How to Make Transformative Ideas Happen (with Frans Johannson) (Transcript)

How to Be a Better Human
How to Make Transformative Ideas Happen (with Frans Johansson) (Transcript)
August 1, 2022

[00:00:00] Chris Duffy:
You're listening to How to be a Better Human. I'm your host, Chris Duffy. When we think about where great ideas come from, I think a lot of us assume that they just shoot down from the sky like lightning. And if you're lucky, maybe just possibly you might get struck with some brilliance somehow, but our guest on the show today, Frans Johansson, he has spent his career studying how transformative ideas happen, and I am very happy to tell you that his answer wasn't just “Find a big field and walk around until you're hit by inspiration lightning!”

No, it is not the answer. That's not how you do it. But, he did find that luck is a really huge piece of success that a lot of people overlook. However, there's also so much more that goes into a great idea: interacting with people who think about things differently than we do is a really big one. And, surprisingly, Frans also believes that a crucial part of innovation is coming up with a lot of very bad ideas. And I am thrilled to hear that because anyone who knows me can voucher this. I am excellent at coming up with bad ideas. One of my top skills, I would say.

So today on the podcast, we are going to be talking about what it takes to break out of a rut and how you can come up with a creative solution that changes everything. Let's start with a clip from Frans’ talk at TEDx NASA.

[00:01:17] Frans Johansson (recording):
New competitors and new ideas, new technologies gets introduced all the time. We might believe that there is a predictable pathway. We might believe that if we just sat down and thought about it hard, we can stake out the pathway to success. But remember, if you could do that, then anybody could do it. And everybody would essentially go down the same pathway. Obviously we know that's not the truth. So how do you think about actually executing these types of ideas? You step into intersections to come up with them.

[00:01:49] Chris Duffy:
We're gonna be back with more on creativity after this quick break.


[00:02:00] Chris Duffy:
Thanks for sticking with us. We are here with Frans Johansson.

[00:02:04] Frans Johansson:
Hi, I’m Frans Johansson. I'm the author of the Medici Effect and The Click Moment and also the CEO and co-founder of the Medici Group.

[00:02:12] Chris Duffy:
To get started, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your background and how that led you to study the ideas that you've ended up dedicating your career to?

[00:02:21] Frans Johansson:
Yeah, I'd say my first book, The Medici Effect, that my entire life led up to writing of this book. I had a very intersectional life. That's how I would describe it. I grew up in intersections of different cultures, countries, race. I grew up in Sweden. My, my dad is Swedish. My mom was, uh, black and Cherokee from the us.

And so through that, I saw the power would happen when various cultures, interconnected, recombined, built on each other. Now here's how this played out in a very concrete way: in Sweden, we have pancakes, but they're thin like a crepe. Okay. And they’re served as dessert or dinner. In the states, we have pancakes, but they're thick. They’re served for breakfast.

So what did we do in our household? We would have Swedish pancakes for breakfast, Uhhuh. And so when, when, when friends came over, they're like, what is this? They have never seen anything like it. And, and it's a very, very simple recombination of concepts. And then I went to college and I saw similar phenomenon, but this time it was around disciplines.

[00:03:28] Frans Johansson:
I studied environmental science, which meant I studied, you know, chemistry and, and, and geology and biology and economics and, and policy and physics. And it just went on and on. And, and I saw that, you know, when, wherever we were able to combine concepts from these different disciplines, we also could build new, new ideas.

I, it even led me to start a magazine called, uh, catalyst. I started a couple of companies, after that, after college. And I would see the same concept, which was the idea of recombination, of, of, of perspectives, of concepts, of approaches, of ideas, and that those led to new ideas. And, and ultimately that put me on the path to write The Medici Effect.

[00:04:11] Chris Duffy:
And one of the ideas that I was most struck by in The Medici Effect is, is the idea that it's really only by talking to and interacting with people who see the world very differently from ourselves that breakthrough innovations can actually happen. Why is that?

[00:04:24] Frans Johansson:
We tend to get really focused on that success is a, is an outcome of applying logical thinking and expertise. You combine these two things and you, you, you you're gonna get success, but, but actually the truth is much more complicated. The idea of that this deep expertise gets us there is really an idea that we can see doesn't really hold true.

