How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
“You can observe a lot by watching.”
— Yogi Berra
More than fifteen years ago, when we were first figuring out what to call eCommerce, I co-founded an innovation lab in Singapore. Back then, people were stunned when we said we had a process, tools, and techniques for innovation. Most people thought innovation was flashes of insight that spurred building things to try out in the marketplace.
I ran off with some innovative ideas of my own to try out as an entrepreneur and returned to academic life 15 years later, to learn, teach, reflect, and make something new. By then, everyone knew about innovation processes, tools, and techniques (well, more people, anyway) and had a multitude to choose from. The big question was around how to scale, but with new approaches and success stories, that was pretty well taken care of, too — although still not easy.
So I decided to swim upstream.
I found we still don’t really know how to manage the front-end — how to create radical, high-value ideas to feed into our innovation and scaling processes. Further, we’re only beginning to tap into the high potential of cross-domain work. What better way to improve our approach to innovation than by feeding better ideas into the front end? And what more fertile ground for ideas than in the spaces between well-established domains, or radical connections completely unexplored.
So I decided to do some exploring, too. After finding well-grounded bits in different management, psychology, and physical-science literatures, I realised I still didn’t understand where good ideas come from and how people put together bits from different domains to create radical value. Fields and literatures such as creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, mindfulness, neuroscience, empathy, design thinking, and integrative thinking addressed various parts of what was happening, but none in an integrated fashion. I would need to fuse them myself.
My basic questions were:
- Why and how do world-class innovators create across domains, and
- Why do others in the same circumstance not do so?
In learning why and how cross-domain innovators do what they do, I hoped the rest of us might do more of the same. So I designed a research study, in which I would interview 30 world-class cross-domain innovators, as well as other people who were around when they were innovating (or at least who know them and their creative style well) — colleagues, friends, and family. Surely, with a Harvard-doctorate researcher investigating an important topic from a Forbes top-20 international business school, interesting people would line up outside my door.
No one would to talk to me.
Anyway, I don’t have a door. It seems world-class innovators are pretty busy and, on the whole, don’t want to talk to strangers with vague, wacky questions. Csikszentmihalyi (2013) had trouble sourcing interviews, too, but managed to begin and “snowball” from one research participant to others they knew, and others they knew, and so on. He wound up with Nobel laureates, rock stars, and more.
Since I had a foot in practice-based innovation outside of academe, I started by interviewing people I’d worked with — leaders of intriguing, value-creating fusions — and it all snowballed from there for me, too. With a few intriguing people, others wanted to join in, and we “snowballed” to people they knew, people who stepped forward at innovation and entrepreneurship gatherings, and people my beleaguered research assistant found on Google. One sat down for a friend interview, and when I began listening to him and hearing the things he had done, I quickly switched him to the innovator category during the interview.
It was a good lesson for me. I hadn’t realized how inspirational my friends and colleagues were and how much they had done. How many other people do we encounter each day whose genius we don’t recognize? How do we appear to others? Have we not recognized our own? Although a researcher’s job is to provide well-grounded recommendations, much of the value we create is actually inspiration. And how we become inspired is part of Fusion.
Eventually, we did it. I flew around the world interviewing 30 “Fusioneers,” shadowing the first 10 for a day (or part), interviewing their colleagues, friends, and family, and gathering secondary data about them — their TED talks, articles and books written by or about them, websites, and more.
All Fusioneers were interviewed in person, and Friends were either in-person or via phone or Skype. Three or more friends were interviewed per Fusioneer for the first 10, and two or more thereafter. The friend interviews not only gave triangulated information about the Fusioneer but also yielded some insights into why others in the same circumstance don’t innovate. Thus it was an “extreme sampling” approach (as used in design thinking) — those who innovated successfully, and those who didn’t. For consistency, I treated myself as a “research instrument” and conducted all the interviews.
I had each Fusioneer take the well-grounded Multicultural Personality Assessment to uncover or suggest patterns in open-mindedness, flexibility, stability, empathy, and initiative. Their training and innovations spanned art/humanities, science/tech, and business/organizations. They were in their 20’s through their 80’s and lived and worked on four continents. Roughly a third were women.
My research assistant transcribed the interviews — verbatim for Fusioneers and all friends of the first 10, selectively for the rest. She created “codes,” to classify what they talked about. I re-coded, sorted, and structured (axial coding). I wrote profiles of them and what I was learning (revised and presented in this series), and the participants and others gave feedback and insights. My research assistant and I discussed, disagreed, revised, and learned, and these learnings are shared with you here.
