How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Openness is key to innovation — but what is it? The Fusioneers are great observers, listeners, and sensitive in a variety of ways, which leads them to find new needs. With emotional, cognitive, and active empathy, they bring their new creations to the world and receive by giving. Highly global, they cross many boundaries — even rules. Openness must be managed, however, and there are key times to close for innovation.
“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.”
- Frank Zappa (variation on Thomas Dewar)
All the Fusioneers tested as highly open-minded,  and the most common advice I received after interviewing Fusioneers and their friends (other than “just do it”) was this:
It’s good advice and was a major theme, but hard to assess (especially our own):
“Am I open? No.”
“Is he open? He’s incredibly open and aware.”
– Dr. Mihnea Moldoveanu (Fusioneer) & Dr. Maja Djikic (Psychologist, Associate Professor, and Executive Director of Rotman School of Management’s Self-Development Lab)
It’s also hard to enact without understanding more deeply what “openness” actually is, how it’s useful, and when it’s not.
The Personal Assistant to a company founder was shocked one day when they rose from a meeting and the founder said, “The pillow’s backwards. Can you fix it?” The PA asked what he meant and was shown that pillows have zippers and it’s not nice to leave a pillow backwards with the zipper on display.
The founder was management innovator, author, educator, and philanthropist Mr. Matsushita, of Matsushita Electric Corporation, which is now Panasonic, worth nearly USD 4 trillion.  He was notorious for noticing everything around him, and, indeed, noticing is a well-noted innovation trait.
Visual sensitivity is, of course, useful to the multi-Emmy-award-winning executive producer and museum curator profiled as a Fusioneer. After he’s walked through a room, changing things as he goes, people notice it “feels better” but don’t quite know why.
The two Fusioneers who had been waiters described a hyper-aware state during mealtime rush, when a hundred things are happening all around them, needing attention immediately. One said everyone should have the experience of waiting tables, in order to learn organization, communication, intensity-management, and awareness.
Whether executives, professors, speakers, or performers, hyper-awareness was noted among a variety of Fusioneers as useful in a variety of situations. One noted:
“The key to inventing is to become more observant — more aware — and you do that with the things you care about and the things you collect or mess around with. Take bird watching, for example. Observing birds doesn’t make you a bird watcher. But being a bird-watcher will make you observe birds very well.”
- Robest Yong, Inventor
So, if you’d like to be more aware and observant, a good first step might be to simply care about something, collect, and start messing around — or waiting tables.
“Knowledge speaks. Wisdom listens.”
- Jimi Hendrix
Highly observant Mr. Matsushita was also well-noted for listening to everyone. While waiting for a board meeting, he might be on his knees chatting with the electrician fixing a meeting-room wall plug. During meetings, he would continually raise detailed issues from the shop floor or sales meetings or customer experiences. Executives would whisper to each other, ”How did he know about that?”
He shares this trait with Fusioneer Jack Cowin, billionaire fast-food entrepreneur:
“He’s not a time-waster and doesn’t accept invitations for a beer after work to while away the evening…. But he cares about and is fascinated by people in all walks of life. Last week he spent half an hour talking to the janitor.”
- Ian Parker, CFA Executive
Keen listening was useful to the Fusioneer scientist who followed her colleague’s advice to incorporate a design from the pocket watch (designed in 1893) into an advanced-biopolymer medication device (designed in 2017). In addition, the Fusioneer Joint-Venture executive has an “open door” policy to listen to issues before they become big problems, crafting solutions based on what people need and want:
“It’s all about listening and observing. I listen to my staff. I listen to clients. I listen to colleagues. As the former head of sales at Smollan, we didn’t just sell. We listened and developed new solutions for clients while selling. Where do ideas for training and development come from? I don’t just wake up and think of them. I listen to people, and it becomes evident when I see or hear them having problems.”
- Sean Leas, Chief Executive APAC for the Smollan Group, Managing Director of DKSH Smollan Fieldmarketing South East Asia
They may not be listening as other people want, e.g. when their minds race ahead or float off thinking of possibilities (the executive producer and the startup ecosystem founder are notorious “speed listeners”). However, they generally listen deeply and probe with questions — listening to understand, not just to respond. They either seek feedback (e.g. the inventor with new prototypes) or at least accept and value it. They give honest feedback, too.
