NAVEEN RAJDEV (NR), Chief Marketing Officer, Wipro, in conversation with FRANS JOHANSSON (FJ), highly-acclaimed author of THE MEDICI EFFECT and THE CLICK MOMENT and CEO of The Medici Group on how great ideas happen, how technology companies can innovate at Intersections, and how to increase 'Click Moments' in our lives.
NR: It’s amazing to learn about harnessing the power of intersections, and how one can experience more of these ‘Click Moments’. I am keen to know what inspired you to write these two books.
FJ: I grew up at the Intersection, in the truest sense of the word. My mother is black and my father is Swedish. I grew up in Sweden at the intersection of countries, cultures, and ethnicities. Even in college, I decided to study environmental science because it was an intersection of physics and biology, geology and chemistry, political science and engineering. I’ve seen the power of what happens when you merge ideas from different cultures. In college, I started a magazine dealing with intersections called The Catalyst, and it’s still around. It actually celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, and I think the reason it has lasted for so long is because it bridged the gap between the sciences and the humanities in a way that illuminated the synergies between both fields.
Frankly, the idea of bridging gaps has been with me for a long time, and writing The Medici Effect was my effort in bringing this idea to life. Specifically, the chapter on the exponential increase of idea combinations discusses the single most consistent finding in all of innovation research over the past 5 to 6 decades, and over and over again, this same fact shows up no matter who you are or what your angle on innovation is: Enhancing diversity, breaking down barriers, and combining ideas creates substantially more opportunities to come up with something groundbreaking.
How do you plan out which intersections to pursue, and which are the most powerful? This was the unresolved component of The Medici Effect, and solving this question wasn’t straightforward. In the years after writing the book, I realized that serendipity and randomness were a much greater part of the innovation equation than I had initially suspected. I decided to research these ideas, and what I’m seeing today is that understanding how these things interact has never been more relevant.
Our entire process at my firm, The Medici Group, has been to seek out, to create, or to capitalize on intersections, while promoting the understanding that your greatest breakthroughs are going to be surprises. I sometimes say that surprise is a leading indicator of innovation. If something happens and it surprises you, it suggests that you’ve hit upon something that is new, fresh, and unique. It might be the one thing that sets you apart.
NR: I like that. Surprise is indeed the leading indicator of innovation. These days, we really get surprised by how someone’s seemingly simple idea goes viral, for instance, Khan Academy. Though I am sure there are many more such examples.
FJ: Khan Academy is a great example. What’s fascinating is how everyone calls something a brilliant move only when someone notices a gap and decides to exploit it. That’s what the story becomes. But, in fact, that’s not how it started. It started as somebody noticing a small gap in the market and saying, “You know what? I’m going to upload this, or I’m going to upload some videos on that, and we’ll see where it leads.” Surprise has proven to be one of the most disruptive tools in education. To me, those are the stories we have to get used to today.
NR: How do these click moments and intersections churn out more and more successes? What is the factor that makes this possible? Is it just people coming together, or is there something more behind it? Is there a psychological shift, a technological shift, or a demographic shift that you have experienced?
FJ: Technology and the increase in computational power are pieces of the puzzle. Technology helps us break down barriers, and it continues to be a prime driver of success. But frankly, it doesn’t have to be. Nowadays, you can continue using the same technology and innovate nevertheless, all because people’s behaviours have changed. To me, that is huge. But there are far more factors that lead to innovation. The fact that norms are changing is a greatly under-appreciated driver of innovation. If this weren’t the case, brands such as Uber, Airbnb and Tinder would not have achieved success. Allowing a stranger in your home or car, or somebody to make a selection of who they want to meet up with, based on a picture, was totally unthinkable before these companies came along a couple of years ago. The reason these norms are changing so quickly, whether in the US or in India, is because people are getting social proof instantly.
For instance, in the mid-90s, I could take an idea from Sweden, introduce it the United States, and it would be new and fresh. This even held true vice-versa: I could take something that was happening in the States, change it a bit, and share it with people in Sweden and it would also be new. Today, that’s impossible because a new idea in Sweden will not only be available to people in the US, but also to people all over the world, sometimes within just days or hours.
I must say we’re seeing a dramatic shift. Relationships are much more global. People are getting online and playing multiplayer games with other gamers around the world. Companies are forming teams and working on projects with contractors and employees scattered across the world. Barriers are breaking down every day.