You know, that you don't have to have deep expertise in something. What you need is something that can take the expertise that you do have, whatever that is, and help you see, reconceptualize it, think about it in a different way. And if you can do that, then you could open up an entirely new space, an entirely new path through innovation.

[00:04:09] Frans Johansson:
And that got me really excited because what it told me is that innovation is not just something for experts. It's not just something for the young or the old. It is for people that are willing to entertain diverse perspectives. My fair example from the book all these years later to this day is the first one where an architect is tasked to design a building in hot out of the capital of Zimbabwe, but there should be no air conditioning in this building. Tricky thing, ‘cause it can get hot in Zimbabwe, but he manages to do that by looking at how termites build the mounds of the African Savannah. And they’re able to do that by through their design. So he uses these principles to keep 72 degrees Fahrenheit inside this building with no AC at all.

This is where termite ecology and architecture actually overlap. and you go, 
“Wow. I can create an entirely new building, but also effectively a new design principle”, which is what this architect actually did.

[00:06:06] Chris Duffy:
The thing that’s so so interesting is it seems like even though there's all these examples of times where this really has made it happen, we still, as a society, we do a really bad job of encouraging this.

You get so much more support, you get so much more funding, you get so much more encouragement if you're trying to do an incremental improvement, right? If you're, if you're gonna make a car 10% more fuel efficient, there's a lot of support to help you do that. But if you're trying to make a transformational change, like make a car run without gas, then everyone kind of looks at you like, “Okay, well, you're crazy that doesn't work. How would that ever work?”It's a waste of time until it works. And then they think you're a genius.

[00:06:45] Frans Johansson:
Yeah. I mean, we taught this from the very first days of school. There is a right answer. It's the back of the book. And, and then not only that we expected to, that our knowledge should increase in a linear, incremental fashion.

What comes after fifth grade, well, sixth grade. And we, we basically have an idea about what that is, and it's just this accumulative incremental idea. Predictable, a predictable growth of knowledge, and real life that the second we leave school, real life smacks us in the face. And, but we've been, I mean, we spent, you know, the first 20 years or more just getting into this mode.

So now we're supposed to sort of break out of it. It takes, it could take a lot of untraining to do, and some will, might be stuck in it forever.

[00:07:34] Chris Duffy:
So what should someone do if, right, they’re listening, they want to do transformational work? They don't wanna be stuck in the “just kind of tweaking things a little bit.” What advice do you have for them? Especially if they're scared of the lack of support and possible professional consequences of trying to make bigger changes.

[00:07:50] Frans Johansson:
The first one goes to actions that you can take that’s within your own control, and there's tons of them. Ultimately it comes down to inviting diversity, inviting difference into your life. You can do that through the people that you interact with. You can do that through the knowledge base that you tap into. You know, the world itself is fighting against you. All the algorithms today and various social media are looking at trying to as best as they can predict what it is that you want to listen to, read, watch, and then constrict this bubble as tightly as possible.

So we are actually not getting a lot of help through the, through the algos in, in, in doing that. Today's is much more accessible to us, technically. We're being nudged to, to constrict our perspective, but once you overcome that, right, once you are intent, about who you are interacting with, where you're seeking your sources of knowledge, then then the next thing comes to the active act of recombining that.

So it's not enough to just go and visit lots of different places or connect with a lot of different people. You also have to try to figure out, well, “How is what you're doing connected to what I'm doing? Is it intentional act to recombine?” Whether that goal cuts across cultures, people from different age groups, races, countries, and so on, or whether it’s across different fields or industries, this intentionality becomes key. The second part of your question, though, was “Well, how do I do that?”

[00:09:21] Frans Johansson:
If I'm feeling the pushback now, now I'm not talking about the algos pushback. I’m talking about people, my manager, my colleagues. And they're telling me, you know, listen, “Chill it on all this sort of exploration.” It's a tougher question to answer. But what I will say is that we have more support today around that than I think we did in the past and I would, I would draw from those sources of support. Find at least one other ally effectively that can help you. We talk about this concept a lot when it comes to diversity and inclusion, I think it really applies to any, any area in which you're trying to reach out in to connect with difference. Who can sort of be your support system in ensuring that you can do this, that you can stick through this?

