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Fusion Series

How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected

Connect the Dots — Create Fusion



The Fusion Series Part 5: Fusing

Fusion is more than having diverse interests. It is bringing them together — integrating pieces of this and that — in a way that creates value (often radical value!) for yourself and the world. It begins way before the act of fusing, by setting yourself up to see the world differently, through the window of a unique mental workshop, containing an eclectic conglomeration of skills, people, and ideas, collected with curiosity and openness outward and inward. It can be learned (or at least encouraged) and may offer a new way forward for leaders, teams/organizations, and you — as tomorrow’s leadership skill, a path to survival and growth, and a means to succeed uniquely as yourself, within or without an organization.



“A+B+C+D (Always Be Connecting the Dots).”
- Sir Richard Branson [1]
“The most powerful overall driver of innovation was associating — making connections across ‘seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.’”
- Dyer, Gregersen, & Christensen, having tested and observed 3,000 executives over 6 years [2]
“It’s this interweaving of art and science that elevates the world to a place of wonder, a place with soul, a place we can believe in, a place where the things you imagine can become real — and a world where a girl suddenly realizes not only is she a scientist, but also an artist.”
— Danielle Feinberg, The Magic Ingredient That Brings Pixar Movies to Life. TED.com, November, 2015

T. S. Eliot, perhaps the most celebrated poet of the 20th century, was also a banker at Lloyd’s. Friends questioned why he would want to waste his days in a bank, but he truly enjoyed both banking and poetry. So, he did both.

Charles Ives, who transformed everyday sounds into some of the world’s most innovative orchestral music, founded a large insurance agency. Franz Kafka, one of 20th-century literature’s most notable figures, was an insurance clerk. Albert Einstein, of course, well noted for his advances in physics and mathematics, worked in a patent office. He regularly spent eight hours at work, eight hours (separately) in scientific pursuits, and eight hours asleep (or writing up his scientific ideas).

Although examples of mental (or life) diversity, they are not examples of fusion.

T. S. Eliot did not write bank poetry; Charles Ives did not compose insurance orchestration; Franz Kafka did not write insurance fiction; and Albert Einstein did not pioneer patent process mathematics.

Fusion is different from living two lives or having diverse interests.

On the other hand, Leonardo da Vinci was watching ripples in a pond one day, heard a church bell, connected the sight and sound, and flashed on an idea that perhaps sound travels in waves, leading to modern acoustical theory.

Albert Einstein connected energy and mass in a way that others hadn’t. Since there was no existing theory to do so, he created one, resulting is his most famous mathematical equation. A more tangible and “everyday” example of innovation, George de Mestral noticed the adhesive properties of burdock seeds, wondered if he could make a burdock zipper, investigated and experimented for more than eight years, and created Velcro. [1]

Creating something new by connecting the unconnected was da Vinci’s definition of innovation. When doing so across domains of industry, field, function, nation, etc. (or as above, sight & sound, energy and mass, natural and artificial), it is also Fusion — and has the potential to create radical value.

The above fusions created obvious value to the world, and the Fusioneers created more. (See Fusioneer Impact List below.)

They’re not just generally creative. In fact, some don’t even realise they’re creative. Time and again I listened to protests like:

“But I’m not creative — I don’t think I fit into your study.”
“Nonsense — look at all he’s created.”
- Billionaire-entrepreneur Jack Cowin and colleague Ian Parker, CFA Executive

Their work spans business, science/technology, and the arts/humanities. In fact, great value lies in the intersections of those three — and especially the intersection of all three. Design thinking practitioners recognize that value and form teams that cover (and integrate) all. Such integration was key to early eCommerce development and continues to underlie high-impact startups.


OK, How Is It Done?

Like many things in life, fusing might best be understood backwards:


The Fusion Model

Fusing, or “connecting the dots” of ideas, people, etc. is essentially integrative thinking — combining a piece of this and a piece of that. But it begins much earlier:

  • by seeing what others don’t,
  • by collecting ideas, skills, experiences, people, and more into a unique mental workshop,
  • by following their own unique designs and cultivating inner creative lives and inspirations, and
  • by being open to what’s around them.

