How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Dr. Mihnea Moldoveanu
integrated technologies, fields, and multi-cultural teams into a USD 30 million start-up and opened a research center on integrative (“fusion”) thinking
Question 42. What do the following have in common: a 30-million-dollar rural high-tech start-up, leading-edge Internet-of-Things, Rotman-Harvard research, and biometric leadership education?
a. high impact
b. the same founder
c. integrative thinking
d. all of the above
e. none of the above
The answer is d— all of the above.
Back when people communicated over copper wires, banks leased E1 and T1 lines for USD 10,000 a month. When a new wireless bridge was introduced that would transport 40–50 megabytes of data per second, suddenly one line could host 20 times as much data — USD 200,000 worth of line access. The cost of the bridge: USD 10,000 — USD 20,000 once (not monthly).
It was a “no-brainer” for companies to buy Redline’s technology — one of the first asymmetric digital subscriber line modems (ADSL) in the world. Not only did Redline’s founder, Dr. Mihnea Moldoveanu, want his new product to outperform all other modems on the market, but he wanted to do so in the most severe environments. They started in Canada with oil fields and mining and created a fast-growing market niche.
Redline and its technology were a highly-integrative, cross-disciplinary effort — multi-technology, multi-discipline, and multi-ethnic. By necessity, it got involved in constructing cellular base-stations– as complex as jet aircrafts — and brought together:
Clients running oil fields wanted wireless connections not only among their people but also among all their tools and sensors. One company could do it — Redline.com.
Essentially, Redline was offering Internet of Things (IoT) in the early 2000’s, just after “IoT” as a term had been coined (in 1999). Founded in 1999, Redline was the fastest-growing company in the centre of Canada (second-fastest in the nation) for the 5 years from 2002–2007. They grew from 4 people to 300 in five years and in 2007 launched an Initial Public Offering (IPO) on the stock exchange. The company sold for USD 30 million.
Did the founder spend all his time focused on this macrocosm of multiplicities? No. He also integrated business and academe. While he was building Redline, he was also a professor at Rotman School of Management (University of Toronto), teaching and researching topics relevant to what he was doing in business.
Early experience at Redline alerted him to the difficulties of managing across technologies, disciplines, countries, and more. He had also noticed a widespread student anxiety among teams and individuals, as well as MBA-employer desires for better team skills, decision-making, and executive presence.
So, he founded the Desautels Center for Integrative Thinking (DCIT). In it, he and a faculty team would investigate integrative decision-making — not “either-or” but rather taking pieces of available options and crafting them together into new solutions. Their work would help business leaders not only make better decisions but also integrate better in teams, drawing more effectively on the ideas and talents of everyone.
A self-development lab and a leadership lab soon followed, as well as The Mind Brain Behaviour Hive (MBBH) — a collaboration between University of Toronto’s Schools of Management, Arts & Sciences, and Music (an unusual integration, itself). The MBBH operates at the intersection of neurophysiology, phenomenology, engineering, and management, and has developed a new pedagogy of biofeedback-enabled growth — a fusion of traditional education, coaching, and technology.
Not only do Mihnea and his colleagues craft multi-disciplinary management techniques and pedagogy, but they also co-create across the labs, integrating their own fields, personal work styles, and diversity — psychologist, business consultant, entrepreneur, phenomenologist, executive coach, and engineer. Mihnea himself has published articles in sociology, economics, psychology, engineering, and beyond.
“Human beings are uniquely the same. When you gather different backgrounds and perspectives and combine them with intellectual respect, autonomy, and a general openness to each other, you foster creativity and innovation. You also need a certain amount of maturity to stay in uncomfortable or difficult conversations to get a real synthesis of intelligence.”
- James Destephanis, Faculty, Self-Development & Leadership-Development Labs, as well as entrepreneur, coach, & organizational consultant
Management methods and education from the centers impact thousands of business leaders, who in turn impact thousands more in their organizations. The research, disseminated through Rotman’s and Harvard’s publication networks, are somewhat asymmetric, not-always-digital signals with the power to transform.
“He’s one of the few people that come to mind when I hear the word ‘genius.’ He is a creative genius, and it’s across different domains — mathematics, music, poetry, engineering, literature, and entrepreneurship. I’ve never encountered this particular combination before. He’s extremely perceptive and emotionally attuned, so can work well with people. His ideas come from everything that he’s ever read, experienced, and thought, and his mind works much, much faster than the rest of us. Left brain and right brain are operating together, and at an extraordinary intensity. He perceives more than the rest of us and anticipates what people will want, way before the need arises. When he started the labs, everyone thought they were just some little project, but 5 years later, it’s a differentiator, and Rotman is branding itself with them.”
– Dr. Maja Djikic, Psychologist, Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Self-Development Lab
Originally from Romania, Mihnea trained in Toronto as a concert pianist. Although already playing in piano competitions, he stopped at age 16, realizing he didn’t want to spend 8 to 10 hours a day doing only that.