Sometimes, well-meaning friends advise, “Don’t be so sensitive.” But maybe the reverse is better advice. Sensitivities can be used to advantage and developed. For example, superior smell, taste, hearing, and touch (sight, too) are key tools for the Michelin-star chef who had to interrupt his Fusion interview to move a vase of dried flowers. He was disturbed by the odour, which no one else in the room could smell.
He then shared other things that bothered him — a crooked chair leg, a fork in the wrong place, a stress ball under the sofa, a flower that annoyed him, dust underneath a chair leg, and other oddities all around. Like the executive producer mentioned above, he changes things all around his guests, thus changing their mood and experience. And his food, drink, mood, and experience command top dollar.
When I began the Fusion research, I knew openness to ideas would be an important theme, but it surprised me how much ideas and people flow together. The Fusioneers developed broad, eclectic social networks and gleaned ideas and help from them (as well as giving freely). Most of them partnered or co-created: 17 out of 30 (57%) were either entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial co-founders. Another 10 (33%) were strong collaborators or team-builders. Only 3 (10%) founded organizations independently and largely drove their innovations themselves (albeit with inputs and contributions from others).
Two of them described how they generated far too many ideas to develop and were always on the lookout for people to give them to. They wanted good things to happen and were open to giving good ideas away.
For ideas they developed, most of them trusted their teams fully. Team members might undergo six months or so of close collaboration and scrutiny (e.g. those who worked with the Nokia executive or the ecosystem founder). One quipped,
“Love is given. Trust, on the other hand, is earned.”
However, once their trust was earned, they trusted fully. They encouraged and empowered their colleagues, freeing up the Fusioneer to generate more ideas and initiatives.
Trust went both ways. The Fusioneers were seen as very honest, and those who raised funds for their new ventures engendered remarkable trust from their investors. Trust also helped others let their guard down and share sensitive information with the Fusioneers. The social entrepreneur, urban farmer, and several others quickly gained people’s trust and established a bond of empathy.
“Empathy is the engine of innovation.”
— Gary Hamel, The Heart of Innovation
Empathy is sometimes considered a “sixth sense.” It includes emotional, cognitive (perspective-taking), and active (compassionate action).  All the Fusioneers were exceptional in at least one type of empathy and found it useful for innovation.
Most had two or all three, but it wasn’t necessary to be exceptional in all.
Active — Fusioneers who were entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs (i.e. 90% of them) showed active empathy — reaching out to help others with their innovations. Generous, giving, and other-centric, with an eye to creating value for multiple stakeholders, they were not the stereotypical selfish, economic-rational-man type of entrepreneur.
They gave, and in giving they received.
The financial advisor, for example, had grown up poor, with a keen desire for financial independence. Once he researched economics and understood the threats and opportunities aroused by globalization and deregulation, he could have capitalized on the trends in a variety of ways, lining his own pockets.
He didn’t. He and his partners realized most people in their nation were completely unprepared to handle the changes and would need help. They chose to bring a new model of independent, well-researched financial advice to the marketplace, reducing their own incomes for 10 years (zero income at the beginning), while building something new that would help others. They did well in the end, however, finally earning a market rate for their skills and expertise, then selling the firm they built. They stayed on to grow it further, eventually managing USD 15 Billion for tens of thousands of clients who appreciated their ideas and approach.
Some Fusioneers also repurposed what they created — opening for other uses and other users. The scientific app developer, for example, builds tools for his own use and then offers them for free to scientists all over the world (30,000 at last count). The sports scientist crafts new methods and devices for the Australian Olympic team and has now co-founded an accelerator to develop them for commercial use. The autism audiologist developed a calming device (the BioHug vest) to settle participants in his autism-diagnostic studies. Now, not only is he developing the autism test for commercial use, but he co-founded a company to sell the vest, too, since it is so useful to people with autism, their families, doctors, and teachers. It’s too late for his own son to receive early diagnosis and effective intervention. But he’s still working to bring it to others.
