Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Place Where New Happens

(Article first published in Currents No. 4 2004).

The Medici Effect is a book about innovation in an era where many discoveries happen in-between or outside established fields. Frans Johansson calls these places of discovery “intersections,” and wrote his book to teach us how to analyze and use them. Harvard Business School Books published the book, and soon he had found an audience, including CEO’s of companies like GM, Kodak and Lockheed-Martin.

Frans Johansson protests when I half-jokingly suggest that he is becoming a guru. He doesn’t like the word, but his calendar tells its own story as he finds himself traveling around the world, giving keynote speeches at conferences and talking to top management. His message is clear and very timely. It’s about the benefits of diversity, stepping out of the circle, daring to explore, and daring to be different.

Frans Johansson speaks Swedish with a Gothenburg accent and has a very traditional name, but his look hardly fits that of the stereotypical Swede. (This look is however not quite as typical as foreigners think, as one million Swedes have at least one immigrant parent.)

His mother is of Afro-American and Cherokee decent, and his father is a native of Gothenburg where he was a tent-maker like his father. But Frans Johansson’s father’s real passion was sport fishing, which led him to start the sport fishing magazine Fiskejournalen. It was during a fishing trip to Manheim in Germany that his father met an English teacher who worked at a nearby U.S. military base. The couple settled in Gothenburg, where they had Frans. He grew up in Gothenburg, but left Sweden to attend Brown University where he started a cross-discipline magazine. He was thinking of pursuing a Ph.D., but felt the call of the entrepreneur, which brought him to Baltimore where an aunt of his was a medical researcher at John Hopkins’s University. He and his cousin Christian started a company in her basement and developed and patented an instrument based on his aunt’s research that nurses use to measure a patient’s pain. By then they were 22 years old.

”I loved starting companies, I really loved it, but my passion was definitively not in the healthcare business, so I applied to Harvard Business School instead,” he says. His cousin soon followed him, but within a year they left Harvard to start a software company called Inka. This was during the peak of the Internet boom. It was easy to find financing and they soon had 30 employees, while working for clients like Intel and Lotus.

But the bubble burst in March of 2001, and Johansson found himself with extra time on his hands. ”I woke up one morning and had this idea that you discover new things when you combine disciplines and cultures. But was it really so? It seemed intuitive, but was it really true? And if so, exactly why was that the case? Finally, what does this mean if you want to apply these ideas in real life? What is the difference between innovating within a field compared to if you do it in an intersection? Of course, you could say that I had been working towards this all my life. I realized when I grew up that I was different from most people around me. It was not only the link between Sweden and the United States, but also the issue of black and white. There were plenty of combinations here.”

The Medici Effect is about innovations, but not the gradual stuff, which the author calls directional innovation. He is more interested in breakthroughs, such as Charles Darwin replacing the Biblical creation myth with a scientific explanation, Mike Oldfield blending rock and classical music, Håkan Lans developing groundbreaking products, or chef Marcus Samuelsson creating bold new riffs on Swedish food that didn’t make sense until he did it. They all had found themselves in intersections abound in opportunities, and they didn’t hesitate to grab them.

When people step into an intersection they need to let go of many of their perceptions and prejudices, but it does not mean that you can do without knowledge and expertise. “When you take a Swedish idea abroad, you are letting it intersect with something else, and that is where you can find success. That’s what made it possible for Swedish music to conquer the many parts of the world, and that’s what Marcus Samuelsson did when he turned Aquavit in to a leading restaurant.”

However, not everybody loves intersections. Many people shun the intersections, as can be the case with fundamentalist Christians in the US and fundamentalist Moslems in Iran or Saudi-Arabia. They prefer interpretations of holy texts to exploring intersections with other cultures and ideas. “Well, it’s a choice to be made either as a person, a company or as a society. If you choose to not break new ground or innovate, you may be able to push what you know, but sooner or later, you will stagnate. The world is moving fast, and if you don’t look for intersections, somebody else will. It’s inevitable. The question is not whether it will be done, but by whom.”

Hans Sandberg