Finally, industries are changing rapidly, and even disappearing. People are used to believing that if you put in the hours and do your work, you’ll eventually rise to the top of your industry. That is not the way it works today. The industry you’re in might vanish overnight-so it doesn’t matter what you did, because another industry may have taken its place. I think this has caused people to be more open to the idea that they have to shift. They have to be willing to change themselves.
NR: In your book, The Medici Effect, you talked about how cities are great engines of innovation because they facilitate more personal encounters. How do we recreate the same phenomenon at the company level? Most companies today rely heavily on operating virtually. How do companies promote a more face-to-face culture?
FJ: That’s a great question. There is an enormous amount of untapped potential in every company. However, most of this talent tends to be confined within silos. It makes it easier to structure the budget and to make hiring decisions when done this way. Over time, these silos grow and become reinforced. Now to answer the first part of your question relating to cities that drive innovation: They are able to do so because they provide ample opportunities for people to meet and connect. Companies need to take a similar route and create such touch points. There are certain areas, however, where organizations need to improvise. For instance, most meetings are cumbersome and are too lengthy. Instead, companies need to introduce elements of serendipity and diversity into these meetings so that there is not just one prevailing way of thinking.
In my book, The Click Moment, I share many such ideas on how the design of buildings and conference rooms can help spark innovation, as well as how having people in meetings from unrelated groups will help bring fresh perspectives.
NR: This next question is very close to my heart. We keep talking about these “B class” cities across the globe that will grow by 5 to 10 per cent in terms of population. At the same time, they are also losing their sheen. Do you have a message for cities that have not been able to keep pace with the population growth?
FJ: All cities are not on the same trajectory, and each city’s fortune oscillates. Even New York’s fortune has risen and fallen. Today, it’s a very different city from what it was in the 70s.
To unleash the 'Medici Effect', cities need to leverage the creative power of people and capitalize on those things to stand apart.
Great examples of cities that have transformed themselves are Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand. Before The Lord of the Rings, no one would have thought that the most thriving industry in New Zealand would be its movie industry. Jump forward a few years, and New Zealand is one of the hottest new movie countries in the world.
Here’s another example. There’s an area in Orlando called Medical City. It’s amazing; there are two hospitals, two universities, start-ups and various funders in the healthcare area. The Medici Effect was the inspiration for building it.
I don’t think any city will end up on the precipice of doom, though. Instead, it is very much possible for a city to capitalize on new opportunities if people do things together, even though the world is shifting more toward the virtual realm.
NR: Today, the innovation cycle is getting shorter. It doesn’t take years to design a car. Rather, it is done in few weeks. Similarly, movies are being produced in two weeks. Where do you think is the relationship between humans and technology heading?
FJ: That’s a good question. People are discussing the future of AI and other advancements on the horizon. I think that it’s safe to say that humans are still very much in control of technology. What they may not be in control of are the secondary effects of innovations that come from the technology. Humans are very much in control of the process of creating, for example, a company like Uber. What they’re not in control of are residual effects that Uber has on the taxi industry.
Just imagine, when we switched from carriages to cars, from cars to trains, and from trains to airplanes, all these advancements enabled massive shifts in trade, in possibilities, in dreams and hopes for people around the world. And so in that sense, it’s the speed of change that has altered. Everything is happening faster.
There have been regular debates on the relationship between humans and technology. However, I strongly believe that the human mind is still the greatest tool on earth. There have been attempts to emulate or copy the mind, but I don’t think we’re close to doing it. I don’t think we are even close to fully understanding how the human mind operates. Many times, we do hear comparisons such as ‘this computer does the same number of computations as the human mind.’ But the computer doesn’t do the same type of computations, and that’s the major difference.
NR: If we are to give a message to millennials or children in middle school on how they can increase the number of ‘Click Moments’ in their lives so that they become our next generation of innovators, what would that message be?
FJ: I would say three very simple things to them. The first is to interact with people and ideas that are different from the ones that you are comfortable with. Don’t just go for the things that resonate with you. If you do this, you will constrict your point of view. Instead, you need to expand your point of view, and intersect with other fields and industries.
Secondly, love the unexpected. If your career doesn’t go as planned, don’t see it as a negative. See that as a benefit, because the unexpected holds more power than you suspect.
Thirdly, when you do think of something and create a 'Click Moment', don’t hold back. Don’t wait for all the other pieces to fall in place. Just act on it.
To be perfectly honest, if you look at education today, it tries to lure us away from these things. It tries to get us to plan out our every move; to keep us in the theoretical realm for as long as possible. It’s the responsibility of young people to counter this way of thinking. And as adults, I think our responsibility is to encourage young people to do so.