How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
"The world's most innovative companies prosper by capitalizing on the divergent associations of their founders, executives, and employees."
— Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton Christensen ("The Innovator's DNA," Harvard Business Review, December 2009)/
"The people who are routinely creative are skilled at connecting information from various sources in new and surprizing ways."
— Bruce Nussbaum (Creative Intelligence, p 33)/
"Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things."
— Steve Jobs/
Fusion is a new model of lateral (often radical!) innovation. It is both a series of actions and a set of capabilities. It arose out of my work as an innovation consultant, plus my research (described below), which included interviewing 30 world-class innovators and over 70 of their colleagues, friends, and family (so, over 100 interviews in total).
The model includes a linear process — outward and inward openness leading to a unique mental collection, sensing opportunities in a special way, and fusing. It also includes non-sequential connections, as when openness directly impacts our ability to sense needs and opportunities, and fusions themselves become part of our mental collection, leading to successive innovations.
I didn’t know what to call someone who engaged in this form of innovation — fusing disparate things — other than a welder, and that didn’t seem right, so I started calling them "Fusioneers" and their friends, "Fusioneer Friends." The names stuck, and I’ve never thought of anything better.
The model begins with outward openness and connectedness — a key feature of the Fusioneers. They are described by their colleagues as unusually open (and outreaching) to new ideas, people, experiences, and more — everything around them. They are highly aware, great listeners, and great noticers. In fact, the chef I interviewed had to interrupt our session to move a vase of dried flowers which was greatly distracting him. He not only described the pungent odor I couldn’t smell but also pointed out a stress ball behind my sofa, a crooked piece of furniture, and dust underneath a chair leg. His culinary creations do not emerge solely from his heightened senses, but they are a useful precondition. Likewise, the multi-Emmy award-winning producer and director notices and fixes crookedness, clutter, and other visual distractions in the museum he now directs. Visitors react more positively after he's done so, but no one ever seems to know why. The nun in this Fusioneer group noticed more children on the street than usual and traced them back to a newly-connected migrant camp, for which she then created a school program. The vaccine entrepreneur constantly makes connections with others in their incubation building, and then taps on them when his firm needs help, making unusually-astute use of the incubation facilities. The MenuLog executive (post-US$850-million IPO) runs a café and has a heightened awareness not only of what people need and want in the café but also in their businesses. He connects them and helps them grow. Listening is just as crucial as watching, and when the cancer scientist heard an odd idea from a younger colleague, she put it to use, integrating the pocket-watch Geneva mechanism (designed in 1893) into an advanced biopolymer medication device.
Inward openness to our own design and inspirations — and managing our inward spaces and connection to them — is also crucial. One of the Fusioneers is deeply spiritual and takes spiritual learning journeys (like learning shamanism in a Peruvian village or Native American healing in New York). He gives spiritual development workshops and may open an enlightened incubator for conscious-capitalist enterprises, now that he's sold the biofuel factory he co-founded and the Emmy-award-winning marketing agency he started. Another Fusioneer is a pillar of the resilience movement, helping executives manage their energies and build leadership capabilities with energized self-management and work-life integration. Two more deal directly with inner-states as part of their work — one in well-being and wealth-building, and the other in the science of happiness. Many of the Fusioneers know the value of unplugging the mind through prayer, meditation, and mindful exercise like walking, lap-swimming, and power-washing the pig house.
Being open outward and inward and experiencing creative flow between these environments is what I call creative porosity (similar to authenticity, which is generally understood as a static state, unlike porosity). It's an experience described by one of the Fusioneers as a feeling of "right-person-right-place-right-time," in which external ideas, people, and events blend creatively with internal ideas, people, and events. New combinations build on each other, flowing inward and outward. Although "right-person-right-place-right-time" sounds like an accidental state of being, he made choices that led to it, as did other Fusioneers. It is different from the inwardly-concentrated creative flow described by Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name. So, it would seem there are multiple types of creative flow, and we can make conscious choices to enhance it.
Each Fusioneer developed a unique collection in the workshop of his or her mind — ideas, people, experiences, skills, certifications, and more. Some were extremely unusual. They collected out of curiosity, not seeking immediate application. One studied art and quantum chemistry purely out of interest, saw something based on that unique mindset, then researched the phenomenon and created a successful company using techniques from anthropology, ethnology, mathematical modelling, software development, and management consulting. Another loved sports and science and used mathematical modelling to help an athlete earn the highest 10-meter dive score in Olympic history. Another earned a PhD, masters, and bachelors at the same time, in fields that call themselves by different names but address some of the same underlying phenomena (albeit from different perspectives). Another has a background in pig farming and medical/veterinary studies and so created a med-tech device to save piglets. Another, after failing A-levels and O-levels started 16 (successful) companies, went to Harvard four times (and other places like Singularity), collects ideas and contacts wherever he goes, and continues his creative journey founding social enterprises.
