I enjoyed reading The Medici Effect after picking it up on impulse. Frans Johansson’s 2006 book looks at how innovation is enhanced when people from different disciplines come together to tackle problems. He calls it the intersection.

“When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas. The name I have given this phenomenon, the Medici Effect, comes from a remarkable burst of creativity in fifteenth-century Italy.

“The Medicis were a banking family in Florence who funded creators from a wide range of disciplines. Thanks to this family and a few others like it, sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers, financiers, painters and architects converged upon the city of Florence. There they found each other, learned from one another, and broke down barriers between disciplines and cultures. Together they forged a new world based on new ideas – what became known as the Renaissance.”

Along with daydreaming about a modern day Medici clan helping me bring a bunch of poets, philosophers, engineers, architects and teachers to the news table, I found a few things in the book resonating with me – and with a bunch of other things I’ve seen, read, talked about recently.

I love it when that happens so I thought I’d weave a few threads together here.

Innovators are prolific idea generators

We tend to think that brilliant people and successful entrepreneurs have great ideas that are well executed from the get-go and that their early success spawns a virtuous cycle which breeds further successes.

And that can happen. But Johansson cites psychologist Dean Simonton from the University of California, Davis, who says innovators don’t necessarily produce because they are successful, instead they are successful because they produce. Quantity of ideas leads to quality of ideas. In one instance, Simonton looked at the careers of individual scientists.

“If the virtuous cycle theory were true, you would expect to see an increase in quality of papers after a successful one was published. But you don’t. Scientists produced breakthrough papers at random points throughout their careers, but they had the best chance of writing them when they published a lot of papers. The best predictor for when scientists produce their best works, their most exceptional contributions, is actually when they produce the most. Incidentally, this was also when they had the greatest chance of writing their worst papers, which is what you would expect given the random nature of creativity.

“Simonton also found this relationship holds true for artists. Classical composers, for instance, produced most of their masterpieces during the same period when they produced most of their failures… The best way to beat the odds is to continually produce ideas. This is why innovators are so productive.”

We don’t do our best work on deadline

“We supposedly do our most creative work while high on adrenaline and caffeine but low on resources – time in particular… Harvard Business School professor and leading creativity researcher Teresa Amabile showed that this perception is a myth. In the study, Amabile and her colleagues followed 177 employees in 22 project teams from seven companies for the entire duration of a project, in some cases as long as six months… The researchers emailed 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.”

You will fail. You have to execute past your failures

This is a strong theme at the moment – that failure is an inevitable part of life and one we must all learn to deal with. Failure is often a predecessor of success, and sometimes a prerequisite. You can find messages about failure in many places.

Alain de Botton talked about how we see success and failure at TED in 2009, Nat Torkington talked about failing fast and small at Webstock 2009 and JK Rowling talked about the liberation she found in failure in her commencement speech to Harvard graduates in 2008.

Failure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged.

The final 5 minutes of Rowling’s speech is here. (Note: Brainpickings has this and other inspirational commencement speeches in this post, including one from Steve Jobs to Stanford graduates.)

There are countless motivational videos on YouTube referring to famous folk who at first failed and then tried, tried again.

In The Medici Effect, Johansson talks about Deborah Prothrow-Stith, Adjunct Professor of the Practice of Public Health at Harvard, who connected violence protection with healthcare at a time when no one else was. She launched programmes which at first failed, but learned from them and eventually made a difference.

“She paved the way for an entirely new field, but it was a path littered with failures and mistaken assumptions. Her experience is not an exception for realising intersectional ideas. 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.”

To execute past our failures, we must plan for them


1. Try ideas that fail to find those that won’t

Johansson cites Stanford professor Robert Sutton who talks about the importance of  rewarding success and failure equally in an organisation.

“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.”

He adds a few other of Sutton’s pointers such as making sure everyone learns from past failures – “do not reward the same mistakes over and over again” – hiring people who’ve had intelligent failures, being suspicious of people with low failure rates – “they may be hiding their mistakes rather than allowing others in the organisation to learn from them” – and making sure people know that failure to try is the greatest failure.

I’m assuming this is the same Robert Sutton who brought us  The No Asshole Rule, has  a great blog and wrote the following forward to Peter Sims’ book Little Bets.

