The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation

Crossing Fields

  • The theory that asteroids caused mass extinctions on earth was put forward by and astronomer (Luis Alvarez) who took an interest in paleontology. Think of this as occupation diversification. It helps if you are willing to ‘waste time’ on things that are not directly relevant to your work because you are curious.

Combining Fields

  • In order to break the German coding system used by submarines to communicate, British Intelligence put a group together comprised of cryptologists, mathematicians, scientists, classicists, chess grand masters, and crossword puzzle addicts. Together they broke the code and turned the tide of the navel battle.

Combining People

  • Diversity is also a proven way to increase the randomness of concept combinations. It is often said that one of the reasons for the United States unparalleled innovation rate is its very diverse population. While many of our Nobel Prize winners are foreign born, they don’t make their discoveries until they work here with people from other cultures.

How does this apply to hiring?

  • Look for opportunities to hire people who are not like you even if they make you feel a little uncomfortable at first. Avoid picking people just because they seem to have a lot in common with you. Look for variety in terms of schools attended, geographic areas, disciplines, functional background, former employers, age, race, and gender. When conflicts arise be sure to depersonalize conflicts. People should be able to disagree with anyone in the organization – but not without reason.

How to Get a Good Idea

  • Start with a lot of ideas. The strongest correlation for the quality of ideas is the quantity of ideas. The best predictor for having a grant proposal approved is the total number of grant proposals written. In a given field it is typical to find that 10% of the creators are responsible for 50% of the contributions. Picasso did 20,000 pieces of art, Einstein published 240 papers, Edison had 1,039 patents, and they weren’t great!
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