Fully half of the Fusioneers teach or mentor and find it, in turn, helps them. The computational structural biologist explains by analogy, which helps her think laterally. The composer deepens her grasp of classical composers while teaching, thereby reconnecting with musical elements she can use in her own work. The joint venture (JV) executive, in fact, views himself less as an executive and more as a teacher empowering his team.
They don’t lose sight of their own goals, however, or the needs of their innovations. The JV executive still has to ensure they perform (it’s a business, not a school). The professional inventor calls it “rational compassion” — to create for- and with- others but not lose sight of what he wants and needs.
Cognitive — An essential skill of entrepreneurship (including launching a new innovation) is to understand the motivations and perspectives of others — cognitive empathy. Multiple stakeholders are inevitable in any enterprise but must be specially managed in new enterprises, since they can fail so easily when a stakeholder withdraws.
One of the social entrepreneurs, for example, was so frustrated by government bureaucrats that he earned a master’s degree in public policy in order to understand them. He found it helped, and with a solid understanding of their motivations and constraints, he can design programs and enterprises that include them in ways they can accept.
Another social entrepreneur found it essential to reach deeply inside others’ heads in order to design interventions that would actually work. For example, she realized that female prisoners won’t necessarily turn their lives around for themselves, but they are motivated to keep their kids out of jail. Knowing that, she designed a program to help the children — but only if the mothers would pursue new work and life goals. Unlike most recidivism interventions, it worked.
Emotional — Emotional empathy was a distinguishing feature of a range of Fusioneers — scientists, entrepreneurs, and business executives, as well as the more predictable artisans and humanitarians. When crafting something new and at risk of failure, emotional understanding is essential, not only of service/product users, but also of the development/delivery team.
The diagnostic lab founder, for example, is immediately aware of employees’ feelings and offers help well beyond the scope of daytime lab-work. He considers them family. They, in turn, have performed way beyond the call of duty, even forfeiting half their salaries for 6 months while the enterprise faced financial turbulence. The joint-venture executive uncovers problems when he senses employee discomfort and takes action before problems grow. He also senses client hesitation, probes their needs and constraints, and both customizes and expands his services to them.
Beyond merely sensing emotions, the tech-company founder and management researcher finds himself more effective when he has emotional resonance with others in meetings and presentations. This requires sensing others’ emotions — as well as his own — and aligning them. The celebrity chef derives joy from making others joyful — both guests and employees — fuelling both them and himself.
Sustaining a new enterprise and the relationships that bring it to the world requires emotional stability, which the Fusioneers showed.  Beyond survey scores, the billionaire entrepreneur, for example, has been married for over 50 years, has close relationships with his grown children, and has cultivated far-longer-than-average employee tenure in his companies. In contrast to other, more emotionally-expressive Fusioneers, he doesn’t “wear his heart on his sleeve.” However, he has weathered the turbulence of bringing something new to life, including the entrepreneur-against-big business lawsuit that could have bankrupted him.
“…if managers try out even one international assignment before becoming CEO, their companies deliver stronger financial results than companies run by CEOs without such experience — roughly 7% higher market performance on average.”
- Research by Gregeren, Carpenter, and Sanders cited in Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton Christensen, “The Innovator’s DNA,” Harvard Business Review, December 2009.
Beyond empathy in general, the Fusioneers tested high in cultural empathy.  In fact, although the Fusion study was not intended to be global, it became intensely so. It was hard to schedule research trips, for example, with (1) one Fusioneer who lives in Dallas and Spain but met me in New York on her way between working in Copenhagen and Frankfurt; (2) another who lives in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv but works in Toronto; and (3) another of Turkish heritage who lives in New York, Singapore, San Francisco, and Vienna.
On average, the Fusioneers had lived in 3–4 countries (some concurrently, as above). Many had international backgrounds as children (having themselves migrated, or their parents).
At least 21 out of 30 (70%) spoke multiple languages. Two of them speak 6 languages. One of them — the international-relations author — found it very helpful to “get the real story” in local context, with local language. One Fusioneer learns language — at least a few words (though normally more) — of whatever nation she travels to.