As Nike design legend Tinker Hatfield said,

“When you sit down to design something, it can be anything, a car, a toaster, a house, a tall building or a shoe, what you draw or what you design is really a culmination of everything that you’ve seen and done in your life previous to that point.”
— Tinker Hatfield, co-creator of the cross-trainer & Air Jordans

In the language of The Tipping Point, these folks are “connectors,” actively connecting not only knowledge and skills but also their networks — connecting other people directly to each other when appropriate, and tapping on their own networks as needed for what they create.

Likewise, they are willing to be tapped, such as the scientists at A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology, and Research). Not only do they seek help for their own problems from colleagues in other fields, but they contribute ideas, contacts, and potential solutions, too.

Although all the Fusioneers are connective and generative, they don’t have to implement everything they create. Some, like the coffee connector, serve as generators and connectors, letting others drive through to implementation. Even those who do implement some ideas don’t have to drive every idea. The serial entrepreneur and the early IoT founder (Internet of Things) regularly give ideas away to connections he feels could bring them to fruition. He just wants to see good things happen.

So, connectedness (of ideas and people), collaboration, trust, and empathy all enhance fusion. Described as great communicators, Fusioneers connect well (or “integrate”) with their audiences — a helpful skill when motivating others to make big, new visions happen.


Fusion is also enhanced by broad multi-tasking. Many of them work on multiple projects at a time — sometimes many more than usual, and in a variety of fields — intentionally cross-fertilizing, learning broadly, understanding deeply (where the commonalities lie), and teaching with analogies (thus practicing lateral thinking).

Fusion actually covers the first two of Von Oech’s four roles in the creative process — explorer, artist, judge, and warrior. [3] Once the exploring and artistry of fusion is done, it will be necessary to judge the innovation ready for release (or needing further development) and undergo the process (or war) of introducing it to the world.

Although I didn’t focus on those latter stages, I did obtain a glimpse into how the Fusioneers did them. In general, they didn’t generate just one innovation. The integrative diagnostics scientist, for example, produced multiple advances before fusing 24 tests into 1. The eCommerce founding team member ran an early eCommerce venture and closed the too-early business before embarking on the later one that IPO’ed (Initial Public Offering of stock) for USD 850 million. The school innovator kept generating new programs for 35 years and, in doing so, fostered a community of innovators who would continue the work.

So, the process of innovation doesn’t stop with the innovation. Fusions feed back into the collection, seeing enhances openness, and failures are repurposed into successes (as with the DNA scientist who turns “failed” experiments into publishable, new discoveries).

Fusion enhances fusion, and once we cross a boundary, it may be easier to cross more.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
- Walt Disney

Can You Learn It?

“…students today are educated in collecting dots, but almost none of it spent teaching them the skills necessary to connect dots. This requires confidence and creativity, to think bigger and laterally, rather than just pass exams…. The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them.”
- Peter Fisk, Gamechangers [1]

These Fusioneers trail-blazed their own way to lateral innovation, and those who didn’t fit into “the system” of schools (and later, companies) learned to learn on their own, follow their passions beyond established “boxes” and rewards, work from internal motivation, operate outside systems, and create new systems.

Although no one taught them to be Fusioneers, they were keen learners, and their “fusioney” behaviours — openness outward and inward, learning (or “collecting”) what interests them, connecting with people they like, seeing opportunities in their own unique ways, and thinking integratively — can all be learned, or at least encouraged.

Like any aspect of who we are, they started with proclivities. They grew with practice.

They learned and exhibited different fusions — not only integration of domains (industries, technologies, fields, etc.), but also inter-personal integration (with teams, organizations, stakeholders, etc.) and self-integration (of different interests, scientific and spiritual, personal and professional, “work-life balance,” etc.).

How might these different fusions be handled in future by Leaders, Teams & Organizations, and Individuals?

First, For Leaders –Tomorrow’s Leadership Skills: Creativity and Mental Diversity

“A global survey of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number one leadership competency for the future.”
- ideou.com

In a world of industry convergence and disruption, organizations need creative leadership to craft new ways forward. Introducing lateral innovation should promote radical creativity — especially where siloed innovation efforts are receiving diminishing returns.