Unlike Csikszentmihalyi, my study doesn’t include Nobel laureates and rock stars (although we do have a Nobel laureate’s protégé and a world-famous composer). I wondered if my participants would be extreme enough or important enough for people to want to read about them. Then I realized there was something important in the humble beginnings of my Fusioneers and the fact that not all their stories are finished. Everyone can connect with a normal person who does something amazing and feel a bit of “me, too.”
I realized “world-class” doesn’t have to mean world’s best or world’s only. It can just mean excellent, or an inspiring spark that can ignite someone on the other side of the world. Whether you’re an employee or startup founder, poor or a billionaire, school-dropout or teaching at Harvard, there is someone here to connect with.
What do a nun, a billionaire entrepreneur, a celebrity chef, scientists, artists, and corporate executives have in common? The ones in this global research study each created something from “odd” combinations that either have brought or should bring significant value to the world. They are presented in the table below, along with what they created and why it’s significant. “Where” are the countries in which each lived six months or more (self-reported in the MPQ survey), listed in alphabetical order.
Although I did not begin the study with a focus on globalization or entrepreneurship, it turned out that 93% of them are “from” more than one nation, and 90% of them are entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs. They span 31 nations on five continents, and roughly six would currently be called “young” (20’s and 30's), 19 “mid” (30’s to 50's), and five “senior” (60’s to 80's). Most participants trained and worked in more than one type of occupation, with roughly 14 in arts/humanities, 22 in science/technology, and 24 in business/not-for-profit.
I’ve included on my website a carousel of their photos, names, fusions, and impact on the world. Click here to ride the carousel and click through to their TED talks, videos, and bios.
They are a diverse and inspiring bunch, as their profiles will show, with lessons for us all.
In case they would be useful to other social science researchers, I’m happy to share (below) additional details of this study. More detailed design methods from this study are being published elsewhere, especially addressing the influence of IDEO’s design thinking methodology on research design.
I did begin with a going-in Fusion model, based on my time with the innovation lab watching others create, as well as my own years as an entrepreneur. The Fusioneers provided much more detail and insight to the model (which the study upheld overall) and yielded some delightful surprises, such as the global nature of their lives/backgrounds and surprising humility, as well as issues of trust and connection.
Analyst & data triangulation, as well as participant review are mentioned in my other articles. We, of course, had ethics committee approval on the design and protocols, and participants had a chance to review work before publication (articles, speeches, etc.).
“Snowballing” was not just a random selection process. Once particular themes began to emerge, like globalization, we sought participants to “round out” the study in particular ways (theoretical sampling) and to have a balanced group of participants (e.g. male and female), to avoid skewed results. The Fusioneers included twenty-one men and nine women. They ranged in age from their 20’s through 80’s. Although we did not specifically ask for their ages (and could not always locate age in public profiles), roughly 6 might be called “young” (around 20’s to 30's), 19 might be called “middle” (40’s to 50's), and 5 might be called “senior” (60’s, 70’s, and 80's).
Inspired by one of the design-thinking diagrams, we sought a balance (for generalizability of results) across arts/humanities, science/technology, and business/organizations (“organizations” being not-for-profits, academic institutions, etc.). It was difficult and messy to assign participants to these perspectives, and was done on the basis of their training and work, especially where relevant to their “fusion.” Predictably, most of them fit into more than one category. As a Christian nun, for example, we counted Sister Cyril in the “arts/humanities” category, and we also counted her in “business/organizations,” since she ran a school and founded programs that were collected into a not-for-profit organization. She began her work at the school as a science teacher, but since her innovation was not science-related, we did not include her in “”science/technology.” Working through their backgrounds in this manner, we counted fourteen Fusioneers in arts/humanities, 22 in science/technology, and 24 in business/organizations.
One fusioneer interview audio was deleted, so although we were originally not going to transcribe her friends verbatim, we did, and memory was supplemented with third-party materials and participant review. A few codes were included in overall results from memory and the supplemental material.
One friend audio captured me but not the interviewee, so only what was remembered and reviewed could be folded in with the other friend and supplemental materials.
One Fusioneer didn’t complete the MPQ, so results are presented for 29 of them, not 30.
Interviews were flexible, semi-structured, open-ended discussions meant to be natural, open conversations. Each one roughly covered the following. In some cases, we stepped through the issues in order. In other, the interviewee just talked, and I prompted them afterwards to address areas that were missing. The “Fusioneer” interviews generally took 1–2 hours (although some much more), and the “friend” interviews took about ½ to 1 hour.
“I heard a lot by listening.”
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.