Research has shown that living abroad enhances creativity, but not just traveling abroad.  That said, in one study, participants who saw a slide show comparing cultures in the US and China wrote stories afterwards that were more creative than participants who saw slide shows on the culture of only one nation (only US or only China).  So, living abroad apparently boosts creativity, and cross-cultural travel or exposure may help.
Being global may also enhance mental flexibility. The only two Fusioneers who had lived solely in only one country both showed medium mental flexibility (so, 0% high flexibility). In contrast, 25 of the 27 multinational Fusioneers scored as highly flexible — 93% of them. 
Why is this important? Because mental flexibility is important for innovation, as when the Fusioneer who crafted the first digital music deal (between the music and mobile phone industries) hit a roadblock. The music companies wouldn’t re-contract music to give him the rights to print ringtone booklets. He swiftly responded, “Fine — you print the booklets. You have the rights. Just sell the booklets to us, and let’s craft the marketing together.”
On another project, his manager developed a health-information service that included a micro-insurance payment as part of the package. However, the telecommunications regulators rejected their application to launch it in the marketplace. They were a telecom provider, not an insurance company, and mobile money hadn’t been invented (or regulated) yet. The manager was dismayed and thought all their efforts were wasted. The Fusioneer instantly said, “Never mind. We’ll charge for the information service. The insurance is bundled in for free.” The regulators approved, and the product was a success.
Some flexibility (as with the mobile phone executive, above) develops with experience. However, some flexibility (or adaptability) seems to be inborn. For example, the Fusioneer who became an international-dance instructor was considered a “Zelig” in youth — adaptable and sensitive to others’ style. In their global experiences or empathic sharing with others, all the Fusioneers showed Zelig-like capabilities, blending in and adapting. 
“I learn as much from painters about how to write as I do from writers.”
— Ernest Hemmingway
Beyond crossing place, culture, and language, Fusioneers cross industry, field, technology, taboo, and more. After all, crossing boundaries and integrating what they find is what makes them Fusioneers. They crossed boundaries in at least six ways:
1. Cross-Fertilising — All of them cross-fertilised ideas and resources, often working on an unusually-high multiple of projects at once, e.g. the integrative-thinking researcher who works on 10 at once, the entrepreneur who founded more than 20 successful organizations, and the sports scientist who applies ideas cross-sport among his myriad projects. One went where he “didn’t belong” (a common theme) and took ideas from farm to farm (a cultural boundary almost as strong as national boundaries), cross-fertilizing best practices and new ideas wherever he went.
2. Multi-Perspective — Crossing over to different perspectives was important, too, as with the sports scientist who made sure he observed from a different angle or distance from the coach, e.g. by watching sport performance from the stands instead of beside the athlete. He even built a device that would not only allow rapid experimentation and turn-practice by gymnasts and divers, but would also enable observation from front, back, side, below, or above, in rapid succession, to enable multi-perspective insight by coach, colleagues, and himself.
3. Multi-Fusions — Some Fusioneers integrated across multiple boundaries at once. The nun-school-principal, for example, not only integrated social assistance and school but also integrated different Indian castes and generally-abled with differently-abled. The corporate anthropologist combined her artistic abilities with social science, mathematics, software-development, and business. Another created a dance-ethnology-medicine-anthropology-business fusion, drawing on neuropsychopharmacology. The list goes on.
4. Integrated Work-Life — The majority of them integrated “work” and “life,” recognizing that creative ideas (and energy) would come when they come, not restricted to the official workday. The happiness expert doesn’t know whether he’s working hard or hardly working. “Work-life” for them is not a balance — it’s another integration. In fact, that insight fed into the ground-breaking work of one of the Fusioneers to help people integrate their lives, manage their energies, and avoid (or recover from) burnout.
5. Breaking Free — Many were described as “free spirit.” While some knowingly crossed boundaries, some didn’t even see them. For example, when the quantum-chemist looked down from a mezzanine and saw a chemical pattern in people’s interactions, she studied anthropology, ethnography, mathematics, and software development to model it and learn more about what it was. Her advisor told her she needed to stop exploring and focus. She was astounded and said she was focused like a laser beam on the one thing she was studying. She just drew from multiple disciplines and was borrowing a diverse set of tools to address it.