“Peter Sims buries the myth that big talkers with brains and big ideas move industry and science forward. This modern masterpiece demonstrates that the most powerful and profitable ideas are produced by persistent people who mess with lots of little ideas and keep muddling forward until they get it right. Little Bets is easily the most delightful and useful innovation book published in the last decade.”

A similar note is struck by Tim Harford in a brief interview with Cory Doctorow about Harford’s new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.

“Ultimately Adapt argues that the only way forward is experimentation, which can either be formal or ad hoc. Whether we’re talking about poverty in Nigeria or innovation in Boston, solutions tend to evolve rather than be designed in some burst of awesome genius. And then the question is — what do we need to encourage those experiments?”

In response to a question about the characteristics of an adaptable plan or organisation, Harford says:

“Three things: you need to have lots of different experiments going on; they need to be at the right scale, so that a failure doesn’t finish you off; and you need to be able work out what is working and what isn’t, which is not always easy. (If it was easy, we wouldn’t need double-blind randomised controlled trials in medicine.) It sounds sensible enough in principle; the book explores how that actually might work in practice in politics, banking, development aid, science funding, and so on. And of course, in our own lives.”

2. Reserve resources for trial and error

Johansson says anyone succeeding at the intersection will tell the same story: “Their original idea had to be modified again and again. Picasso, for instance, used up no less than eight notebooks just for preliminary sketches of his revolutionary painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This approach, however, requires a careful preservation of resources, whether those resources are money, time, reputation, contacts, or power.”

He quotes Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma:

“Guessing the right strategy at the outset is not nearly as important to success as conserving enough resources (or having relationships with trusted backers or investors) so that new business initiatives get a second or thirds stab at getting it right. Those that run out of resources or credibility before they can iterate towards a new strategy are the ones that will fail.”

3. Remain motivated

Perhaps the most important strategy for success at the intersection is to remain motivated. If you stay motivated, you will have the wherewithal to push past your mistakes and stick with an idea until you become successful. If you lose this motivation, though, complete failure seems all but inevitable. Not only will you lose interest in what you’re doing, but your willingness to explore different creative ideas or to take risks drops quickly.

In other words, you have to persist, which is one of the eight secrets to success Richard St John outlays in this 3-minute TED talk. “You gotta persist through failure, you gotta persist through CRAP, which of course means criticism, rejection, assholes and pressure.”

Johansson refers to research which shows that motivating people is not as simple as offering rewards, and in fact that rewards can stifle creativity. “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.”

He cites Stephen King: “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.”

Johansson also quote Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, who looked at “what type of leaders head up stellar companies and how these leaders are compensated.”

It turned out that firms used a wide range of incentive schemes: salaries, stock options, bonuses, profit sharing, and so forth, in every single variation, but none of this variation was correlated to success. Incentives were important in attracting a candidate to accept a particular job, but once on the job it hardly mattered at all. People who are driven to perform do so based on internal drive, not on external incentives. They want to do a good job.

Which is pretty much the message of this RSA Animate piece about ‘what really motivates us’.

We have to acknowledge our fears

Our understanding of risks ultimately boils down to our feeling of fear – the kind that makes your blood pressure rise, heart pound, mouth dry and palms sweaty. “This hard-wired response kicks in even when physical danger is not imminent. It can be switched on by making a key decision such as leaving your job, changing your firm’s strategy, selling your ideas to a tough audience – or even by a simple thing like making a sales call.”

The most effective way to combat fear is to acknowledge it… For starters you have to come to terms with what is at stake and admit that you might lose it. Often this means that you must be comfortable enough to know that if everything is lost, you can still move on.

We cannot always escape our fears, but we can manage them. By accepting our fears, by acknowledging that we can fail, and by becoming comfortable with what happens if we do, we can much more effectively move toward realising our ideas at the intersection. In the words of Mark Twain: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

I could go on. But I reckon that’s enough for one winter Sunday afternoon.

Here’s Johansson talking about innovation at the L2 Innovation Forum in 2010.

On a related tangent, I recently came across this YouTube clip of the late Sir Paul Callaghan speaking at StrategyNZ about innovation in New Zealand. Worth a watch (not embeddable here, sorry).