How ideas can be turned into path breaking innovation

Overcoming the forces that stand in the way of creativity

I promised a review of “Different” and “If you are in a dogfight, become a cat” in my last post. When I went to pick those books up at the Toronto library, the “discover” bookshelf (a bookshelf near the checkout kiosks where the library puts up underrated books to see if they can pique your interest) at the library was displaying “The Medici Effect” written by a Harvard Business School graduate Frans Johansson about how idea generation happens.

It had an intriguing blurb and praised by former Chairman and CEO of Apple (that should have been a red flag) and a foreword by his HBS professor Teresa Amabile. I thought this book cannot be bad. Guess what, I was wrong. I have updated the saying to “Never judge a book by its cover, its preface, its blurb, the praises or the pedigree of the author.”

Slight digression. When Nassim Taleb of “Black Swan” fame published his next book “Antifragile: that gains from disorder”, Josh Brown of Ritzholtz Wealth Management wrote a satirical post on his blog titled “Selected Passages from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘Antifragile’”.

The post went viral. Taleb was so thin skinned that he complained to his publisher, Josh Brown had to take down the post and apologize to Taleb. Someone copied and pasted the post on their own website, hence it is saved for posterity (You can read the archived version here, highly recommended). Anyway, over time Taleb developed a thicker skin and some sense of humor and his latest book Skin in the Game has the following as praises. One can see that Taleb has matured between the two books (read the last one if you are short of time).

Back to “The Medici Effect”. The whole book could have been condensed into two chapters of total 30 pages. The book is full of anecdotes and meanderings to drive home the point that as we become more specialized in our subject areas/careers/fields and the world continues to become more complex, maximum creativity and breakthrough ideas will happen where people from disparate fields come together to collaborate and bounce off ideas. For someone who doesn’t have diverse pursuits or interests, the book may come across as insightful but for someone who reads widely, the book consisted of usual anecdotes and stale lessons drawn from them.

The book had two interesting suggestion to generate ideas but they were excerpted from different books. One was about “Assumption Reversal”, a method to find an out of box solution for a problem that seems intractable. Needless to mention, I have requested the book at the library. Hopefully, I will get some original ideas there.

The other idea was about “taking a thought walk.” Unfortunately, I forgot to note down the name of the book it was picked up from.

I shouldn’t have been this upset __ I mean I read a lot of books that turn out a disappointment and I left them half way or three-fourths of the way__ but I guess I am upset because I read it till the end with the expectation that there will be a payoff but as it turned out, it was all for naught.

However, if one really wants to learn about creativity, I highly recommend “Creativity Inc.” by Ed Catmull.

It can be thought of as a biography of Pixar Animation Studios but it is much more than that. It is about how creative organizations work, how they foster creativity, the challenges they face when they grow (as creativity doesn’t scale with the growth of organization) and become burdened with bureaucratic processes but more than that, it is not a prescriptive book. In addition, it is also a book about running an organization.

It also has one interesting anecdote about Steve Jobs designing new Pixar HQ. Job was deeply involved in the designing of the new Pixar HQ and he understood that creativity flourished when people from different technical or creative backgrounds come together. He designed Pixar corridors and other spaces such as cafeteria, lounges etc. so that people keep on running into each other for what he called “chance meetings”. According to Catmull, Jobs got so carried away that he wanted unisex toilets but eventually he was convinced to let it go.

If you want to read a book on creativity, I cannot recommend enough you read the one by University of Utah Comp. Sci. grad Ed Catmull i.e., “Creativity Inc.” and not get carried away by Harvard Business School marketing (written by HBS grad, foreword by HBS professor and published by HBS press) by skipping “The Medici Effect”.

Below is an excerpt from the Creativity Inc.

Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.

Later he goes on to say

And finally this

Sadly all such lessons were missing from The Medici Effect. Creativity Inc. is chock full of such insights and despite being a non-fiction reads like a page turner and lessons, if any, are sprinkled without being prescriptive.

In case anyone is wondering about the title of the book “The Medici Effect”, the author is referring to Medici family of Florence, Italy that patronized artists of all types resulting in Florence becoming a cradle of Renaissance. The “urbanist” Richard Florida promoted a similar theory in his most famous book “The Rise of Creative Class” wherein he suggested by bringing in hipsters, artists, avocado toast aficionados and Mason jar beer drinkers (ok… I made the last two up) and see the cities flourish with creative outbursts.

He was a big proponent of cities as our wealth generators and urbanization as our path to utopia. He followed it up with another book further expounding on the lessons.

After more than a decade of preaching this mantra from every platform from TED talks to international conferences on urban planning and redevelopment, and university platforms as university lends credence, he recently published a new book “The new urban crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation and failing the middle class”.

That is the lamest mea culpa if there ever was one and his consulting gig, I presume, continues to thrive but now in another direction. The arc of Mr. Florida’s education from “The Rise of Creative Class” to “The New Urban Crisis” provides a much better take down of “The Medici Effect” then my rambling review.

Tail piece: it turns out that those open plan spaces that are supposed to lead to flourishing of ideas and fostering creativity, are not that great

Many open-office designs were adopted also because they were thought by experts to produce a more collaborative atmosphere…..For one thing, workers took increased sick days…Workers also complained of an inability to focus and were generally less content with their work environment, the study said.

Thank you for reading. I promise the next review I write will definitely be about the two books I wanted to write about.

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