To both create and respond to disruption, CEO’s will need to know how to cross-fertilize ideas across businesses, functions, countries, and industries and leverage the lateral innovators in (and beyond) their midst.

After all,

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
- Albert Einstein

In a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous), diversity is necessary. In the face of rapid change, you won’t know who you’re going to need, and you won’t have time to gather them in a crisis.

Similar to organizational diversity, individual leaders need mental diversity. Beyond acting as innovators in their own right and examples for the rest of the organization, leaders are uniquely positioned to traverse industries, functions, and more, in a way the rest of the workforce isn’t. Further, they’ll need experience creating (and an understanding of how creativity works) in order to set the conditions for others to create.

One Fusioneer leader particularly focuses on lateral innovation for his organizations — Jack Cowin, Chairman of Domino’s Pizza and Competitive Foods Australia. He views Dominos as a technology company (not just pizza) and cross-fertilizes ideas across every business he works on at CFA, from restaurants to farming to infrastructure tourism, and beyond.

Once we’ve done all the siloed innovation we can, lateral innovation may be the number one leadership competency for the future. Perhaps it already is.

Second, For Teams & Organizations — Creating Better, Surviving Disruption, & Growing the Future

While leaders blaze new ways forward, managers will need to get better at managing teams for breakthrough creativity. Many companies use cross-domain teams hoping they’ll produce fusion, and some organizations have structured themselves and introduced processes to promote Fusion, like the cross-disciplinary science labs at A*STAR or the cross-domain Harvard Innovation Lab (Hi).

Such teams and labs have traditionally been formed with a diverse collection of uni-field experts, but unfortunately, some of them are not able to integrate their ideas with the rest of the team, producing something new that they couldn’t create alone. [4] Increasingly, cross-domain teams are being staffed with cross-domain individuals who know how to fuse ideas when working alone — potentially enhancing integration with others. Whether or not they’re able to extend their individual integration to team integration, understanding how they integrate ideas alone (as with the Fusioneers) may provide a model for teams.

So, although the Fusion model currently addresses individuals, it could form the basis for managing lateral innovation in teams and organizations.

(See Team & Organization questions, below.)

That said, the real difficulty fusing in teams and organizations may not be co-creation, but rather retaining cross-domain professionals, if the organization is siloed and they don’t “fit in”. Although a few of the Fusioneers were employees, the vast majority were entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs. In the words of one highly-independent Fusioneer,

“The minority is a huge asset to the majority, but it’s really hard to be the minority. Organisations that are going to push people to think like Fusioneers — or that are going to hire people who already think this way — need to accept that they’ll have to take care of them, continually making sure the arrangement benefits both the organization and the individual.”
— Dr. Edy Greenblatt, one of the World’s Top 100 Executive Coaches (Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches), and Founder & President of Execu-Care Coaching & Consulting, Inc.

Third, For You — Creating the Future Within (or Without) an Organization

As we move beyond the industrial age into the information- and creative-ages, with networked organizations and the “gig” economy, fitting into organizations may not matter as much as it used to. Indeed, we don’t really know how much future economic activity will be dominated by large, “traditional” organizations.

Most of the Fusioneers didn’t follow standard “career paths,” pursuing stable lives in large organizations. Instead of training for a job and rising in a particular field or industry, most of them learned broadly and had multiple “careers” or created new careers and fields. They created systems instead of just fitting into them.

Now more than ever, instead of force-fitting ourselves into pre-existing roles, we have the opportunity to create customized roles uniquely filled by ourselves. Instead of cogs competing for space in the corporate machine, we may increasingly see artisan-professionals co-creating in the corporate (and open) marketplace.
Will you change who you are to fit the situation, or find a situation that fits who you are?

Creative journeys are notoriously volatile, and the Fusioneers’ were especially so. The restaurant entrepreneur nearly lost everything in a lawsuit that would establish his new organization. The diagnostic scientist and his team hit their final dead-end multiple times. The artist and quantum chemist was told her work would never amount to anything. Indeed, most Fusioneers were told early-on that their work had no value.

