Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Want to Innovate? Think "Different"

I came across an interesting blog today on HBR titled “Wanted: Idea Fusers” by Bronwyn Fryer. The blog starts off quite simply with a well known and proven concept that "great innovation springs from the ability to pull two unlike things together to create a beautiful third.” Of course, her premise is supported by how Steve Jobs famously shifted a paradigm by “fusing” calligraphy with technology to create the Mac's legendary graphical user interface.

Frankly, I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, that is exactly what Chapter 8 of my book, Living in the Innovation Age, is all about. Titled “Leveraging the Medici Effect”, the chapter talks about the importance of leveraging the ideas, background, and experiences of a diverse group of people (employees, customers, and partners). The Medici effect refers to the popular theory that the Renaissance Age began in Florence, Tuscany in the 14th century primarily because of Florence's affluent Medici family. Historians who back this theory contend that the Medici family acted as the catalyst for innovation during the Renaissance by bringing together people from vastly different professions and cultural backgrounds. This enabled a unique exchange and confluence of ideas that had never been possible before. California’s Silicon Valley, a hub for entrepreneurship and innovation, is often considered a modern example of the Medici effect because many credit its success to the cultural diversity in a small concentrated area. The fact is that organizations, too, can leverage the Medici effect by providing a safe and unencumbered environment that encourages the free exchange of ideas and promotes collaboration between people with different skills, competencies, and backgrounds. In my book, I discuss four specific techniques that can help organizations leverage the Medici effect to spur innovation in their environment.

  1. Rethinking Workspace Design
  2. Harnessing the Community
  3. Collecting Ideas from Everyone and Everywhere
  4. Making Innovation a Team Sport

One point that Bronwyn makes in her blog a bit more clearly than I did in my chapter is the importance of truly practicing "hiring diversity." She provides examples of companies such as IDEO and Jump Associates that get paid big money for their ability to spur innovation through associative thinking. Both IDEO and Jump practice "hiring diversity" in which they hire people who are a "mile wide and inch deep." In other words, they prefer generalists over specialists. Bronwyn concludes her blog by challenging us to take a good look at the people we typically hire. Does our "diversity policy" only apply to people of different genders and races? To innovate, we need more diversity than that - we need intellectual diversity that can help us combine unlike ideas together in new ways much like what happened back in the Renaissance Age, the Silicon Valley, and Steve Jobs' MAC's graphical user interface.

The bottom line - Innovation Thrives on Diversity and Generalization not Homogeneity and Specialization.

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