You're gonna probably need at least someone that you can fall back to and talk to, and that can help you fortify your courage to keep this type of exploration going,

[00:10:17] Chris Duffy:
How do you personally do this? Like, do you seek out people where you're like, “I've never spoken to someone with that background”, whether that's professionally or personally and, and just try and constantly be making those connections, or how do you put it into practice in your own life?

[00:10:30] Frans Johansson:
In a multitude of ways. So with diversity, the definition that we have, that we develop that at Medici, which is a very operational definition, by the way, there, there are more dimensions than we are including here, but with these four, you can cover a tremendous amount of ground and make it extremely impactful.

And the first one is who you are. The second one is what you do. The third one is how you do it. This addresses a rapidly growing body of new knowledge around neurodiversity. And the last one is with whom you do it, the networks that you built. And so these four dimensions really help you to think through.

[00:11:08] Frans Johansson:
When you look at your team, you could ask yourself, “Do I have a lot of people that are basically their little diversity when it comes to, say, gender and ethnicity and country?” Let's say. A lot of it when it comes to function and education and industry. Well, maybe I want to focus on, on the one where I have little diversity, but you could also have the reverse situation.

You have teams with a lot of diversity in terms of the “who you are”, but not that much when it comes to the functional, when I would look at the functional and the educational diversity right away, ‘cause that's probably, you can make the largest gains. So that's kind of look at the team. Map out what are the areas that you're intersecting, and then think about that in terms of who you're adding to your team.

[00:11:56] Frans Johansson:
Then you can use what we call, we call them moves. These are effectively hacks in which you are basically looking to break down the barriers between whatever problem it is that you're working on and attach it to another one. Intentionally, what happens if you are solving a particular problem we, within our software stack now, for instance? And you're explicitly saying, well, I wanted to actually take a look at how ants would've solved this particular problem.

And you would, then you look into that for a bit. It would feel like a waste of time the first time you do it, maybe the second or third or fourth time too. But the single most important factor is that you are interrupting your default thought pattern. That's really what you're trying to do. So when you're looking for a solution, there's gonna be a few things that instantly come to mind and it'll be a pathway that will seem very logical and make a lot of sense to you. How do you interrupt that thought pattern?

[00:12:50] Chris Duffy:
Yeah, it's, it's almost like because you, if you have the three things that you try every time you hit a problem and it's always the same three things, then any four things is gonna potentially have some real benefits.

[00:13:02] Frans Johansson:
Actually, you’ve got it. Sometimes we will ask people to come up with 10 different things around this, and we will just ignore the first seven because they're gonna be all the same. But once you get into numbers 7, 8, 9, 10, they look very, very different. People will come up with very, very different types of ideas.

There's a lot of gold that sits there, and you can do it very quickly. What really happens is that once you started getting into. Flow of doing it. You will find all kinds of ways to interrupt your thought pattern. That will happen just in the course of day. I know for me, it plays out constantly. Somebody comes to me with an assumption, I instantly reverse it.

[00:13:36] Chris Duffy:
And I think when you're, when you're thinking about trying to do this for everything in like a day to day of a company, it could feel overwhelming. But when you're specifically thinking about innovation and coming up with new ideas, just to give an example is: I, for years used to teach improv comedy and we played this game that I was shocked by because, you know, people would be taking this for the first time ever, they would not be comfortable on stage. They wouldn't be comfortable saying something funny, but we would just do this really simple exercise, which is just, “I give you a category. You have to say seven things in that category as fast as you can.”

And what was amazing is that even the most shy person, as long as they were just saying the things that came to their mind, the first three, they would plan out, right? Types of cereals. They would say three that they'd thought through that were the right answers. And then by the time they got to five and six, they were saying things that were wild and out there and incorrect, but they were so much more fun. They were so much more hilarious. They were so much more creative because those are the ones that were the real, like products of their mind and not something that they thought was the quote-unquote “right answer”.

[00:14:32] Frans Johansson:
I love that example, and in a normal meeting, when you throw out a question, just saying, “Hey look everybody, I did this in a meeting this morning. Take, take a minute. Just to think it through before we start getting, uh, getting into answers.” Well, that allows people to do that's that code basically for saying that, you know what, I'm gonna come up with a couple of things because otherwise, when you're in the rapid back and forth in a conversation, by necessity, it's the first thing that comes to your mind that you will start saying.

