Can you build an intersection?

by John Mahaffie on January 15, 2009

Intersections can be dangerous or wonderful places. A downtown traffic intersection may just be too busy and inefficient if you are driving, or waiting to cross the street, but think of the power of places where thoughts, and skills, and points of view intersect.
 
In The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation, Frans Johansson (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 2006) [Free download] explores the potential for the intersections where ideas come together. Those are the kind of intersections we need in exploring the future. Those intersections add to our awareness, give us new points of view and new ways of looking at things.
 
Sports Cafe (Peter's), Horta, AzoresJohansson’s book argues that innovation happens at “the intersection” of different fields, ways of thinking, etc. A great introductory story is about Peter’s Café in the Azores (see picture, at right), where boaters from around the world meet, and share ideas, seemingly effortlessly, just by a natural intersection of ways of thinking, willingness to share, etc. Peter’s is an accident—it just happens to be a convenient café where people from all over happen to spend time. What can we expect if we build places like that in our organizations?
 
The deliberate mixing of disciplines has historically yielded great discoveries. Think tanks, universities, and the most innovative companies set out to do this on purpose. In history, creative people like Leonardo and Franklin did this in their own minds, ranging in their learning and thought over diverse disciplines. We’re not all capable of doing that, but we can try to open up our thinking and improve our chances of new discoveries by trying to create and spend time at, intersections.
 
There are lots of places to find good how to advice on fostering creativity, triggering new thinking, brainstorming, etc. This post is not about tools and techniques, but rather is about nurturing a culture and habits of thought that can help make your organization more creative. It’s the ability to break down barriers in thinking that helps a team or an organization be more effective at foresight.
 
For most us, the team we’ve got is the team we must work with. So how can we get the most out of them, the greatest “Medici effect”? It’s critical as a first step to embrace the differences and variety in the group, and not let different perspectives and views get submerged by the organizational culture and the organization’s conventional wisdom. It is also critical not to let alternate views lose out to those of the boss or of the strongest voice. So take the time to ask for, listen to, and validate others’ points of view. Otherwise, why should they share them?
 
If you get the chance to add new people to your team, make sure you think of people who bring a fresh point of view or a different life’s experience. [It's also valuable to have a team that mixes different cognitive styles. See prior post] If you can’t add to your team, you can still use interviews or one-time visits by others to add fresh thoughts to the problem you are working on. If all else fails, it can be powerful to role play as you and your colleagues work on a problem or explore change. One way or another, try to enrich the discussion you can have, and be sure lots of points of views are included. This is critical in any creative process, and exploring the future is just that–it needs your best creative thinking.
 
 
A special thanks to my futurist colleague Lauren Albert, who told me about The Medici Effect
 
Image: Sports Cafe (Peter’s), Horta, Azores, Portugal, by Jsome1, via Flickr

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