The Medici Effect: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: December 22nd, 2011 by bobmorris

The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures
Frans Johannson
Harvard Business Review Press (2006)

Note: I recently re-read this book to assist with the preparations for an interview and even more impressed by the book now than I was when it was first published fuve years ago.

A Special Place Where “Extraordinary Ideas” Are Born

As Frans Johansson carefully explains, this book is really not about the Medici family, although the community of creative people its members funded exemplifies all manner of exciting possibilities for collaborative productivity; nor is it really a “business book,” although Johansson asserts — and I wholly agree — that there are lessons to be learned from that community which can be of substantial value to organizations in the 21st century. For example, to corporations which rely on multi-lingual communications and multi-disciplinary initiatives to compete successfully in a global marketplace.

So, what is this book’s core concept? The idea behind it is simple: “When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary ideas.”

Johansson achieves three specific objectives: He explains what, exactly, “the Intersection is and why we can expect to see a lot more of it in the future”; next, he explains “why stepping into the Intersection creates the Medici Effect”; finally, he outlines “the unique challenges we face when executing intersectional ideas and how we can overcome those challenges.” With regard to the third objective, I am again reminded of a passage in Leading Change where Jim O’Toole observes that there are always unique and formidable challenges when threatening what he characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

In Part One, Johansson focuses on the Intersection which, for most of us, offers the best environment in which to innovate. Next, he explains how to create the Medici Effect within that creative and collaborative environment. Then in Part Three, he offers specific suggestions as to HOW to make intersectional ideas happen. I share Johansson’s faith in what an Intersection makes possible, no matter who is involved, no matter where that Intersection may be located. I also agree with him that we can all create the Medici Effect because we can all get to the Intersection. “The advantage goes to those with an open mind and the willingness to reach beyond their field of expertise. It goes to people who can break down barriers and stay motivated through failures.” There are countless examples of groups whose talented members created the Medici Effect. For example, the research laboratory which Thomas Edison established for himself and his associates in Menlo Park (NJ) in 1876; he relocated it to West Orange (NJ) in 1883.

Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman examine more recent examples in their book, Creating Genius: the Disney studios which produced so many animation classics; Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which developed the first personal computer; Apple Computer which then took it to market; in the so-called “War Room” which helped to elect Bill Clinton President in 1992; the so-called “Skunk Works” where so many of Lockheed’s greatest designs were formulated; Black Mountain College which “wasn’t simply a place where creative collaboration took place” for the artists in residence from 1933 to 1956, “it was about creative collaboration”; and Los Alamos (NM) and the University of Chicago where the Manhattan Project eventually produced a new weapon called “the Gadget.”

Although the brief excerpt which follows is taken from Johansson’s Introduction, it serves as an appropriate conclusion to my brief commentary: “We, too, can create the Medici Effect. We can ignite the explosion of extraordinary ideas and take advantage of its individuals, as teams, and as organizations. We can do it by bringing together different disciplines and cultures and searching for places where they connect. The Medici Effect will show you how to find such intersectional ideas and make them happen. This book is not about the Renaissance era, nor is it about the the Medici family. Rather, it is about those elements that made that era possible. It is about what happens when you step into an intersection of different disciplines and cultures, and bring the ideas you find there to life.”

If there is another book published in recent years which is more intellectually stimulating than this one, I have not as yet read it.

 

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