And that means that it's very, very likely to be something that others have thought of, or that you may have said before. You're just repeating yourself because this is your go to idea. Give yourself even a minute. And you, now you might get down to the third, four idea on that list. And that also that that's, that's when the really interesting thing starts happening.

[00:15:17] Chris Duffy:
Something I'm really struck by in hearing you talk today, but also in reading your books is the, this idea that diversity, isn't just this nice thing that we would like, because it's about making the world more fair and more just, that it's actually really a critical component for innovation and discovery. If, if we wanna solve these really big problems, and we wanna come up with new ideas and new companies, and if we want to have ideas that work, we need diversity. It's not, uh, a plus; it's a necessity.

[00:15:49] Frans Johansson:
I think we should have a desire to be equitable and inclusive. At least that's a desire that I would have for society. But when it comes to corporation, corporations think about things differently. They, they exist ultimately to make money. There's no contest. They ultimately go for performance, but it, it's not the right frame to think about it. The right frame is that diversity gives us a fantastic tool to drive performance, and specifically, because today, performance is so linked to innovation, so linked to change, basically, wherever you work, you are going to have to change and come up with a new way, a new process, new product, new service, new approach, new, a recruiting talent, whatever it is, it is in constant, constant, constant flux. Diversity gives you an exceptional advantage and competitive advantage.

And so what you're seeing is that companies are increasingly beginning to understand the power of that, and it flips the conversation on its head because now it isn't just about the, the role that we as a corporation need to play in the world. It is about how do we remain or attain competitive advantage?

[00:17:15] Chris Duffy:
Oh, I, I imagine that that only really works though, is if you have a diverse workforce and also give them a voice and listen to them, because if you are just hiring people so that you can take a photo that then goes on the website or goes on the front of the college brochure, right? Like that doesn't really promote much innovation. I would imagine.

[00:17:37] Frans Johansson:
Yeah, no. Sorry. I'm laughing because obviously you're describing a situation that has happened. Let's just say a few times?

[00:17:43] Chris Duffy:
Yeah, yeah. I didn’t, I didn't create that out of, uh, thin air. Yeah.

[00:17:47] Frans Johansson:
Um, you have the diversity, but there's only 50% of the equation. The other part of it is inclusion. And here you are seeing another massive hurdle. It doesn't matter if you have the diversity from an innovation perspective if you're not inclusive. So both of these things deeply apply. And inclusion is not obvious either. And I will hear leaders say, “Listen, I have inclusion because I have this meeting and I'm basically making sure everybody on my team is part of that meeting.”

Okay, great. So that would seem to be inclusion. So let's say it's eight people, but it's really only two, maybe three, that are actively dialogue-ing. Let's say that there, even if there's seven there actively dialogue-ing and one that isn't, it means that you're still not using the full capacity of that team. And so it seems to one is inclusive because everybody's invited to the table, but you're actually not inclusive because you're not actually recombining the perspectives and concepts that everybody at that table is having.

[00:18:51] Chris Duffy: You’ve also written about the role that luck plays in all of our lives, right? This was a big part of your second book, The Click Moment. And, and it's a role, I think, people often want to downplay. People don't really want to acknowledge the role of luck in their lives. There's this tension between like, we want our actions to matter. We don't want things to be random. And yet it's because of random factors that we're often able to do things. So how do you square that?

[00:19:16] Frans Johansson:
It's a big one because it turns out that serendipity and randomness and the unexpected plays a much, much bigger part of our success than we would, than we would believe or would like to believe, but let's say, let's say that you buy into it. You’ve read the book. I mean, think about how you ended up where you are. You realized that, well, there were a number of things that needed to happen and that put me in this place. Let's say you accept all that. Well, turns out, that that's not a good guiding light for your next step though.

