How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
While flying around the world interviewing Fusioneers, I also gave them a personality assessment in order to "measure" their openmindedness (part of the Fusion model I wanted to investigate). The short-form Multicultural Personality Questionnaire (MPQ) that I administered also assessed cultural empathy, emotional stability, flexibility, and social initiative — a happy bonus.
Did the Fusioneers score high (or low) in these traits, relative to other people, and what might it mean?
High Cultural Empathy and 3 or 4 Countries to Call "Home"
All of them showed high levels of cultural empathy, and in fact, the average number of countries they've lived in for 6 months or more is: 3-4.
They are remarkably global and can often intuit what others are thinking. They show genuine interest in others' feelings and needs and can quickly understand which feelings, thoughts, and behaviors play an important role in various cultures.
Empathy in general is much-applauded in Design Thinking as a key tool for understanding others' needs and desires in order to design for them and learn from users as they interact with prototyped solutions. Empathy is a useful tool, as well, in the broader sphere of innovation, which is merely creativity put to use and accepted by others.
Culture is not only a thing of national identity. Organizations have cultures, as do industries, fields, and social classes. The ability to cross national boundaries with ease should also translate to crossing other boundaries, as these innovators do.
Flexible people adapt well to new cultural settings, and this MPQ measure is even more general. Those who score as highly flexible actively seek change and adventure (whether cross-cultural or not), seeing change and unusual experience as a challenge. They naturally adjust to practical constraints and shun regularity and routine.
The Fusioneers were highly flexible overall, but 4 received mid-level scores. The four were a mix of male and female, science and business, race, age, and level of education, currently residing in 4 different nations. It looked for a while like there might be no common thread.
However, we noticed something very curious:
The only 2 Fusioneers to have stayed in only one country both achieved mid-level flexibility scores (i.e. 50% of the mid-level scores), not high scores like 25 other Fusioneers.
Does remaining in one nation limit our flexibility? Put another way, does living in more than one country help us become highly flexible? Stories abound of the need for flexibility in innovation. For example, Jawahar Kanjilal (one of the Fusioneers) was leading a team to bring microinsurance to poor consumers via Nokia LifeTools. The insurance service was developed, packaged, priced, and ready to go. But the regulators wouldn't let them take fees for the microinsurance, since Nokia was a telecommunications provider, not a (regulated) financial services firm. After a certain amount of hair-pulling, the project manager told Jawahar, who instantly pivoted the business model and said, "Fine — customers can pay for the information service. Microinsurance is free." They launched successfully.
Creative genius is stereotyped as emotionally unstable. Although that may or may not be true for creativity in general, innovation requires acceptance of the thing created, as well as (usually) working with others, either during the innovation process or when gaining acceptance.
All the Fusioneers scored as highly stable (except one), meaning they are able to see setbacks in perspective and keep their equilibrium in difficult circumstances. This is clearly helpful when discovering or experimenting with something new, untested, and untried.
They are straightforward and quick to come up with solutions, again useful in creative endeavours, which are often time-constrained.
Every one of them scored as highly openminded — a necessity when you're going to jump outside your box or straddle two boxes, crafting something new across boundaries.
The Fusioneers are strongly open and unprejudiced in relation to unknown situations. They are interested in how others deal with daily problems, enjoy exploring other cultures (see above), and quickly amass relevant information via study and personal contact.
All the Fusioneers showed high social initiative. They have an active viewpoint, actively get to know others, begin conversations, and make friends. In fact, one of them was the head of the World Presidents' Organization (WPO), a powerful network of highly-placed executives.
Information, expertise, multiple perspectives, and opportunities flow through this social network and others, now that he' taken the time to build the social capital.
Again, high-social-initiative individuals will quickly adapt to other cultures and feel comfortable in them, but there' more to it than just fitting into a new country.
They are at ease in a variety of situations, which means their energies are not depleted, covering situational stress. They use that energy to innovate and to build the social capital through which information and expertise flow and can be harnessed for innovation.
When we analysed how the traits are related to each other, we found that openmindedness, flexibility, and social initiative are significantly related to each other. It makes sense that opening our minds to what' around us will give us more ideas with which to pivot our solutions and alert us to interesting people to connect with, both of which should help us further open our minds.
Openmindedness and flexibility are also significantly related to cultural empathy — another sense with which to open our minds and give us information and feelings for managing change and adventure.
In addition, social initiative and emotional stability are significantly related to each other. The ability to reach out may help keep us emotionally steady and enable us to solve problems with others' help.
We also found it enlightening to consider the lack of significant relationships. For example, our analysis showed no significant relationship between emotional stability and (1) openmindedness, (2) cultural empathy, or (3) flexibility. Indeed, openness, empathy, and seeking change and adventure may all expose us to things that make us unstable. That said, they may encourage us over time to build more stability as a general capability. We did not examine the participants over time, but doing so might yield clues on how to build emotional stability.
Oddly, cultural empathy and social initiative did not show a significant relationship. Being interested in (and understanding) other' thoughts and feelings would seem a natural complement to reaching out to them, but perhaps genuine empathy actually reduces the need to engage, if we can understand people well just by watching, listening, and feeling.
Given our small sample size, these bootstrapped relationships are guideposts for further study. We don't contend that our statistical results are bulletproof — only that they are informative and suggestive, especially where results are unanimous.
We also don't make claims of causality. For example, although cultural empathy may lead you to openmindedness, it may be the reverse, or they may grow together.
That said, given the above, it would appear that cultural empathy, flexibility, open mindedness, and social initiative should be developed together (e.g. in an integrated program), for synergy and mutual reinforcement. Emotional stability might best be addressed on its own or specifically as a complement to social initiative. These are design decisions we will explore in future programs.
If you increase your capabilities in these five areas, would that help you innovate as the Fusioneers have? There are, of course, no guarantees, but it is remarkable that the Fusioneers were unanimously high on three of these factors (cultural empathy, openmindedness, and social initiative), nearly unanimous on one (emotional stability), and strongly high on another (flexibility — 25 out of 29). It' also safe to say that you'll find it hard to innovate with no empathy (cultural or general), a closed mind, and inflexibility, in isolation, while distracted by emotional volatility.
If you'd like to enhance your capabilities, you might want to ask, "Can you increase these attributes, or are you just born with them?" Programs are available to enhance empathy (through relationship management, negotiations, etc.), flexibility (with creativity), emotional stability (via counselling & group programs), openmindedness (liberal-arts education is partly this), and social initiative (by way of shyness coaching & courses). Many of these programs are well-received and judged effective by participants and facilitators alike. In fact, crafting tomorrow' leaders with a tri-national educational experience is the foundation of a successful business school we know well. ;)
A fusion of such very different programs to build these capabilities and more, crafting uniquely innovative global minds, sounds like a great next step in innovation….
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you’re all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. Dr. Lee suggested the use of the MPQ and performed the analysis reported in this article. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research — you’re the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
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