A few years ago, I met Frans Johansson at the Business Innovation Factory Summit in Providence.
He’s the kind of person you don’t forget easily. Raised in Sweden by his African-American and Cherokee mother and Swedish father, he earned a BS in environmental science at Brown University and his MBA at Harvard Business School.
His book, The Medici Effect (What Elephants and Epidemics can teach us about Innovation) was selected as one of the top ten business books by Amazon.
One of the powerful stories in The Medici Effect is about a chef named Marcus Samuelsson. Marcus was born Kassahun Tsegie in Ethiopia but after the death of his mother he was adopted by Anne Marie and Lennart Samuelsson and moved to Sweden.
Samuelsson studied at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, where he grew up, apprenticed in Switzerland and Austria, and came to the United States in 1991 as an apprentice chef Restaurant Aquavit in Manhattan.
In January of 1995, Jan Sandel, the executive chef at Aquavit died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The owner, Hakan Swahn needed someone to manage the kitchen and placed the newly hired Samuelsson in charge while he searched for a permanent replacement.
Swahn was hesitant because Samuelsson was only 24-years-old and Aquavit had become a well-respected restaurant with a one-star rating from the New York Times.
But something remarkable happened only weeks after Marcus headed up the kitchen. “New dishes based on a unique combination of food from all over the world began showing up on the menu.”
Items like Caramelized Lobster with Seaweed Pasta, and Sea Urchin Sausage and Cauliflower Sauce and Chocolate Ganache with Bell Pepper and Raspberry Sorbet and Lemon Grass Yogurt.
Just three months later Ruth Reichl of the New York Times gave the restaurant a rare three-star review because of its innovative and tasty food.
The story illustrates what Johansson calls high and low associative barriers. “By simply hearing a word or seeing an image, the mind unlocks a whole string of associated ideas -- each one connecting to another.”
Johansson provides a great example. “When a chef sees fresh cod in a market, she may think of a particular recipe -- which in turn makes her think of certain menu items for the upcoming evening. But a writer for a sport-fishing magazine might see something completely different. He may think of his latest fishing trip, instantly recalling the tackle he used and a story he should write about it.”
These chains of associations are efficient; they allow us to move quickly from analysis to action.
But here is the bigger insight.
“Although chains of associations have huge benefits, they also have costs. They inhibit our ability to think broadly. We don’t question assumptions as readily; we jump to conclusions faster, and create barriers to alternative thinking.”
What Marcus Samuelson has is a low barrier to associative thinking. He makes unusual associations outside the field of Swedish cuisine.
“Samuelsson looks for related concepts in distant places and unexpected areas of cooking and then tries to reconcile these far-flung ideas into recipes.”
This is the core idea that Edward De Bono (Lateral Thinking, Six Thinking Hats) has been talking and writing about for years -- the move away from patterned (simple associative thinking).
In fact, you couldn’t find a clearer blueprint for the Business Innovation Factory’s annual Collaborative Summit. It’s about providing a space for talented people from various fields and disciplines to intersect and to watch the spontaneous cerebral combustion.
What innovation consultants ultimately do is find the level of your associative barriers. We try to get clients to reverse assumptions, look a problem from multiple perspectives, combine the unexpected, and help you make new connections.
What I have discovered is that some companies have a high and low threshold for how they manage ideas. Some organizations are threatened by ideas, some do not encourage the flow of new ideas and surprisingly, some spend too much time on creating new ideas and not enough time (or brainpower) evaluating or managing those ideas.
My suggestion is to give a copy of The Medici Effect to people in your organization. Or make it a traveling book. Give it to a new business team. Give it to a part of your organization that you absolutely think would have no use for it. (They will probably surprise you.)
If a sea urchin and a little innovation can earn 3-stars, just imagine what you could accomplish with a dash of creativity and the resources of your company.
Here is Frans talk from BIF-2