What's gonna be your next move? “It's gonna be totally random.” Like said no one ever. We, human beings are not good at implementing a random strategy. What we need is actually intention. We need a rationale for why we're doing what we're doing. We need some sort of concept that we're pursuing. It may be wrong. In fact, it probably is wrong.
It doesn't matter because it gives us agency and it gives us direction. As long as we're willing to acknowledge that we’re wrong, and we can hence pivot and course correct, as long as that factor is there, then it gives us motion propulsion. So that's how you actually square that success is ultimately about unexpected serendipitous discoveries. We don't know what's gonna work. We’re testing, we experimenting, but we still have to have a belief in that what we're doing is right. We just need to know that we're probably wrong about that.

[00:20:40] Chris Duffy:
We're gonna take a quick break right now, but when we come back, we will have more with Frans on how we can get into the habit of creating and executing ideas more often. Don’t go anywhere.


[00:20:55] Chris Duffy:
And we are back! On today's episode, we're talking about the surprising conditions that lead to creative sparks and good ideas with Frans Johansson. Now, I don't know about you, but for me, when we talk about people who've come up with truly innovative or world-changing ideas, I tend to think that there are people who just have this crystal clear vision about what is going to stick. But as Fran says in this clip for his TEDx talk, that is actually very much not the case.

[00:21:22] Frans Johansson (recording):
Richard Branson has launched over 400 companies. Picasso made over 20,000 works of art. Einstein published over 240 papers and Google has launched hundreds of companies. Hundreds of companies. Now, why do you believe we see this relationship between quantity and quality of ideas?

This comes down to another fundamental fact about innovation, which is: we're not particularly good at predicting what ideas are going to work or don’t work. We might think we are, but that's not true. Richard Branson has had companies, lots of companies that have failed. You know, Picasso made 20,000 works of art. Yes. But most of those works of art are collecting dust in basements around the world. Do you know why?

Because they suck. You think you predicted that? Einsten has written papers that weren't referenced by anybody. Google has launched companies that they've shut down. Yes. They're innovative. Yes, they're brilliant. But the truth is that they break new ground because they keep on trying new things.

[00:22:30] Chris Duffy:
One of the big ideas that you've suggested is that the most successful people, they produce a really high quantity of ideas. Even if many of them are garbage.

[00:22:39] Frans Johansson:
Look, when the Met in, in New York put up a Picasso exhibition, it's the, was the largest ever that's ever been done in the world. They had a thousand paintings. So by some metrics, you would say they had a 98% failure. But he did all right. I mean, so yeah. He was able to create a very large number of masterpieces. Yes. Yes. It is absolutely clear that we increase our probability of success if we also increase the number of bets that we make.

Now, those bets can be in parallel. So that's what a venture capitalist does when they bet on like 10 different companies at once, or they can be in sequence. So either way though, it's about the number of bets that you're making. Ultimately the absolute best situation is if we could have multiple bets with high iteration, all of them.

Now here's what the converse of this is though, because there's another side of this, which often isn't talked about, which is that when you have found something that works, then you really have to double down on that thing. You're gonna have to be disciplined in shutting down. Many of these other pieces. You have to divert resources towards the thing that can take off. There are times when you are actually leaning in on. Something that works. It's just that you now have great, great confidence that this thing does work.

[00:23:58] Frans Johansson:
And that's what a venture capitalist does when they sort of go all in on the one company in their portfolio that seems to be taking off. And that's what we might do ourselves. And when we have a number of different things going, one is taking off, usually we don't even have a choice because our time gets crowded out for doing anything else.

And then eventually that one thing will have played out . And so at that point in time, ideally, we've already started the process of figuring out the next thing. So there's this, that's what I kind of call “the innovative heartbeat”. You, you, you expand, open up number of options, and then you constrict them and then you expand, and you open up, and you constrict them like a heart. Like, boom, boom. Boom, boom.

[00:24:41] Chris Duffy:
It it's so interesting to me to hear this because for me as a comedian, I have a lot of friends from college who always, um, they say in kind of a disparaging way that they're like, “It's not that Chris tells the best jokes. It's just that he tells the most jokes. So he's a volume shooter and, and at least one of them will hit.”

It's interesting though, because like in creativity, we think of that of course, like of course you're gonna throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and it's not gonna work, but I don't think we always think that you can use that same artistic, creative process in, in all areas of our life.

[00:25:09] Frans Johansson:
What is really happening, if you think about it, imagine for the, your audience here, you can draw a circle. And in the, in the top of it, on the top of the circle, you will write the word “idea” and then the bottom of it, you write the word “execution”, you can sort of see an arrow that goes from “idea” to “execution” and then an arrow that goes from “execution” to the “idea”. This is the iterative circle.

