Learning Never Exhausts the Mind

Strategy Matters[su_dropcap style=”flat”]I[/su_dropcap] DON’T KNOW  about you, but I am constantly amazed by how some innovations make so much sense but, for some reason, had not been discovered until recently. The typical response is, “why didn’t I think of that?” Need examples: think Uber, TiVo, and Facebook. In each case, extraordinary ideas emerged from a combination of different disciplines to create something new. Mixed together, these disciplines brought together a multitude of experiences, sciences, & cultures to make discovery possible. Conceptually, this is similar to looking through multiple lenses to bring a fuzzy idea into focus.


The Medici Effect” is a 190-page business book written by Frans Johansson. Johansson is an entrepreneur, former CEO, and enlightened author who earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School. His credentials and examples given help qualify how great ideas come together through a variety of disciplines and sources.

Historians know about the Medici family from 15th century Italy. Based in Florence, the Medici’s were wealthy bankers and traders who financed a wide collections of sculptors, scientists, poets, painters, & architects, the most famous being Leonardo da Vinci. It was through an extended network of thinkers from different backgrounds that new ideas flourished & inventions followed. Johansson takes this “Renaissance Man” approach and applies it to the 21st century. Clearly 15th century Florence has transformed itself into Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, and Paris-Saclay, among other innovation hubs.

While virtually everyone understands the power of social networks when it comes to knowledge sharing, the Medici Effect takes this concept to a deeper and more meaningful level. To be enlightened, Johansson argues for fundamental change in how we discover new knowledge, how we interpret and act on ideas that escape most other people. Some of my favorite take away items covered in his book are the need to:

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  • Unlearn old ways used to address challenges and solve questions. Our human thought processes are wired to associate ideas based on past experiences and biases. Often times we jump to foregone conclusions with little thought given when something new or different is presented, perhaps a novel way to address an opportunity. Referred to as a chain of associations, these are barriers that inhibit our ability to think differently, to be creative, to challenge the status quo. To counter, we need to expose ourselves to a wide range of cultures from which to uncover different perspectives and challenge assumptions that constrain our ability to see things in a new light.
  • Reverse the assumptions that limit possibilities, that hold the organization back from what’s possible in the marketplace. Why not formulate new, creative strategies that remove constraints while capitalizing on organizational strengths? Think about ways to reverse assumptions into new approaches that deliver customer value and business growth. How did Amazon go from a small bookseller in Seattle to what it is today? No doubt it challenged conventional wisdom by discovering new ways to grow. Indeed you will encounter naysayers that find false security in embracing the status quo, to not be open to new possibilities. Yet Johansson argues that we need to counter this false security by exposing ourselves to a wide range of cultures from which to uncover different perspectives and challenge assumptions that limit our ability to see things in a new light.
  • Step into the “Intersection” of disciplines & cultures. Here we need to position (or expose) the curious thinker within multiple fields of study (e.g., anthropology, computer science, & psychology), where s/he can stumble upon fresh ideas that combine into something truly amazing. This reminds me of an Open Innovation model, involving a wide range of disparate thinkers held together by a common interest to solve problems through creative thought. We need to get out of our comfort zones, engage with diverse groups of people, and actively search for new connections in unlikely places and then see where those connections lead.
  • Ignite an explosion of ideas from multiple Intersections of fields, cultures & disciplines. Lots of different ideas need to flow in an unencumbered way. It is here that the Medici Effect takes hold among a wide range of enlightened thinkers. Johansson claims that the strongest correlations for quality of ideas is, in fact, QUANTITY of ideas. We need to brainstorm among a diverse group of creative thinkers from different backgrounds to come up with a wide range of ideas, some even bold and never done before. It is through a combination of truly creative ideas that breakthroughs can occur, where organizations can achieve competitive advantage and justify its investment in discovery and innovation.
  • Learn how to succeed in the face of failure. We know that failure is part of the innovation process; it is something that we, as innovators, need to accept in order to learn from mistakes and improve the probability of success over time. In contrast, looking for reasons NOT to innovate is worse than doing something and failing, assuming past errors are not repeated. Being motivated to push past mistakes and persevere to a logical outcome is a critical success factor to innovation.[/message]

Clearly there is far more to turning a business around than applying the Medici Effect. Much of what is recommended in the book relates to strategy.  Specifically, the need to examine the basic strategies of low cost, execution, and innovation within the context of smart change. It is here that the Medici Effect can stimulate new thought to discover what’s possible.

The Medici Effect book is not intended as a scholarly work with evidence-based research to support new findings. Rather it is a more of a business book for the casual reader where the author shares his opinions, experiences, and interpretation of past events.

There are additional take-away points in the book worth reading. In fact, I’ve already begun to apply some of the Medici techniques to come up with different ways of sensing opportunities. Hopefully you’ll find equal value in the book. “If you can’t read it and come up with a least a minor Mona Lisa or two, you’re not trying,” according to a reviewer from the Entrepreneur Magazine. I agree.


Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen is a scholar-practitioner with over 25 years of experience. As a scholar, he currently teaches strategy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland Global Campus. As a practitioner, his corporate career includes a variety of leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies IBM, Delta Air Lines, & Citibank. Dr. Bornhofen earned his Doctorate degree at the University of Maryland, a Master of Science degree from Colorado State University, and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota. As a conference speaker, Dr. Bornhofen presents at various industry forums. His current focus is on innovation within the water utility sector. As a researcher and author, Dr. Bornhofen published over 20 papers on topics related to innovation strategy. Passionate about change, Dr. Bornhofen embraces the creative spirit that goes into problem-solving, where smart people come together to transform great ideas into extraordinary outcomes. His articles reflect this passion and desire for continuous learning.

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  1. I wonder if our modern Shark Tank is the derivative of the Medici model. Yeh, probably not. As a lifelong learner, I have found that the best fodder for learning new things is to talk and listen to people who are not like me. Amazingly, even things I don’t agree with are prime education. Excellent points from the book which is what made me think about how I learn best.

    • I agree as the Shark Tank investors tend to think differently than those presenting their ideas / products. Jane, as you know from teaching, getting diversity in thought & experience among others can illuminate opportunities & lead to greater creativity.