The Medici Effect | Notes & Review

Posted on June 30, 2009


Frans Johansson. The Medici Effect: What Elephants & Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation. Harvard Business School Press, 2006.

medici effect

“This place, where the different fields meet, is what I call the Intersection. And the explosion of remarkable innovations that you find there is what I call the Medici Effect. This book is about how to create it. … The idea behind this book is simple: When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas.” (2) “The Intersection is certainly not the only place to uncover new ideas, but I’ll argue that it is the best place to generate and realize extraordinary ones.” (4)


CHAPTER ONE: The Intersection — Your Best Chance to Innovate

“The mind-reading experiment (where a monkey moves a cursor on the screen with his mind) was creative because it was new and valuable, and it was innovative because the creative idea had become realized.” (14) “…creativity really occurs when people act in concert with the surrounding environment, and within society. Ultimately society decides whether an idea is both new and valuable.” (15)

There is no way to know whether a thought is new except with reference to some standards, and there is no way to tell whether it is valuable until it passes social evaluation. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (15)

“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,… — what I call intersectional ideas. The difference … is significant.” (16-17)

In summary, intersectional innovations share the following characteristics:

  • They are surprising and fascinating.
  • They take leaps in new directions.
  • They open up entirely new fields.
  • They provide a space for a person, team, or company to call its own.
  • They generate followers, which means the creators can become leaders.
  • They provide a source of directional innovation for years or decades to come.
  • They can affect the world in unprecedented ways.

“Not only do we have a greater chance of finding remarkable idea combinations there, we will also find many more of them…the Intersection represents a place that drastically increases the chances for unusual combinations to occur.” (20)

CHAPTER TWO: The Rise of Intersections

“The centuries that followed [the Renaissance] saw a growing specialization of knowledge. Disciplines became more fragmented as we broke the world into smaller and more specialized pieces.” (21) But those traditional boundaries are disappearing. “There are three distinct forces behind the rise of intersections, and at this moment, perhaps for the first time, they are all working together.” (22)

Force 1: The Movement of the People. Globalization,
Force 2: The Convergence of Science. Cross-disciplinary sciences and multi-authored papers.
Force 3: The Leap of Computation. Faster, better, etc.

“Because the effects of these three forces are so pervasive, your understanding of a field is likely to become intersected many times during your lifetime.” (32)


CHAPTER THREE: Break Down the Barriers Between Fields

This chapter introduces the “associative barriers” which are automatic and subconscious which keep us from finding the Intersection, helps us to “unravel” the “chain of associations,” (39) and encourages us in “divergent thinking.” (40)

CHAPTER FOUR: How to Make the Barriers Fall

Here’s what a few innovators did. They,

  • exposed themselves to a range of cultures
  • learned differently
  • reversed their assumptions
  • took on multiple perspectives

We must remember that “there is always another way to view things” which is “particularly true as one compares cultures across the world.” (46) “Research also indicates that people who are fluent in multiple languages tend to exhibit greater creativity than others.” (47) We must abhor “single-disciplinary incrementalism” (51) by broadening our education and recognize that “expertise, for all its strengths, can make it more difficult to break out of established patterns of thought.” (52)

“The purpose is not necessarily to come up with a specific idea, but to shake your mind free from preconceived notions.” (55) Here are a couple suggestions

  • apply the idea to someone or something else
  • create constraints

CHAPTER FIVE: Randomly Combine Concepts

N.R. Maier, in an attempt to understand the nature of insight developed this creativity experiment. A subject is led into a room where they see two long strings hanging from a high ceiling. Close by is a desk with a variety of tools, including a pair of pliers. They are told that the object of the experiment is to tie the two strings together and that they can use any of the tools available to solve the problem. Usually the subject tries to first tie the strings by simply pulling them together, but this, as you may have guessed, is not possible. If the subject grabs one string and walks over to the other they will find that it is out of reach. The strings are too far apart. In order to solve this puzzle the subject must use the pliers in an unusual way — as a pendulum. (66)

Research has shown that two main types of random combinations are involved in generating creative ideas. 1) “flash-in-the-sky serendipity” which usually happens when you are trying to solve a problem. (70-1). 2) “prepared-mind discoveries” happen when someone with a “prepared mind” encounters a phenomenon he or she had not set out to find. (71)

CHAPTER SIX: How to Find the Combinations

  • By diversifying occupations
  • By interacting with diverse groups of people
  • By going Intersection hunting

” A Renaissance man is someone that can see trends and patterns and integrate what he knows. To me the modern Renaissance man is curious, interested in different things. You have to be willing to ‘waste time’ on things that are not directly relevant to your work because you are curious. But then you are able to, sometimes unconsciously, integrate them back into your work.” (76) One person even called herself “an expert at being a generalist, or an expert-generalist…someone who is adept at generating innovative strategies and insights for any industry.” (76-7)