And as an artist, as an engineer, as a designer, as a strategist, I don't care who you are. The question is: how quickly can you rotate around that? Imagine that you would only do one rotation, once a decade. I don't care who you are. You're not gonna, it is not gonna knock things outta the park. It's just not gonna happen. But if you're doing it every day, while you have a great shot, as long as you're paying attention to coming up with something, that will be truly, truly remarkable. That's how we beat the odds in this. So we need to recombine ideas and we need those ideas to be different, to maximize the probability of innovative creative success.

And then we need to keep on trying. And once we find something that works, we do need to commit to that thing at least for some time to see it play out. All these elements are gonna hold true, whether you're doing SpaceX or whether you are doing a painting or whether you're doing a, uh, 10-minute standup.

[00:26:25] Chris Duffy: When you first published The Click Moment, right? I imagine that a lot of people were resistant to this idea that the world is unpredictable, it’s chaotic, it's random. I could be wrong, but I feel like people are much more open to that idea right now because we have all seen it. We're all currently experiencing it. We're living that in our lives right now.

So I wonder since you've been thinking about this before the pandemic, before all the upheavals and the randomness and the, the inability to predict what six weeks from now will be like, even though we never could have really actually done that, but we felt like we could do it. So how do we harness this moment in a positive way? And, and I don't necessarily just mean positive in terms of like making money out of it, but it could be a, a financially positive way, but how do we turn this randomness and this period of volatility to something positive in our own lives?

[00:27:13] Frans Johansson:
That's a great observation. I, I, I think that we live in a tremendously uncertain time. We have a completely, for many unexpected, war, you know, obviously COVID impacted everybody, and everything we took for granted, you know, our ability to predict exactly what's gonna happen next is actually quite low. So how do we embrace it?

I would say that, one, it has always been this way. Embrace it to try to understand how do you capitalize on unexpected moments? How do you expect the unexpected? It feels like a trite comment, but when you're thinking about what your actions, the things you wanna take, the moves you wanna make, you should just plan for the fact that there are things that you cannot foresee that are not within your control.

Just embrace that. And given that, how should you act differently? Do I appreciate this now? So it has an implication for how much we should appreciate the now. It also tells us something about how much we should spend and invest in planning for the future. My recommendation is not that much. What we should be planning for is we should look at how many moves can we make? How can we enable a life where we may have a strong vision that we pursue for our life? We have seen the true nature of, of the world today. It is a world of unexpectedness, of randomness, of serendipity. That is not gonna go away. It's just not, if anything, we are gonna see even more of it.

[00:28:50] Chris Duffy:
And last question, what is one thing that has helped you to be a better human, whether it's a book or a movie or a piece of music or an idea, or what's just one thing that's helped you?

[00:29:01] Frans Johansson:
Um, when I was in high school, I. I found real peace listening to the second Enya album and the song, the fourth song of that called Storms in Africa. And so now when I listen to that, it gets me, it very quickly, not just gets me into a, into that mind space. It, it carries with it so much wisdom that I've had through the year since then.

[00:29:28] Chris Duffy:
I love that. Well, Frans Johansson, thank you so much for being on the show. It's been a true pleasure talking to you.

[00:29:33] Frans Johansson:
Thank you. The same. This is fantastic.

[00:29:38] Chris Duffy: That is it for this episode of How to Be a Better Human. Thank you so much for listening to the show and thank you to our guest Frans Johansson. He's the author of The Medici Effect and The Click Moment.

This show is brought to you by Sammy Case and Anna Phelan, who are succeeding in a way that to me seems to be not at all random. From Transmitter Media, we are brought to you by the innovative intersection of Gretta Cohn, Wilson Sayre, Farah Desgranges, and Leila Doss.

And from PRX, Jocelyn Gonzalez and Patrick Grant are currently sifting through my hundreds of bad ideas to find the one good one. I am your host, Chris Duffy, and we will be back with more next week. If you enjoy your show, please tell a friend about it and share our podcast with them. You could even send them this exact episode. Thanks for listening.

Thanks for listening.