Intersectional Thinking with Frans Johansson

Think Jar Collective Interview with Frans JohanssonFrans Johansson is an experienced and strong creative leader in the areas of innovation, and developing creative organizational cultures.  He is the CEO of The Medici Group, a strategy consulting firm that focuses on growth through innovation, and the author of the The Medici Effect. The Medici Effect focuses on the value and importance of cross-disciplinary collisions (intersections) that can lead towards creativity and innovation. His recent book, The Click Moment (August 30, 2012) explores the notion of harnessing randomness and serendipity for creativity and successful endeavors.

I’ve seen Frans speak about innovation and intersectional thinking and for me the experience sparked fresh insights in my own work around leading organizations to enhance their creative thinking capacities. It was great to be able to chat one-on-one about creativity and his new book.

Frans Johansson: So, I heard you were at the Pixar event (Intersection) last year put on by Randy Haykin.

Ben Weinlick: That’s right, I had heard about it through my friend (Milena Fisher) who co-founded the Creativity Post and because of the emphasis the intersection event had on fostering social innovation I applied to go.  Highlight was hearing your intro talk on creative intersections, and the conversation about innovation by Tim Brown of  IDEO and Ed Catmull of Pixar.

Ben: How did you initially get into this notion of “intersections” fostering creativity?

Frans: There’s a long and a short answer.  The long answer is that I grew up in a very unique environment that allowed me to explore the idea. I was raised in Sweden, to a Swedish dad and an African American and Cherokee mom. So there were a lot of different intersections between Sweden and the US and being black and white, multiple cultures; all these things were intermingling.

These ideas really began to crystallize when I went to college and studied environmental science. I think I chose it because it was such an inter-disciplinary major that allowed me to explore ideas in chemistry, physics, biology, geology and so on. I actually thought  that I was going to do Ph.D. in marine biology but I ended up going to business school (Harvard) and then I started a software company. So, all of those ideas I think were and have been processing in the background. I’ve lived a life at intersections between different industries, fields, cultures and disciplines.

The short answer is, I woke up one morning and had a vision of two light beams intersecting and saw that if I imagined that each light beam was a field and each field had a certain number of concepts you could work with them at these intersections those concepts should multiply.

Ben: How do you get people to link ideas from different fields if they have not been immersed in cross disciplinary thinking before?

Think Jar Collective is doing some similar things to intersections but I think I am biased to linking ideas from different fields because I probably have diverse experiences fueling my perspective as well. I was drawn to discover creative solutions in human services (social work), but  I came from an experimental music and art background. At one point I ended up giving up art and music because I had this self-righteous idea that art was too egotistical and self absorbed.  At that point I thought I would be more altruistic within human services work and soon realized I could be just as much of an ass in human services as the art world (laughing) and that it’s not about the outer things one does, but really about your perspective you bring to any field, business or whatever.  I started to realize there was real value in art and creativity applied to human services, business and beyond. It led me to do research for my graduate studies on ways to support people in organizations to think differently, creatively and beyond status quo assumptions in human services.  Now, leading creative thinking groups in human services, I wonder and want to keep learning about how to effectively help people find relevant creative solutions through intersecting disciplines and ideas.

Frans: First of all, awesome stuff! In fact I am aware of Think Jar Collective and I bump into you guys online. But you just raised the big issue: If you take people and put them in a room that haven’t been exposed to interdisciplinary approaches what can you hope to accomplish?

You see this play out in Universities today; a University may say, “Look, we understand the power of interdisciplinary approaches and we need to do more of that.” And so they often think they have to just get people in a room to talk. Occasionally that can work, it’s certainly better that not talking, but it may not be enough.

The way we work with clients is to create true intersections; where people genuinely connect their experience and wisdom with other fields. By keeping it quick and immersive there is not a lot of time for reflection. The moment you start reflecting you run the risk of falling back to what it is that you know. Instead we want people to embrace their intuitive sense.

You also have to allow an environment where you can try things and not feel like ideas are going to get shot down. Because of the speed in which our process happens, ideas can’t be shot down because you have to move on to the next thing so quickly.  You also don’t have to look for the next big thing. If you do, you’ll be extremely conservative about your ideas and fall back to what you know.

Those are just a few of the techniques we use. We don’t want people to reflect too much about where they are coming from, it’s about diving in and forcing these connections.  We also add an element of randomness, which forces you to explore things you didn’t expect to explore.  Usually when two people meet, they talk about work in a very logical back and forth conversation to find connections. What we try to do is make those conversations a bit more random. Like what if your entry point was trying to solve a problem that wasn’t related to what either person was doing, but also bring it back later.

Ben: Tell me about your new book The Click Moment, what’s it about?

Frans: In a nutshell it says that serendipity and randomness have far more to do with success than we normally think that it does, and that there are ways to harness randomness to use in your favor.  We usually believe that success is more a result of planning, strategy and analysis, and that randomness and luck are out of our control.  So, in this book I take both of those ideas to task. In part one I explore the notion that success is random. In part two I explain ways to harness and create click moments, these unpredictable moments where true insight happens.

To generate these you place what I call purposeful bets; the more of them the better off you are even though you don’t know if they are going to work or not. The point of the bet isn’t necessarily about whether it’s going to work or not, but it’s actually often what other types of forces that they kick off. I call these complex forces. With complex forces you can’t trigger a tipping point, but what you can do is recognize when complex forces take hold of your project or your initiative and you can double down on those.

Ben: Reminds me I had just seen an article on how someone was using stumble-upon as a creative thinking tool. Like click the stumble button, get a random webpage and then force connections between whatever challenge you’re working on and the content in the random web page. I thought it was an awesome way to use stumble upon.

Frans: That is awesome.  One thing that is interesting today is that if you compare your twitter stream today to what it was say three years ago, it is more stream lined now. In other words, when something hits on twitter it begins to be re-tweeted and you see similar tweets and links over and over again and now there seems to be less randomness to twitter.  Kind of like reddit; when reddit started out it was incredibly random and now between cats and meme shots that is like 80% of it (laughing).

Ben: So, you need something that is un-watered down randomness (laughing)?

Frans: Yeah, in a way.  It doesn’t mean I don’t like those tools, I do and I use them.  But often the success from randomness comes from human interaction with people that you never expected would actually provide you with anything that was hyper-useful.  If you meet a person for coffee that can help you with a marketing problem you’re trying solve or a geology problem you can’t call that serendipity. The interesting conversations, those that will really make a difference are those that you would never expect would do so.  The ones where you go, “Whoa, this came out of nowhere!” We increase the chances of that happening at the intersection.

Ben: I think that is a great point that the human interaction is so important for these successful random intersections that can foster insights and aha moments.

Frans: Yeah, it’s huge.  It’s been put a little in the shadow because of all the technological tools we have. But it’s critical. This is great.  Thank you.

Further reading: Recent Article from Frans on the 99% website

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Think Jar Collective Interview with Frans JohanssonBen Weinlick is the founder of Think Jar Collective. He is a consultant and keynote speaker with leadership expertise in research and organizational learning. His interests include creativity research, fostering creative thinking in human services and community health, and creativity in leadership, organizational cultures and community development.

Ben Weinlick




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