Being open, and having created a unique lens on the world, Fusioneers sense the world in a special way — seeing and caring about opportunities others miss. An insurance salesman with a desire for entrepreneurship noticed a long queue outside a Chinese restaurant in Australia. He realized people wanted fast food in laid-back-land and built over US$1Bn worth of business. Another Fusioneer looked down from a mezzanine one day and noticed people moving in a pattern she’d seen in quantum chemistry. That started her journey to research the phenomenon and create one of the world's most innovative companies, mapping and analyzing social systems. Three Fusioneers saw from the eyes of a would-be customer and built businesses they wished could have served them — a startup hub, auto stamp maker, and urban farming. One co-founded a cross-industry dot-com and later led a fast-growing cross-company venture, keenly sensing opportunities and problems inter-firm and internationally. Another sees opportunities with a photographer's eye. With his background at Time, Life, and National Geographic, he put a human face on big data.
After sensing, they fuse, which doesn’t mean just making choices between alternatives — an industrial-age management approach. Instead, they integrate, taking disparate models, technologies, people, and organizations and fusing pieces of them together in new, value-creating ways. In fact, following the IPO of his mission-critical rural high-tech company, one of the Fusioneers founded The Desautels Center for Integrative Thinking at Rotman School of Management in order to research and teach that very topic. Another Fusioneer researches and develops new methods in computational structural biology. Another integrated the fields of geography and ICT (information and communications technology) to create "connectography," with implications for economics, politics, and societal development. Two Fusioneers created innovations in medical technology that may save millions of lives and billions of dollars. One of them is building a company that uses oilpipe-sensing technology to locate early-stage breast cancer. The other fused 24 bacterial and fungal tests into one, providing infection diagnosis in a day instead of weeks. The final Fusioneer I interviewed was taken (as a child) from her family and her music studies to work as a farmer during China's Cultural Revolution. When opportunities re-opened, she studied and performed again, ultimately fusing traditional music from the Chinese countryside with Chinese and European classical music and even the jazz, rock, and R&B of her new home, the United States.
Beyond the model, the Fusioneers taught me 4 things — something about globalization and boundaries, entrepreneurship, mental diversity & education, and motivation.
1. 93% of the Fusioneers are multinational.
Almost all of them spent 6 months or more in multiple nations. They were selected for the study by creating something across boundaries, but not necessarily national boundaries. Could it be that crossing countries and cultures helps us cross other types of boundaries?
2. 90% of them are entrepreneurs (or within companies, intrapreneurs).
We’ve put boxes around our companies, industries, departments, fields, and more, and problems and opportunities often fall between the boxes. The Fusioneers fill up the space between boxes. They solve problems and create in those spaces, then share their solutions with everyone else.
3. Their education ranges from primary-school diploma to multiple university degrees. What they have in common is not their level of education but their level of mental diversity.
Most of them have trained and worked in multiple fields, and they’ve developed their own mental diversity well beyond what's normally on offer by our industrial-age schools. Many schools train us to do jobs, not create jobs, and most of us train to do something, not train in order to leave the field and apply our learnings elsewhere.
4. No one chose them as "creative-pioneer trainee" or enticed them with career ladders and bonuses. They’re self-selected and self-propelled, and the next Fusioneers could be anyone who cares enough to create.
If you met the insurance salesman at the start of his journey, you wouldn’t have known he’d become a billionaire. If you’d met the girl farming, you’d never know she’d be a world-renown symphony composer. If you’d met the boxboy, you’d never know he’d co-found what would be the largest financial advisory firm in his nation. Neither did any of the Fusioneers know what they would create.
Some achievements happened quickly, like the innovation tournament project that became a company. But many achievements happened slowly (sometimes over decades), peppered with other people's suggestions that it was a waste of time. Fusioneers are energized by what they do (despite the risks) and are generally noted for being "high-energy."
The articles in this series will provide more depth to this conceptual model, as well as more detail on each Fusioneer's journey. Special write-ups may follow on Fusion foundations, addressing their remarkably global backgrounds, mental diversity for leadership, and education and parenting practices.
Learning from and about them has been an amazing journey for me. I hope it will be for you, too.
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.
For more Fusion articles, click here.