But with courage, confidence, persistence, openness to the new & unknown, and a willingness to take risks, they succeeded. One friend remarked,

“He’s shown that you can really be yourself — uniquely yourself — and succeed.”
— Karan Khemka, Georgetown classmate and friend of Parag Kannha

They create from their unique selves in a way no one else can. Their selves are integrated into their work, and most are not sure how many hours they “work,” since life and work are integrated. Work is rooted in who they are and how they’re (uniquely) designed. [6]

The Fusioneers created value not just for the world, but also for themselves, by being themselves and building what only they could.
Uniqueness may be the basis for tomorrow’s “career path.” If robots take over 45% of today’s jobs, what will be left for humans? Since machines learn by repeating tasks, the novel remains essentially human. Crossing boundaries to integrate the disparate and create something new — fusion — is essentially novel, essentially human, and may be tomorrow’s path to (human) sustainability and growth.
If you fused the different parts of your life and self — including work and personal — what would your fusion(s) be?

Become uniquely and extremely yourself. Open, collect, sense, fuse, and bring your creations to the world.

“Sii colui che Dio voleva che tu sia e darai fuoco al mondo.
(Be who God meant you to be, and you’ll set the world on fire.)”
— St. Catharine of Siena
…or instead of fire, why not create Fusion?

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. 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.

Fusioneer Impact List:

  • 450,000 Lives Improved (Schools for the Schoolless)
  • Millions of Lives & USD 16 Billion to Save with Non-Refrigerated Vaccines (Silk Vaccines)
  • Early eCommerce, USD 850 Million company (founding team), & Leapfrogging Nike/SCA from 80k Kids to 800k (Coffee Connections)
  • First Successful Integration of 5 Media Channels (Lime.com: Multi-Emmy & Multi-Media)
  • Global-Award-Winning Deliciousness (Perfume Cocktails & Molecular Gastronomy)
  • Low-Dose Chemo@Cancer (The Advanced Biopolymer Pocket Watch)
  • BioDiesel Production, Emmy-iTV, Early Digital Marketing, & Spirituality (Innovator’s Energy)
  • Leadership Resilience — Coaching, Writing, TV & Radio (Executives on Trapeze)
  • Age 0–4 Intervention for 70 Million People (The Autism Ear Test)
  • Business & Social Activism (Chief Dream Igniter)
  • Managing USD 15 Billion & Revolutionizing an Industry (Well-Being & Wealth-Building)
  • Harvard’s Most Popular Course & Tech-Enabled Positive Psychology (Science of Happiness)
  • One of the 100 Most Innovative Firms in the World (ranked by CIO Magazine) (Quantum-Chemical Social Networks)
  • The Best Score in Olympic History (Olympic Dive Mathematics)
  • DNA Analysis Tools … on the Smartphone (Set My Scientists Free!)
  • 1st Digital Music Deal & LifeTools (125 Million Subscribers) (Nokia Ringtones & ”Hi-Tech” for the Poor)
  • USD 8 Billion in Agriculture to Save Worldwide (Pig FitBits)
  • Toilet Campaign for 2.6Bn People & A Startup Accelerator for 4Bn Poor (Mr. Toilet & The BoP Hub)
  • USD 1 Billion+ Business Built (KFC, Hungry Jack’s, Domino’s Pizza) (Fast Food in Laid-Back-Land)
  • Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Development (The Hub)
  • Simple, Everyday 180° Inventions (Mosquito Attractant & the Polyclone Chop)
  • Inner-City Nutrition & “Green-Collar Jobs” in a USD 50 Billion Global Market (Urban Farming)
  • Innovative Methods in New Markets: Growing Despite the Odds (The Swiss-South-African-Asian Joint Venture)
  • The Human Face of Big Data …by a Time/Life/National Geographic Photographer — ?Founder of One of the “25 Coolest Companies in America”
  • Leading-Edge IoT & Integrative Thinking (Redline.com & Harvard-Rotman Research by a Concert-Trained Pianist)
  • Computational Structural Biology — Advances for Cancer, Dengue, & More (Science is a Personal Business)
  • Geography, ICT, and a Newly-Connected World Order (Connectography)
    - Portable, Over-Clothing, Life-Saving Breast Cancer Detection (Oilpipe Mammography)
  • 10 Million+ Lives & USD 1.2 Billion to Save Worldwide (Killer Mystery Infections & The 24-in-1 Test)
  • Fusion Symphonies Commissioned & Played by the World’s Top Orchestras (China-West — The Forbidden Music of The Cultural Revolution)

Team & Organizational Questions:

For outward openness, does your team or organization include someone who scans broadly (including outside your industry) for ideas and technologies, engaging with an eclectic variety of people inside and outside the organization? What role do trust and empathy play — or global experiences and rotations? How about boundary-crossing, rule-breaking, and unfiltered honesty and idea-diverging? Do people have a chance to close off and focus, e.g. with a clear mission, at key times during the innovation process, at regular times (e.g. with “library rules day”), or to handle burnout?