He eventually went to MIT to study neuroscience and ended up majoring in mechanical engineering (most people’s pursuit at MIT). He pursued an off-the-beaten-track specialty in a branch of mathematics that’s less about proving theorems and more about thinking and calculating — an unforeseen foundation for his later work on integrative thinking.
He applied at Harvard Business School (where he is now Visiting Professor) to the Doctorate in Business Administration program. He was put on the waiting list, so pursued a doctorate in plasma physics instead.
He was fascinated with fusion and controlling the instability that results from it, but became disenchanted with the fusion community. Instead of actualizing and improving it (fusing theory and practice), they were more interested in writing papers. So, he pursued image compression and signal analysis, working as an engineer (again, showing a desire to fuse theory and practice). However, engineering wasn’t quite satisfying, either.
“I realized very quickly I wasn’t going to become an engineer. I needed to find something to fit my capabilities — my ways of being and aspirations. I remember in 1992, instead of working really, really hard finishing a piece of code I was working on, I instead wrote a paper on the epistemology of non-separable systems. About that time, I started working with Howard Stephenson at the Harvard Business School to start up a new company, and to me that was every bit as important as a way of learning about business — or more important, really — than doing a DBA.”
“Sometimes multiple disciplines are saying the same thing, but in a different language.”
- James Destephanis, Faculty, Self-Development & Leadership-Development Labs
While working as a CEO on the company he founded with Howard’s advice (Redline), Mihnea realized that people in each function of a company (marketing, finance, engineering, etc.) thought, spoke, and acted very differently. Each spoke a different language. They didn’t always need him to agree or approve what they wanted. But they always wanted to be understood and be spoken to in their own language.
“It’s not just enough to say ‘I hear you’ in a meeting. You actually have to give evidence that you’ve understood and speak in the other person’s language. This is where, I think, most CEOs fail.”
A former CEO noted for all three types of empathy (cognitive, affective, and active), Mihnea believes there is another element essential to connecting with others and speaking their language — depth of understanding. Instead of a fourth element, it might instead be described as another dimension of empathy, since it can add meaning to all three — depth of cognition, depth of emotion, and depth of experience.
“When someone says to me they understand, I’m always suspicious. To prove you understand, you have to build on what I’ve said, not just repeat it back. We wound up firing both of our operating CEO’s. In both cases, there was insufficient investment in understanding.”
Mihnea reads foundational texts in a variety of fields, talks with experts, and stays open to correction (actually, seeks and amplifies it) in order to learn the language system of each, as well as its underlying models.
He’s not so much gathering information from many fields as gathering abstractions that apply to more than one.
At the same time, he has to ensure that his meaning is actually getting across to others. One colleague noted,
“He’s so smart. Sometimes when you’re talking to him, you need a translator.”
And he himself noted a communication issue all founders face:
“An entrepreneur has to put his neck out there all of the time. You have to set goals. But some people infer promises from those goals.”
With Redline and the centers, Mihnea didn’t just notice what was around him. He noticed what was missing. Noted for his awareness, he can sense when people are not comfortable and sometimes can hear what was not said, even louder than what was. He’s open to underlying logic and reading people’s moods and behaviors. He’s not open to poor, incomplete, and politically- or ostentatiously-articulated ideas.
Moods and biases can make him less open, which he believes is a universal problem. Having thought about it and pursued his own self-development, he now rides his moods like waves. Instead of suppressing his emotional state in order to “be professional,” he finds it far more effective (and less tiring) to use them for sensing and communicating.
For example, whenever he prepares a talk, he creates 5 versions and chooses at the time what best fits the day, the audience, the occasion, and the dialogue he’s just had with someone. He uses emotions to sense issues and to resonate with others in a meeting (or audience), connecting with them fully and authentically.
“I’m not a collector.
Oh, these notebooks where I write down my ideas?
I have over 300 of them.”
Ideas come to him constantly and have done so for as long as he can remember. Walking around the Stanford University Campus, he began his first business plan at age 18. He doesn’t have enough time to pursue them all, so the dilemma is: which to pursue and what to do with the rest.
Wanting them all to come into being, he offers many of them to others — giving ideas to people and setting them free, without the need to share in the value or even be acknowledged as the idea generator. He not only collects people he finds interesting but senses their strengths and capabilities, envisioning which project(s) would be a good fit for them.
He cares about both the people and ideas and sees connections that would help them both flourish.
His colleague Maja, for example, was happy researching and writing psychology papers when Mihnea suggested she’d be very good working with business students. She had zero interest in business at the time but tried out some student interactions and found within 6 months that working with them was remarkably fulfilling. She describes making a difference in students’ lives as exactly what she was missing in her own.
