to your work because you are curious. But then you are able to, sometimes unconsciously, integrate them back into your work.’” (Page 76)

Frans cites Frank Herbert, author of the science fiction classic “Dune,” as a paragon of occupational diversity, another of the common traits among innovators who wade into the Intersection. Herbert has worked, at various points in his lifetime, as a photographer, reporter, editor, cameraman, radio commentator, speechwriter, consultant, oyster diver, judo instructor, jungle survival instructor, TV director, geologist, psychologist, navigator, botanist and fiction writer!

“Successful innovators tend to work on several interrelated projects at once, rotating within a ‘network of enterprises,’ according to whatever appears most promising at the moment. Both Thomas Edison and Charles Darwin, for instances, had many journals and portfolios where they could store notes and articles relating to any number of projects that they were working on. They would regularly review their notes, read over past projects, and reconsider earlier ideas, including the ones that didn’t work out. While reviewing their archives with fresh eyes, they might find connections to a current dilemma and perhaps come up with a new solution.” (Page 78)

This strong bent for pursuing numerous simultaneous innovative projects reminds me very much of the troika of entrepreneurs who call themselves “R3” – my friends Bob Allard, Bob Glazer, and Richard Banfield. Using many of the same approaches that Johansson describes here, they have launched, or are about to launch, a number of new companies, products and services, including “You Should Meet,” “Referral Monitor,” “Bobby’s Best,” and “Start-up Business School.”

Late in this book, the author tackles the issue of fear as an impediment that prevents many individuals from boldly stepping into the Intersection of overlapping disciplines and fields. He shares an extensive analysis of Larry Susskind, a professor at MIT and Harvard Law School.

“Although he never pursued a law degree, Susskind specializes in negotiations and has mediated large-scale disputes all over the world in most types of industries. During his career Susskind has zigzagged through a plethora of fields. He majored in English, earned a Ph.D. in urban planning, and then served as external director for an environmental consulting firm, as a planning consultant, negotiation advisor, and policy analyst, working in China, Spain, Japan and Israel. Through all of that, he has become one of the most innovative leaders in conflict resolution. So, I asked Susskind one morning if he believes his insights would have been possible if he had stuck with one established field and shied away form the Intersection.

‘Well, no,’ he admitted, leaning back in his chair. ‘I do believe in this stuff,’ he says. ‘I really do. The greatest risk is not taking one.’ He hesitates for a second before going on. ‘But what happens when you have to give advice to others that you care about, like your kids? I’m not sure what to tell my kids. Do I tell them that all you have to do is take chances, not to specialize, not to focus? I know that specializing will do well for them in life. So I just don’t know; I don’t know what to tell them.’

Neither do I. It depends . . . Like all of us, his kids will eventually have to make up their own minds. But what I do know is that if they wish to break new ground, stepping into the Intersection will give them the most opportunities to do so – today, more than ever. It is the best chance we have to change the world. We should take it.”
(Pages 181-2)

Over the past several years, I have had some exposure to innovators and entrepreneurs that have stepped into an Intersection that is broadly described as “nanotechnology.” I see these emerging fields as a perfect paradigm for the ideas that Johansson is putting forward in this book. Within the worlds of nanotechnology, scientists from the fields of physics, chemistry, material science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and biochemistry – to name just a few – have laid aside traditional boundaries and collaborated to create a new and rapidly evolving field that allows manipulation of single atoms to produce minuscule machines and products.

Johansson’s book is both a manifesto for innovators and an Emancipation Proclamation for those enslaved and trapped within the boundaries of traditional fields of study and practice.

So, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2006, it is not entirely inappropriate to apply the words of that great orator and innovator to the topic at hand:

“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

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