Medici Effect – The demand for Managers with low Associative Barriers

Around the turn of the fourteenth century, the Medici family in Florence, Italy, were rich patrons of a heterogeneous collection of different artists such as poets, sculptors and painters as well as professionals such as architects and financiers and even philosophers who converged on the city of Florence. There they intermingled with each other and their ideas crossed their traditional boundaries and thus embarked in one of the most creative periods in history called the Renaissance Age. While each was excellent in his own field it was the intersection of different traditions and disciplines that brought about creativity and innovation. This was called the Medici Effect. A more modern example of the Medici Effect is the commercial building that was built, without any air conditioning system, in Harare, in Zimbabwe, where the temperature ranges from 88 degrees in the day to 58 at night. The architect, Mick Pearce, achieved this by basing his design on the way termites maintained a constant temperature inside their mud towers. This intersection of architecture and ecology came up with a revolutionary solution that reduced energy consumption by 90 percent.

So how does one create the Medici Effect and what are the difficulties that prevent it. The biggest hurdles are the Associative Barriers between these diverse fields caused by experience, training and domain expertise that make it comfortable to say within these bounds. Innovation requires lowered Associative Barriers. This can be achieved by mixing cultures and diverse expertise, providing opportunities to learn and explore different ideas, hiring people outside the field and recognizing and selecting people with inherently low Associative Barriers.

One technique to break free of Associative Barriers is to reverse ones assumptions thereby getting intriguing perspectives such as a restaurant that does not serve food but instead charges for time spent by customers who bring their own food. Another method is to view the situation or problem from a different perspective such as fusion of exercise and Bollywood dance or by introducing a constraint . Other techniques include combining concepts at random such as using a helicopter to vibrate power lines thereby shaking accumulated ice off the wires.

This is how the recent software innovations are occurring or will occur. The IT teams need to have low associative barriers. They need to be led by an leader who has ability to easily connect different concepts across fields. Specifically, the leader needs to have an ability to find winning combinations of technologies from cutting edge and the rest of the Information Technology domains. We can all break down our associative barriers and in fact, if we wish to find the Intersection, it is a requirement. The senior leaders in the organization should move the leaders/teams across different business domains- as a result they will help in learning from people outside their field. The Universities have started Executive Management Programs  (EMBA) that have couple of modules in China/Europe/USA; the essence is to get the executives go and learn from other countries. The idea here is to get exposure to range of cultures and cultural experiences. In addition, it helps placing them in situations that are outside the natural networks. It creates playing field for innovation along with resilience to move ahead when the terrain gets tougher. The Managers/Leaders who can break the IT-Business associative barrier will be in high demand in next decade.

Brainstorming is another successful method if it is properly carried out. The team starts with a well defined problem statement. Then each team member independently generates ideas which are then presented to the whole team one after the other.  There is no attempt to assess each idea or to pass criticism. Instead the whole team tries to build on each successive idea till a viable solution is obtained.  A variation of Brainstorming is Brain Writing. Here also there is a proper problem definition at the outset. Then each person writes his idea on a sheet of paper which is placed on a table. Then each team member picks up another person’s sheet and tries to further develop that idea. The principle is to look for connecting ideas that can be developed. Successful companies have melded several of these techniques into their organisational thinking resulting in explosive innovative ideas. Use this in your requirements gathering or design sessions and see if it works. Variations may be needed though…..

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