Mixing Disciplines

I’m currently reading a book on innovation, called The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson. What I have read thus far has intrigued me and got me thinking like no book has for a long time.

The basic premise of the book is that innovation often occurs at what Johannson calls the “Intersection”. He defines the Intersection as the place where people of different fields and disciplines meet. One example he quotes in the book is about how an engineer-by-training discovered that the long loops found in kidneys — previously believed by physiologists to be a relic of kidney evoultion — were actually for increasing the concentration of liquids, because it reminded him of a countercurrent multiplier.

The idea of the Intersection goes against the grain of much traditional thinking where “focus” has been the preferred way of “success” in a chosen field. It is not the author’s intent to dismiss the importance of focus and expertise in a field. Rather, he argues that innovation can come from in-depth knowledge and expertise in a given discipline, but it is easier and more common to have innovative breakthroughs mixing disciplines.

Instead of focusing yourself into expertise in a given field, you take ideas from different fields and disciplines to create new fields; to create new areas of expertise. On a very superficial level, it can be said to be a short-cut to “expert” status, by virtue of the fact that you invented the field in the first place.

Another very interesting finding Johansson had about innovation was how good and breakthrough ideas often happened by chance. Most successful innovators, he says, go for a large quantity of innovations as opposed to a few high quality ones. The reason for this? The probabilistic nature of innovation.

Breakthrough innovation is often preceded and followed by considerably less important innovation; in fact, he gives several examples of how great innovation is often followed by dismal innovative failures. Successful innovators have always had a huge quantity of ideas; of these ideas, most did nothing, while the others were breakthroughs. Given the nature of breakthrough innovation, the author recommends going for quantity rather than quality.

Another suggestion that Johansson gives with regards to increasing the chances of such Intersection-based innovation includes working in different fields. The exposure to different ways of thinking and doing things leads to insights that would be difficult to get otherwise.

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