Monday, October 15, 2007

In Part I. , we looked at John Kao's call for a more innovative America and Howard Gardner's analysis of the mindsets that would be required for creative, innovative endeavors. In Part II. we continue with the analysis of Frans Johansson in The Medici Effect .

Blogfriend Steve DeAngelis of ERMB has referenced The Medici Effect many times in the past two years; in his initial post on Johansson's work, Steve gave a superb summary of the Medici Effect concept:

"In his very interesting book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures, Frans Johansson talks about the value of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. The Medici's, of course, were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family's wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages"

Johansson's thesis is that breakthrough innovation is generated most frequently at "the intersection" where two or more different domains meet rather than by predictable, linear, improvements within one field (" directional innovation"). Intersectional opportunities are increasing, Johansson argues due to increased migration, trends toward scientific consilience and ready access to the improved computational tools of the information revolution.

In The Medici Effect, Johansson tackles both cognitive tools as well as social environment that facilitate innovative thinking and productivity. Like Edward DeBono's lateral thinking exercises, Johansson encourages conscious and methodical attempts to find novel, intersectional, combinations of concepts; he points to cultivating an autotelic mindset; reversing one's premises to smash through "associative barriers"; using multiperspectivalism ( agreeing here with Howard Gardner); and defusing the social factors that inhibit organizations from effectively brainstorming. These are all solid suggestions, though most have been made elsewhere as well.

More attention is paid in The Medici Effect to the social environment that is interactive with the innovator in helping to create a climate conducive to synthesis and the generation of insight. moreover, Johansson identifies the creation of a dynamic and stimulating "community"as a critical factor for sustaining an innovation:

"Garfield offer's two reason for Magic's [ a sword & sorcery card game that was a cult hit] success: a prolonged and exciting learning phase and an expanding community of players. Examined closely, you will see that he is talking about the intersection of games and collectibles"

Gaming is itself, a very powerful tool for teaching adaptive thinking skills and for driving the assembly of a " value network" that can be turned toward productive purposes. Indeed, Johannson spends a great deal of time discussing the potential of these networks to function as a two-edged sword in regard to innovation. Moreover, the social and financial organization clustered around the innovator can be determinative in the success of the innovation in a way that is wholly counterintuitive, according to Johansson. Excess support brings restrictions in the form of vested interests from old value networks, stigmatizing failures that are a necessary part of the learning curve and blunting internal motivation with the distracting prospect of extrinsic reward. There is cognitive strength in " staying hungry" and needing to stretch resources with value-added thought ( see Don Vandergriff's Raising the Bar).

What Is To Be Done?:

Looking elsewhere, like The Smithsonian Magazine's "37 under 36 Young Innovators" we see many mining Johansson's intersections or using Gardner's Synthesizing and Creative Minds but these bright folks are social outliers. What we need is re-engineering of institutional cultures and structures, particularly that of our educational system to balance the development of analytical prowess with generative, creative, synthesisizing, capacities. John Hagel recently had a post at Edge Perspectives with a number of sage suggestions for driving innovation:

"Diversity. As Scott Page and others have persuasively suggested, new insight and learning tends to increase with cognitive diversity. This principle highlights the importance of designing institutional arrangements that extend well beyond a single institution, with particular attention to the opportunity to connect to diverse pools of expertise and experience. Diversity can often be enhanced by connecting into spikes – geographic concentrations of talent – and by targeting “brokers” within social networks, creating a multiplier effect in terms of the number of participants that are potentially accessible.

Relationships. It is not enough to have cognitive diversity. By itself, cognitive diversity often breeds misunderstanding and mistrust, seriously limiting the opportunity for people and institutions to learn from each other. Long-term trust based relationships, on the other hand, make it easier to engage in productive friction – the clash of diverse perspectives in ways that produces deep new insight and learning. The challenge is that these kinds of relationships often take a long time to develop and are hard to scale. Innovative institutional arrangements can help to accelerate and scale the formation of these kinds of relationships.

Modularity. When activities are tightly specified and hard-wired together, the opportunities for experimentation and tinkering are very limited. Segmenting people and activities into discrete modules with well-defined interfaces can help to create much more space and opportunity for distributed innovation and learning."

Read the rest here.

In practical terms, what does this mean for schools, corporations, universities and governments ? In my view, "hard-wired" hierarchy with rigid requirements, stiff penalties and centralized decision-making is going to have to be relegated to niches in the future rather than being the dominant form of organization that it is today. Hierarchy, with it's mania for control and accountability, remains useful for transactional delivery systems upon which reputations depend, logistical flows upon which production processes depend and security procedures upon which safety may depend. That being said, hierarchy will have to yield to more lateral, more collegial, more networked, more ecologically oriented models of connectivity where the generation of new ideas represents the lifeblood of an organization.

Hierarchy is Newtonian; Free Scale and Modular Networks are Darwinian. An innovation nation is, by definition, adaptive.


Sir Ken Robinson " Do Schools Kill Creativity?"

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Great post, Zen -- and very stylish how you linked ERMB's nine different posts on the Medici Effect!

I completely agree with your closing assessment regarding the need for flexible, adaptive and "collegial" models of connectivity. Though I'm not sure I buy your closing statement regarding "Newtonian" vs. "Darwinian"; do you really mean "Deterministic" vs. "Adaptive"?

BTW: Frans has a 'blog of his own.
Hi Shane,

Thank you very much! Yeah, I hadn't realized Steve referenced it that many times until I searched.

"...do you really mean "Deterministic" vs. "Adaptive"?"

That a better descriptor than what I used. I was thinking in terms of paradigms - mechanistic, rigid, closed-system, fixed vs. evolving, open-system, adaptive, fluid etc.
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