From Black Enterprise Magazine, by Sonia Alleyne
It’s hard to believe that before the launch of the iPhone, telecom leaders predicted that Apple would never be able to compete in the mobile phone arena. Or that in 1997, when the creators of Google offered to sell their search engine to Yahoo for $1 million, they were turned down.
For Frans Johansson, the internationally known best-selling author and CEO of The Medici Group, these aren’t just chance circumstances in the world of business. He argues that success today, by definition, is random and serendipitous, subject to influences no one can predict. The 10,000-hour rule explored in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (Little, Brown; $27.99) confirmed the already popular notion that if you spent enough hours working in one area, success in that area would be inevitable. But Johansson says hard work alone doesn’t guarantee success in today’s marketplace.
“The 10,000-hour rule only works in areas where the rules never change—like golf or tennis,” Johansson asserts. “Serena Williams knows exactly what she has to do. She just needs to do it better than anyone else. How true is that for industry? There’s no guarantee that whatever you did last year is going to work next year. Technology, talent, and globalization are making it less and less easy to predict success.”
“The world moves in random and unpredictable ways,” is Johansson’s mantra. “If you’re really concerned about success then you have to operate in the world as it is—and the world is unpredictable.”
The tall, energetic, half black American, half Swedish Johansson can personally testify to the unpredictability of success. When his first book, The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures (Harvard Business Review; $32.95), was published in 2004, the Harvard Business School grad had roughly $2.50 in his bank account and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. The book led to speaking offers, the first of which he did without charging. As the speaking engagements increased, so did corporate interest in his philosophies. By 2006, he had formed a company to manage his speaking career. By 2012, The Medici Group had become a full-fledged strategic consulting company, having developed a groundbreaking system helping business teams generate and implement innovative ideas.
Johansson has since written The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World (Portfolio; $26.95), which fully outlines ways to increase prospects for serendipitous success.
“I believe I was willing to explore unusual ideas that set me apart and then build off those things to make a difference—and now it’s bigger than myself,” Johansson says.
Not only has his company contracted with some of the world’s largest organizations, it has partnered with organizations in his native Sweden and is in talks with a West African nation to offer innovative strategies across industries.
“That’s the meaning of innovation—to change the world,” Johansson says.
Driving with Diversity
So, if the business world is so unpredictable, how do you succeed? The Medici Group, an internationally diverse team of 20, offers clients a system of processes.
“It’s an accessible approach, not highly complex,” says John Geyer, vice president of innovation at MetLife. “There are a lot of consultants that try to educate you about their methodology, which seems really complicated and abstract. Most of the other companies had the same pitch—do a bunch of market research, do a bunch of interviews and focus groups—like a formula. Frans and the Medici Group had a different formula: Bring together a bunch of diverse people, brainstorm intensely like you’ve never brainstormed before, ruthlessly prioritize, and go out and experiment—in a few months instead of a few years.”
Medici offers strategic options to meet company goals as expressed by leadership—whether it’s to increase revenue, to grow new lines of business, increase efficiency, or effect a culture change, says Lily Tang, the company’s chief learning strategist. The execution phase is a quick, deliberate, three- to four-month period focusing on the ideas developed by the client to decide which projects to keep.
“Whatever their goals are, we align those ideas with the goals and then take those ideas through a process of development, test them, many times change them, and in the end provide strategic options that can really be implemented,” says Tang. “We don’t tell them anything. We let them experience it themselves. So they’re not our ideas. They create it. They own it. We provide skills and tools to develop amazing, groundbreaking ideas.”
Innovation, the theme of Johansson’s first book, is the company’s driving principle. In the brainstorming, idea-generating part of the process, Johansson’s team includes every element that could possibly spark a new way of thinking and open up the broadest possibilities. It’s at the intersection of varying ideas that “click moments” happen, the aha experience that sets you on the path to creating something new and different.
“You have to expose yourself to different insights, different markets, assets, resources, talent, relationships, ideas, perspectives,” offers Johansson. “When you expose yourself to these differences the time to pay attention is when you get surprised. This is the thing that counteracts hard work, if you will. When in our work something happens that we haven’t seen before, we tend to swat it away and go back to what we were doing. But every time we stumble across something that is unpredictable or unexpected, we should pay more attention to those things.”
At MetLife, Medici worked with a Latin American team of 55 employees. Diversity in the group included gender, race, level within the organization, tenure with the company, age, and functional expertise. “There are many talented people buried in organizations that most leadership teams aren’t aware of,” says Geyer, who shares that MetLife has adopted some of Medici’s core principles. “Often the most innovative people in your company are not the most outspoken. Finding those people who had really good ideas, but who were somehow a little uncomfortable expressing them, is a challenge but also an opportunity if you create a fertile, safe environment.”
Cindy Davis, president of Nike Golf, also found the diversity exercise of bringing unlikely groups together “one of the great learnings of how diverse views [including cross-function and -category] create amazing ideas.” Davis noted that some of the golf teams included employees who had never met before. “It really created an even more robust conversation about ideas and innovation and how to look at opportunities or challenges and how that comes together to create an even more exciting solution.”
Nike has, in fact, licensed and repackaged the Medici principles into a global program for the entire organization in more than 40 countries called Diversity and Innovation: The Medici Effect, says Gina Warren, Nike’s vice president of global diversity and inclusion.
“It’s a four-hour experience that we have made our signature experience for all Nike teams around the world. It has allowed teams to be much more intentional about why it’s important to have a diversity perspective on the team and why the teams need to be working in an inclusive environment that welcomes diverse perspectives and ideas, and it’s all for the sake of innovation.”
“As important as the team collaboration is, the execution is tops,” says Medici’s Chief Product Strategist Kristian Ribberström, also Johansson’s childhood friend. “Most people love brainstorming ideas,” he says. “They will agree with us for three days and then immediately go back to what they were doing before.” Geyer, however, found tremendous value in the execution process. “The Medici team doesn’t focus on PowerPoint documents and market research,” says Geyer. “It’s about prototyping and testing and getting real reaction. The coaching is ‘put something together, get out and talk to customers, test ideas, see if you can get a product into the market or introduce a simple change in the process, and test the results,’ so that when you come back after the 100 days, you want more than a six-point PowerPoint presentation. You actually want something you can sell.”
Do as I Do
The Medici Group practices what it preaches. For its staff, there are no separate offices or individual cubicles at the company’s headquarters in lower Manhattan, not even for the leadership team, including Johansson. Even the reception area is empty. All team members sit in a central space, constantly engaged, exchanging ideas, or butting into conversations to offer input.
“If we’re developing a new idea for a company, we try to bring in team members who don’t work on that assignment at all to get different voices—senior and junior,” says Medici’s Chief of Strategy Pamela Carlton. Says Tang, “Sometimes it’s noisy, sometimes it’s quiet, sometimes there’s music playing and dancing, with the boards displaying a hodgepodge of notes, index cards, newspaper clippings.”
“The freedom to fail is the thing I like most,” says Eric Gardner, a former intern who is now a consultant. “The concern is ‘What did you learn from this and how can we take what you learned to the next thing.’”
Johansson believes that it’s imperative for business owners to be a living example of their mission.
“For us it comes back to intersectional thinking, diversity, and being open to different perspectives. My core job is to up everyone’s game. We try a lot of things and when we find something that works, we hone in on it. Part of intersectional thinking is the willingness to experiment, to not always go for the solution that always worked.”