Eclectic Curiosity

Posted on November 17th, 2004, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Uncategorized. No Comments

This blog, Creative Generalist, has existed for roughly two and a half years. I’ve actively sought out books, articles, posts and resources that show some sort of insight or analysis of the generalist way of thinking; an appreciation of a wide range of disparate ideas coming together to create new and better ideas. It’s my personal belief that generalists are the unsung, often unnoticed heroes of ideation and that they are the people that, in a world of fragmentation, segmentation and specialization, will be most in demand in a knowledge economy.

I learned that many other people felt the same way or at least had interesting questions about what specialization and hyperinnovation were doing to the world of ideas. And yet I never really came across a book that addressed these questions head-on or that really stood up for generalists in any substantial way. It was frequently touched upon but never entirely a focus. Until now.

Frans Johansson‘s The Medici Effect was released by HBS Press a couple of of months ago and it beautifully backs up why breakthrough insights come at the intersection of ideas, concepts and cultures. It is the closest thing idea generalists – in all fields, not just business – have to a user’s manual. Johansson, a young Swedish-born MBA now consulting in New York, has weaved together everything from card games and fusion cooking and navy warfare and Shakira to describe, justify and inspire intersectional thinking. It all culminates in the Medici Effect, a connection of different disciplines and cultures – like that burst of creativity in 15th-century Italy.

The first part of the book takes a closer look at “the Intersection” and why this is the place that will give you your best opportunity to innovate.

The key 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. The difference between the two types of ideas is significant.

These trends – the blending and mixing of cultures – are becoming more evident every year in fields such as cinema, literature, music, and art. Businesses, too, will increasingly be able to innovate in different regions of the world. They can arbitrage ideas between different cultures by understanding how those cultures connect. This holds true not just for major corporations but also for your neighborhood store.

We have spent a lot of time segmenting the world, trying to understand its individual components, and we have done a good job at it. In short, science works, and it works well. However, just as there are a limited number of times we can discover a continent or a section of human anatomy, we can discover the law of evolution, or a supernova, or thermodynamics, only once.

Your understanding of a field is likely to be intersected many times during your lifetime. The individuals or teams who find these intersections are likely to be the ones who radically change our world. Yes, we live in an interconnected world, but there is someone making the connections.

Part two of the book – the largest section – focuses on how best to break down the barriers in our thinking that make finding and developing these intersections so difficult.

We must employ tactics that allow us to learn as many things as possible without getting stuck in a particular way of thinking about those things.

The whole idea behind broad education, one that covers several fields, is that it can help us break out of the associative boundaries that expertise builds.

Formal education often looks like an inverted U when correlated with one’s success as a creator. That is, formal education first increases the probability of attaining creative success, but after an optimum point it actually lowers the odds. This point occurs a bit earlier for artistic careers and a bit later for scientific paths.

Usually a company is set up to identify the optimal job for each employee. Once that position or area has been identified, the company supports further specialization. …To move a person from an area he or she excels in to an area the person hardly knows seems to defy common sense. If your goal is to keep execution at a premium and to innovate in small, directional steps, specialization is the right path. However, if you wish to develop fresh, groundbreaking ideas, highly varied experiences are critical.

The final section of The Medici Effect puts forward some key ways to make intersectional ideas happen: embrace failure, break out of your network, prepare to fight, overcome fear, and leap into it.

The best results would come in an environment where success and failure are rewarded equally – and where inaction is punished.

Ending a presentation with the words “but this could all change tomorrow” usually won’t win any points. If you are working on a directional idea, it shouldn’t. But if you are working on an intersectional idea, you must be wary of substituting inherent uncertainty with concrete plans.

It is virtually impossible not to come out of the Intersection, “that white space between disciplines,” without a vastly expanded set of future opportunities, regardless of whether the actual idea was a success or a failure. Thus, exploring intersectional ideas will always yield downstream benefits – making it a fairly low-risk proposition. …The Intersection unleashes great creative powers through the explosion of concept combinations. If your goal is groundbreaking innovation, this explosion represents a gold mine of ideas. It would be crazy not to start digging.

In our world it actually makes sense to combine sea urchins with lollipops, guitar riffs with harp solos, and music records with airlines. In our world it makes sense for spiders and goat milk to have something in common or for a person to launch a solar cell company one day and a cookie company the next. Like the creators of fifteenth-century Florence, this is how we break new ground; this is how we innovate.

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