Why are people so hesitant about working in diverse teams? Psychologists call this tendency “the similar-attraction effect,” the tendency to stick with people who are like themselves and avoid those who are different. (80) “A sure path to inhibit your own creativity is to seek out environments where people are just like you.” (82) So how do you bring diverse groups of people together? “For starters, it is important to depersonalize conflicts.” (83) Go intersection hunting by “selecting items with no apparent connection,” (85) and “buy a couple magazines you usually do not read.” (86)

CHAPTER SEVEN: Ignite an Explosion of Ideas

“The most successful innovators produce and realize an incredible number of ideas. The strongest correlation for quality of ideas is, in fact, quantity of ideas…it is typical to find that around 10 percent of the creators are responsible for 50 percent of all the contributions.” (91) Why? “The intersection of fields, cultures, and disciplines generates combinations of different ideas, yes; but it also generates a massive number of those combinations. People at the Intersection, then, can pursue more ideas in search of the right ones.” (91)

Dean Simonton says “innovators don’t produce because they are successful, but that they are successful because they produce. Quantity of ideas leads to quality of ideas.” (96)

CHAPTER EIGHT: How to Capture the Explosion

  • Strike a balance between depth and breadth
  • Actively generate many ideas
  • Allow time for evaluation

“Too much expertise can fortify associative barriers…yet, expertise is clearly needed in order to develop new ideas to begin with.” (104) “One of the best ways to brainstorm privately is to place a target for the number of ideas that you wish to generate before you start considering whether they are any good.” (106)

The buzz of a good brainstormer can infect a team with optimism and a sense of opportunity that can carry it through the darkest and most pressure-tinged stages of a project. – Tom Kelley (107)

  1. Produce as many ideas as possible
  2. Produce ideas as wild as possible
  3. Build upon each other’s ideas
  4. Avoid passing judgment on ideas

How to brainstorm: First, brainstorm individually. Then practice “brainwriting,” in which you write on the board the ideas, building off each other without speaking at all. (111) Then, “if you want to capture intersectional ideas, your best bet may be to take your time.” (113) “The incubation period is so well documented in creativity research that it is simply bad planning not to include time for it while working on a project.” (114)


CHAPTER NINE: Execute Past Your Failures

Using Prothrow-Stith’s intersection of heath and law enforcement for violence prevention amongst kids, I was thankful for these insights: “It turns out few kids like to think of themselves as ‘high risk.’ ” (122) “For many students, it was inconceivable not to answer every insult with an escalation. Many students didn’t know that there were less risky ways to handle a confrontation.” (123)

“Mistakes are inevitable if you want to succeed.” (124) “Successful execution of intersectional ideas, then, does not come from planning for success, but planning for failure. It is a counterintuitive idea, but a critical one. Since we cannot rely on past experience to devise a perfect execution path, we must rely on learning what works and what doesn’t.” (126)

CHAPTER TEN: How to Succeed in the Face of Failure

  • Try ideas that fail to find those that won’t
  • Reserve resources for trial and error
  • Remain motivated

“…the best results would come in an environment where success and failure are rewarded equally — and where inaction is punished.” (129)

  • Make sure people are aware that failure to execute ideas is the greatest failure, and that it will be punished.
  • Make sure everyone learns from past failures; do not reward the same mistakes over and over again.
  • If people show low failure rates, be suspicious. Maybe they are not taking enough risks, or maybe they are hiding their mistakes, rather than allowing others in the organization to learn from them.
  • Hire people who have had intelligent failures and let others in the organization know that’s one reason they were hired.

“…just by saying that one activity is a reward for another activity can lead to a decrease in actual creative output.” (137)

“Consider this experiment: The subjects were asked to mount a candle on a vertical screen. They could use only the screen, the candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks to solve the problem. This experiment contained what researchers call a ‘break set,’  which is a fancy way of saying that the subject must use an object in an unusual way. In this case the subject had to empty the tacks from the box and then tack the box to the screen as a platform for the candle. Of course, the hard part here was seeing that the box could be used as a platform and not merely a container for the tacks. One group was told that they would receive a $5 reward if their solution time to the problem was in the top quartile and $20 if their solution was the fastest. The second group did not get these instruction. As you might have guessed by now, the group that had no chance of getting a reward solved the problem significantly faster than the people who did.” (137-8)

“Explicit rewards, then, can be an effective way to kill off our creativity. Why exactly? [There is] a connection between our internal drive, or intrinsic motivation as it is called, and our creative efforts. If intrinsic motivation is high, if we are passionate about what we are doing, creativity will flow. External expectations and rewards can kill intrinsic motivation and thus kill creativity.” (138)

Money is great stuff to have, but when it comes to the act of creation, the best thing is not to think of money too much. It constipates the whole process.” – Stephen King (138)

CHAPTER 11: Break Out of Your Network

” ‘swarm intelligence’ is a fascinating field filled with biologists, computer programmers, and others trying to find trends and answers by running programs that mimic the behavior of social insects.” (145) “Virtually all of your existing relationships and structures seem to be holding you back.” (146) These “value networks” “are needed to succeed within a field. That’s why we form them. And that is…where all the trouble starts.” (149) “Although value networks are essential for directional innovation, they can prevent us from successfully pursuing intersectional innovation.” (149)

