Creative Generalist Q&A: Frans Johansson
I’m very pleased to kick off the Creative Generalist “eclectic curiosity” interview series with the man who literally wrote the book on intersectional thinking. Frans Johansson is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur. His recent bestselling book, The Medici Effect, was named one of the top-10 best business books of 2004 by Amazon.com, the innovation book of the year by several other organizations and has so far been translated into 13 languages. The paperback was released just a few weeks ago. In this remarkable book, Frans looks at how individuals, teams and organizations can create an explosion of groundbreaking innovations by combining ideas and concepts from different fields, cultures, and industries. Frans has keynoted extensively at corporations and other organizations across the US and around the world and he’s recently restarted his blog, Stories from the Intersection.
Wide open question to start, Frans. What have you learned since writing The Medici Effect?
OK – so that is a wide open question. Well, if anything the experience has reinforced my belief that focusing on something you are passionate about is the way to go. Passion matters – it really does. The ideas in that book, about innovation, about the connections in our world – between fields and cultures, about risk-taking and how we get inspired – these are ideas I have been interested in for a long time. Not only that, people all over the world feel a strong connection to these ideas. The fact that I could spend my time researching these ideas, write about them and finally live and breathe them is just very exciting.
And of course, I kept learning the grand old lessons of the value of hard work, the even better value of smarter work, the need to have faith in your abilities and to always keep eating (or you’ll get a bad-ass headache).
There is something else I have started thinking about as well. Most people who knew me from business school, while getting my MBA, would probably not have guessed I would go off to research and write a book. I mean – before school I had a health-care company – and after (and during) I had a software company. So that’s very execution-focused… not very “academic”. But before I came to the US for college I was very much into writing. The idea that I would write a book, I think, surprised no one who knew me in Sweden (where I lived, basically, until high school and even wrote this Dungeons & Dragons type book which I even sold to a publisher). Well, anyway, this got me thinking: I used to think that we reach certain forks in the road of our life and that the decisions we make at those forks will very much rule the rest of our lives. Do we move to another country? Do we switch jobs? Who end up being our friends? What random connection do we make at a party? And there is definitely some truth to that, no doubt. But at the same time – maybe our desires and passions are those things that keep tugging at us and so we end up roughly at the same spot we would have irrelevant of the forks in the road. Those forks simply dictated the path – not necessarily the end-destination. Well – my whole experience with The Medici Effect got me thinking about that since it has all surprised me greatly yet felt more natural than anything else I have done.
You’re a very positive and energetic guy. What has excited you most about the reaction the book has received?
People tell me that the book is inspirational. I did not shoot for that while writing – my focus was on a book filled with facts and frameworks presented in an engaging way. But there is no doubt people feel truly inspired by it. When I hear the stories of how it has changed people’s lives, how it has inspired them… well, can’t help but to be quite excited about that. Because out of inspiration comes action – and that is how we change and innovate.
Have you noticed any particular countries or US states that seem to have a better grasp on intersectional principles? In other words, can intersectional thinking be defined geographically and if so where is it most prevalent?
Certainly. There are the obvious examples: New York, London, etc. Increasingly (but slowly) various Asian regions are beginning to see the value of diversity. Dubai and Bangkok, for instance. On a national level, however, I think it is far more difficult. It is almost a useless level of granularity since regions can vary so widely.
Never the less there are some generalizations we can draw. I think we can say with certainty that the US has been fairly well set-up in this regard. Not only is its population diverse – this diversity is more integrated than in most places in the world. In addition, the flexible labor market makes it easier for people to move between industries and fields. Finally, the attitude towards risk is different – after you’ve thought of your idea it is OK to try to make it happen. These are all strengths and there are absolutely regions in the world where many of these ingredients are missing. When I was in Saudi Arabia, for instance, the more diversity in terms of cultures and far less in terms of gender than I initially would have guessed. But even the cultural diversity was not leveraged so its power was often lost. And there is little flexibility in the labor market and a far more conservative attitude towards risk. These norms, I believe, can put a country far behind in the basic chances of finding intersections and executing the ideas that are found there. Most nations fall somewhere on this spectrum of intersectional propensity.
You sometimes speak at diversity events and you’ve mentioned on your blog that you’re frequently asked about your own personal background (Black/Swedish/Cherokee). Did you expect cultural background – individually or within organizations – to be such a popular topic among Medici Effect readers?
