Innovation Hub: Stop Listening to the Same People

How do you break out of your old mindset, in a way that will fuel innovation?

Try heading to 16th-century Florence, according to Frans Johansson, the best-selling author of The Medici Effect.

Johansson notes that the wealthy Medici family corralled a truly diverse set of thinkers, put them in the same place, and watched creativity flourish. And he believes that the 21st century, with easily accessible social media and diverse cities, offers some equally effective forums for collaboration.

I talked with Johansson about how you can use that collaborative power to your advantage.

[This is an edited and condensed version of Kara’s interview with Johansson. For audio of the full conversation, visit]

Kara Miller: What is the Medici Effect?

Frans Johansson: It refers to the notion that we have the best chance of creating groundbreaking ideas when we combine concepts from different fields, cultures, and industries. Whatever area you look at—fashion, technology, entrepreneurship—people that break new ground in a field are not necessarily deep experts. The most successful ones bridge and make unique connections between their area of expertise and something else. The Renaissance Era—one of the most creative eras in Europe’s history—was founded upon this idea of innovative collaboration.

KM: Do you see this happening increasingly as the world diversifies?

FJ: The question is: how good are people actually leveraging this diversity? There’s a good example with Volvo, which assembled a group of women engineers to design a concept car. They came up with all kinds of new ideas, like putting a hatch for washer fluid on the side of the car, which made sense because they found that women just don’t like opening the hood of a car. That’s not necessarily a female idea. It’s simply an idea that comes about when you look at something from a different perspective. The lesson here is that if we can truly leverage the diversity we have, we will be far more innovative.

KM: You’ve talked to employees at a number of companies—Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Intel. What roadblocks do they see to innovation?

FJ: Most people see the biggest roadblock as the unwillingness of the organization to accept experimentation, mistakes, and failures. They think that if they fail, they are done for. By its very nature, innovation means trying something that hasn’t been done before. So how to deal with this? You have to limit the costs of the experiment, both in terms of money and someone’s reputation. You can’t put everything on the line when you’re trying something new.

KM: Most people do the same job and deal with the same people every day. How do you take yourself out of that to actually see things differently?

FJ: I advised a CEO of a major media company to read five magazines that he’s never read before, and to find concepts and ideas from them to incorporate in his work. A month later, he told me that he now read wedding magazines because he found useful and relatable concepts in them. Although it’s easier to learn new concepts and ideas with all of the available social media tools, we tend to cluster around people that we already know and like. I’m advocating people make connections in other areas, maybe even areas that don’t initially make sense. But over time, you begin to see things that directly relate back to what you’re doing and your own dreams.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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