CHAPTER 12: How to Leave the Network Behind

  • Break the chain of dependence
  • Prepare for a fight

CHAPTER 13: Take Risks and Overcome Fear

“…because of something called acceptable failure, society’s expectations can make the perceived stakes at the Intersection seem much higher than those associated with directional ideas. The risk people tend to fear most is not financial loss or wasted time. Rather, it is the risk to their pride, status, and prestige, to what their peers will think of them if they fail. In other words, the risk of failure can weigh more heavily than what is at risk.” (163)

“Although the evidence is mostly anecdotal, there seems to be a clear link between a specific society’s stigma of failure and the corresponding amount of entrepreneurial activity.” (164)

“Humans have a fundamental tendency to live their lives at a certain ‘acceptable’ level of risk…Gerald Wilde calls this risk homeostasis which says that people will compensate for taking higher risks in one area of life by taking lower risks in another.” (166-7)

CHAPTER 14: How to Adopt a Balanced View of Risk

  • Avoid behavioral traps relating to risk
  • Acknowledge risks and fears

“Our quirks prod us toward directional innovation and away from intersectional innovation, even if the risks in both approaches are the same.” (173)

Trap 1: If Things Are Going Well, We Stay Within a Field. “Suppose, for a moment, that you were forced to make the following choice: You must either pay $3,000 or take a gamble with an 80 percent risk of paying $4000 and a 20 percent chance of paying nothing.” Ninety-two percent of respondents in an experiment said they would gamble on paying $4,000 with a chance of not having to pay anything. But what happens if the question is inverted? You will either be given $3,000 or have to take a gamble with an 80 percent chance of winning $4,000 and a 20 percent risk of getting nothing. In an intriguing reversal of values, most people choose not to take the gamble.” (173-4)

Prospect theory suggests that it is not so much that we hate uncertainty, but rather that we fear losing. It is not that easy to see how things in our life could instantly get better — but it is easy to see how they could quickly get far worse.” (174) “The problem here is that if we take chances only when we have something to lose and play it safe when we have something to gain, we will be losing in the long run.” (174) “Most of us would rather coast than risk losing what we have. It is comfortable and often very prudent to move forward in small, controlled steps, making sure to reap the gains we know we can get.” (175) “The problem is that if we are willing to take risks and pursue intersections only when we are doing poorly, we’ll hurt our overall chances of success. This is the point when we tend to be short on resources, contacts, credibility, and time. This is when we have the lowest chance of executing past our failures. Instead, we should try to innovate, to take more chances, when things are going well.” (175)

Trap 2: Time Spent in a Field Becomes a Reason to Stay in the Field. “What they have done in the past does not by itself become a criterion for what they should do in the future.” (177)

Trap 3: We View Risks at the Intersection from a Directional Perspective

“Imagine that a terrible disease has broken out in your community and you are the health care strategists in charge of taking action. It is believed that 600 lives are at stake and you can choose between one of two vaccines. The first vaccine will definitely save 200 lives. The second vaccine is experimental and has an uncertain outcome. It offers a 33 percent chance that all 600 people will be saved, but a 67 percent chance that no one will be saved. What would you do? Kahneman and Tversky found in their studies that most people choose to save the 200 lives.

Now, imagine that you instead had to choose between the following two options: With the first vaccine, 400 of the 600 people will die. The second vaccine is experimental and has an uncertain outcome. It provides a 33 percent chance that no one will die, and a 67 percent chance that everyone will die. What would you do? In this version, 78 percent of respondents said they would try the experimental vaccine.

This is rather interesting considering that the two situations described are exactly the same; they were just expressed differently. In the first case the situation was framed as saving 200 lives, in the second as letting 400 people die. People’s risk taking behavior changed significantly depending upon how they read words ‘save’ and ‘die.’ ” (177)

Courage is the resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. – Mark Twain (181)

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Step into the Intersection…and Create the Medici Effect

Expect the unexpected. There is logic to the Intersection, but the logic is not obvious. “The unexpected nature of the Intersection makes it a place of uncertainty.” (188)

Take the leap.

— VIA —

While much of the book could have been condensed into a more concise form, the read was still worth it for the insights, experiments, and quotes listed above. In a short personal thought exercise, I began to pair youth advocacy with garbage collecting, air traffic control, and cooking. As for counseling and leadership, I began pairing elephants and race cars, cell phones and octopuses, eating and escalators, anger and skydiving, drama (the bad kind) and UPS. It’s been fun, and I’ve very much appreciated the lengthening and widening of my associative barriers.

I’m also thankful for his segments and failure and risk, which are key components of human behavior. It’s further insight into the pride of life, and the fear of losing, which are both Biblical themes to overcome.

So, I’m excited to see how this is going to take hold in my organization, as we are experiencing fairly high levels of success right now. So, it must be time to take some risks into the Intersection!