It was quite a surprise. It was quite fascinating actually. My wife, Sweet Joy, who works with cross-cultural leadership issues told me one day that a number of people in the diversity arena have been looking for a stronger understanding of the connection between diversity and innovation. The core theme of The Medici Effect is that diversity drives innovation – the how, why and what we can do about it – and she thought that people in her field would be enthusiastic about it. That was certainly an understatement. It has been an incredibly popular topic and more than 50% of my speaking engagements relate specifically to how people from different cultures, countries, ethnicities, gender, etc can spark new innovative ideas. And at the very highest levels too – CEOs, heads of marketing, R&D and product development and other senior executives are desperate to understand how to link diversity to innovation. They often know in their guts that there is a connection – just not what it looks like and what they can do about it. And so they often lead the way – in fact, I often enter a company at the very highest level and we work our way through its ranks with this message. It has lead to the development of a unique and super-charged workshop about this that I am extremely excited about.
Where do you see intersectional thinking as being most useful these days? Or, conversely, in which fields is it most lacking?
I am interested to see what will happen in the gaming world. The push for a long time has been bigger, better and more powerful. Nintendo couldn’t keep up on that race-track so now they decided to do something different – the Wii. I’m excited to see how that plays out. But that is just a sign – new gaming ideas increasingly seem to be intersectional in nature: online games, Second Life, etc. It is a platform that invites non-traditional gamers into the mix. That should increase the diversity of perspectives and chances for the Medici Effect to explode in full bloom. The possibilities for unique and wonderfully random combinations seem immense.
There are plenty of other areas where this approach is increasing – biotechnology is one and many other new technologies are planted at the intersection of several fields. Increasingly I think that marketing and product development should be much more taking advantage of the diversity of cultures that exist in our society – leveraging the diversity we have globally. It’s not happening even remotely to the degree it should.
You have addressed major companies and organizations as well as prominent CEOs, political leaders and even royalty. Do you find many of these leaders to be genuinely interested in intersectional thinking?
People everywhere are aware that the world is changing incredibly fast – and they wish to know what that means for them, their organizations and their constituencies. Many understand that the solution might not be to do the exact same thing one did in the past – only faster, bigger and better. So they look for solutions in unconventional places – searching for unique connections. There is no doubt that most leaders I have met understand the need for this. Now, that said, there is a world of difference between understanding such a thing intellectually and actually acting on it. This last part – actually pursuing intersectional thinking, actually making changes by introducing quite different perspectives is not something most leaders relish. It is tough and could, with the wrong approach, be fraught with risk. So one avoids it.
Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any organizations/people that you find especially inspiring?
Inspiration for me often comes from within – I see, sense, a possible future and try to achieve it. I probably spend at least 30-60 minutes “day-dreaming” of ideas. Stories, ideas, business plans, presentations, images events unfold in my mind’s eye. But this internal engine needs fuel and I get that from everywhere, everyday.
People from all over the world can inspire me; living, dead, fictional and completely made up. It is not that a person in his or her entirety inspires me – but almost every person has something in their life which is inspiring… so I draw from that. Some obvious examples are my parents. My mother moved from a small southern town to Germany where she met my father – my father has been living proof that you simply stick to what you feel passionate about and come out OK (he loves fishing and started a sport fishing magazine). But there are countless others both real and fictional: MLK in how he stirred an entire nation (the world, in fact) or Hank Rearden from Atlas Shrugged. Music does a lot, listening to Eminem’s Loose Yourself or Notorius BIG’s Juicy, Enya’s Storms in Africa, the soundtrack to The Bourne Supremacy and anything by Aretha Franklin. Peter Jackson and how he got Lord of the Rings made is probably my most recent hero. Wow – incredible. Dedication and passion intoxicatingly fused together.
What’s your next move? Is there a follow-up book in the works?
I am working on a number of different projects. Right now The Medici Game is rolling out all over the world which is a lot of fun. The workshop Diversity Drives Innovation has launched. There are a few more Medici-related things left to do… but I have also begun to move forward on my next project – another book. Not ready yet to talk about what the book is about – just that it promises to be a LOT of fun to research and write and that the topic feels incredibly fresh.
Thanks very much, Frans, for sharing your thoughts with us.