Ideas that don’t go into the notebooks for later and aren’t passed along are developed in a variety of ways. Mihnea writes poetry, short stories, apps, is founding two new companies, developing 2–3 software platforms, working on several academic papers, two books, and contributing to projects in the centers. Different ideas call for embodiment through different means.
“Is he a hard worker? Oh, my God! I don’t anybody who works harder. And he’s so generative that by the time I come up with 5 ideas, he has 100 from which to choose. You know, most of us work on one or two projects at a time, but I think he’s working on 10 right now. Imagine the passion that drives him. It energizes him in a remarkable way, and the projects have synergy — they cross-fertilize each other. He seems very joyful to me. He enjoys the work and finds it meaningful, which are often 2 different things. But in the end, he sacrifices himself to the projects.”
–Dr. Maja Djikic, Psychologist and Executive Director, Self-Development Lab
Mihnea works and plays at the same time. He’s being uniquely and extremely who he is, doing what is engaging and natural for someone with his intellect. However, working and playing at the same time — all the time — can be exhausting. “Play” can require enormous effort, and a generative mind can exhaust the body that works to fulfill it.
Mihnea spends a lot of time alone and is a broad, voracious reader. With an engineering mindset he can apply to any discipline, he is precise and rigorous. He models the world and understands things at a mathematical level, yet communicates like an entrepreneur, using others’ own language and showing them value. He likes to take things apart and put them together iteratively — especially ideas, using different perspectives and modes of thought — and achieves a very high resolution on his ideas.
“When we were studying some of the neuroscience and neurophysiology, Mihnea would always introduce an engineering model. Or we’d start to envision the brain, and instead of a bunch of intertwined neurons, we’d envision it as a giant signal processor, asking what’s being processed in the various anatomical areas, what’s happening to the signals, what’s the distortion like, and so forth.”
- James Destephanis, Faculty, Self-Development & Leadership-Development Labs
Thomas Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that scientists hold on to their paradigms until a better one comes along that is so substantial an improvement it can wrest from them their old paradigm, knowledge, and tools. In fact, most people don’t want their paradigms wrested away from them (having invested substantially in their siloed careers) and will cling to the old.
Mihnea, however, is paradigm agnostic and seems happy to switch from one paradigm, theory, or field to another, the way a child selects one sand toy over another. Whatever works will be used. Unconcerned about crossing boundaries of paradigm, field, etc., he seeks truth, usefulness, and other boundary crossers to work with.
Mihnea’s fusions of technologies, fields, disciplines, theory and practice have been enabled by his openness to what he’s genuinely interested in — multiple interests — and willingness to dive deep enough to learn the language and abstractions common among them. With outward openness and empathy (including depth), he connects to others and leverages their knowledge and talents.
He collected a unique array of skills, ideas, and people, and with his unique view on the world, emotional authenticity, and emotional resonance with others, he senses what others need, even before the need arises.
He connects ideas and people that can flourish together and matches ideas with their appropriate means of embodiment (writing, technology development, entrepreneurship, etc.). He cross-fertilizes the ideas and projects he develops himself, and because he chooses work to which he is uniquely suited, can integrate work and play, too.
Having integrated his own mind, teams, and organizations, Mihnea has given significant thought to leading and managing integratively. As a musician, he aptly chose a musical metaphor for effective leadership beyond the command-and-control industrial age:
“Furtwängler is considered the greatest conductor ever, because he’s the only one who could get the orchestra to play in sync even when the tempo changed. Beat is the fundamental tool that all conductors have, with which to impose order. If you give up the beat, then you normally have chaos. Not Furtwängler. He could guide the orchestra through a tempo-change by creating an atmosphere — not by issuing a set of commands.”
In this new age of disruption and creativity, humanity’s beat is changing. We have new tools, new capabilities (both individuals and organizations), a new tempo (speed of operation and change), and need new leadership. We must learn how to orchestrate independent players, enable them to create at their best, and craft an atmosphere in which they synergize even as the beat changes — not through command, but through integration.
What new tools are you using — or would like to?
What would you like to create — by yourself or with an organization?
How might you integrate all of yourself and create an atmosphere of synergy for others?
Question 43. What do the following have in common: new tools, new projects, and new leadership?
a. high impact
b. integrative thinking
d. all of the above
e. none of the above
The answer is …
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;
Dr. Mihnea Moldoveanu is Vice Dean of Learning, Innovation, and Executive Programs at Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, as well as a Visiting Professor at Harvard Business School. He is the Founding Director of the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking, created to research and develop people’s ability to synthesize and integrate different models and perspectives for creative problem-solving. He is “from” Canada, Romania, and the USA (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on his work, see: LinkedIn, his faculty profiles at Rotman and Harvard, the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking, and the Mind Brain Behaviour Hive.
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.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Dr. Mihnea Moldoveanu, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
For more Fusion articles, click here.