For inward openness, do you have clear values and a profound calling? Do you allow into the organization outside-system people, e.g. gifted school dropouts? Do you support curiosity, depth, and play and actively manage insight and outsight? Do people have the freedom to map and manage their energies? Can they define their roles according to their own talents, or must they force-fit themselves into activities that don’t work with their inner designs?

For collecting, do people bring a broad array of ideas, technologies, people, and more to a team or organizational workshop (physical and/or virtual)? When you make a positive change, how do you share it with others so they can use it, too? Does someone curate the collection and help people navigate the collection and make connections? Is your workforce diverse? Is each member of your workforce diverse?

For seeing, do you have people who “sees things differently”? Do you have teammates and employees have enough curiosity and slack time (or specified “innovation time”) to walk into the back-room (including their own) and make changes? Do they go where they “don’t belong,” seeing differently from others, or journey out & back, seeing their own situation with new eyes? Can they follow up on what doesn’t make sense instead of brushing it aside? Do they have to create with a linear process or can they repeatedly take apart, put together, reconfigure, and play? Do they draw, model, or otherwise depict patterns? If someone is working with one perspective, do you make sure someone else takes another? Do you encourage — even at the office — prayer, meditation, walking, swimming, creative breaks, and power-washing the pig house (etc.)? Are your executives continually engaged in high-level, demanding work, or do they ever sort the mail or wash the floor? Do you create future visions?

For fusing, do you put people together in odd combinations or craft physical inefficiencies that enable them to collide productively, as incubators do? [5] The old joke at Harvard Business School was that the most critical research decision was actually where to place new professors’ offices. More often than not, they’d come out with a book the next year, co-authored with a neighbour. Do people achieve synergy across an array of projects or just work on multiple projects? Do you fund interdisciplinary projects more than uni-? Are there regular cross-domain problem-solving sessions where people receive and give “outside” ideas and help with problems? (This is often best done with food in an informal setting.) Do you refrain from uncharted journeys or accept that for some innovations, you’ll need to start walking and experimenting in order to gather the data to decide to keep walking (or turn back)? Do you have “fusioney” people who don’t necessarily have to drive to implementation? Do you have “fusioney” people at all, and if so, how long (and why) do they stay? Can they work with you after they leave? Is your leader “fusioney”?

Do you have processes for each of these? Do you have a process that includes all?


[1] Fisk, Peter. Gamechangers: Creating Innovative Strategies for Business and Brands; New Approaches to Strategy, Innovation and Marketing. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015. Quote from http://www.thegeniusworks.com/2016/02/what-is-innovation-connecting-the-dots-the-ones-other-people-miss/.

[2] Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton Christensen (“The Innovator’s DNA,” Harvard Business Review, December 2009), as quoted in “Sparking Creativity in Teams: An Executive’s Guide,” McKinsey Quarterly, April, 2011, p 5.

[3] von Oech, Roger. A Kick in the Seat of the Pants: Using Your Explorer, Artist, Judge, and Warrior to Be More Creative. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 1986.

[4] Gardner, Heidi K. “Getting Your Stars to Collaborate,” Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2017, as heard in podcast “Collaborating Better Across Silos,” HBR Ideacast, Jan 5, 2017.

[5] See the work of Karen Stephenson, as well as Gladwell, Malcolm. (2000) “Designs for Working: Why Your Bosses Want to Turn Your New Office into Greenwich Village.” The New Yorker, December 11, 2000.

[6] Bolles, Richard Nelson. What Color Is Your Parachute? New York: Ten Speed Press (Penguin Random House), 2018 (first edition 1970).

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