“Creativity is thinking without the box.”
- Robest Yong
6. Breaking Rules — Most had little patience for seemingly-arbitrary organisational or societal rules that got in the way of “doing the right thing,” e.g. the nun-school-principal who opened her previously locked doors and gates, inviting street children to sleep in her school (of course without asking for organizational permission). She eventually grew the student cohort — and her school programs — to include them. The serial entrepreneur, the farm-tech entrepreneur, and the celebrity chef were among those who were difficult children who “pushed boundaries” more than most. However, moral rules were a different matter. All showed a high degree of integrity. They just cared more about what’s right than what’s the rules.
Every parent worries that breaking one rule or crossing one boundary may lead to more. In the case of the Fusioneers, that’s been a good thing. Most of them created more than one innovation and got better as they went. The first step over a boundary can lead to an amazing journey — for the innovator and for us all.
“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”
- Terry Pratchett
The hyper-aware executive producer called openness a “blessing and a curse.” The chef revealed that he can’t turn off his awareness of random, annoying oddities. He’s “finicky” at his restaurants and at home. Maintaining openness and using it effectively requires some management.
Framing — Some framing may be possible (and, indeed, necessary), to help with over-stimulated hyper-awareness. The nun-school-principal, for example, surrounded by Kolkata’s millions, has a mission for her life and her school: “We educate children.” When asked if she ever said “No” to someone asking for help, she said, “No.” (So, obviously, she can say it.) However, in the ensuing discussion, she described a homeless mother and child, to whom she had offered help — housing and education for the child. When asked if she offered housing to the mother, she said, “No — we don’t give general assistance to families. We educate children.”
Within her mission — her lens on the world — her assistance appeared limitless. However, she had limits, and in having them could remain open within those boundaries.
Time — She continually looked through that lens, scanning the world for children to help and resources to use. However, there may be times when “closing” is more useful. The inventor, for example, is open to new inputs while scanning for needs and ideas, as well as while he’s testing solutions. However, the middle stage — when he’s crafting a solution — is decidedly “closed” time.
That said, the silk vaccine entrepreneur, even while focused on growing his startup, remained open to new connections. Most people “close in” on themselves when developing something new, but by remaining open, he continued to find new contacts, some of whom later provided important help when new problems came along. Likewise, the enlightened-incubator mentor recommended staying open and watching events unfold — flowing with the energy of a new creation instead of pushing things forward with self-determined hard work. Based on his exhausting experience as a bio-diesel CEO, he now finds it more useful to remain open, observe, gauge whether people want an innovation, and whether there’s energy (and others’ help) behind it.
Single or Social — Perhaps they key is the type of work. Creations best suited to an individual may benefit from “closed” focus. Creations that are social in nature (like growing a new business) may benefit most from at least one team member remaining open, making new external connections.
During Take-Off — Another key “closed” time was when these innovators were convinced their creations were good, but others offered discouragement because it was different or they didn’t understand. The new-and-different, independent, fee-based model of financial advice attracted discouraging remarks for 10 years (including from one founder’s mother). However, it eventually became one of the world’s most valuable financial-advisory partnerships. The quantum-chemist-corporate-anthropologist was told her research would never amount to anything. However, she pioneered a new field, and 35 years later, she’s still consulting to the world’s top corporations and governments who want to leverage her work.
“Sometimes you have to look reality in the face and deny it.”
- Garrison Keillor
Filtering — A few Fusioneers were characterized as super-honest “No-Filter” people. One often said whatever came into his head (“No-Filter Ted,” the executive producer), and one habitually wrote whatever came into his head (a best-selling author fondly remembered by his publisher for thousand-page manuscripts). Non-filtering is, in fact, a standard creativity technique. In the classic diverge-converge sequence, we suspend judgement (filtering) in order to come up with many (sometimes wild) ideas to take forward. After diverging, judgement is re-introduced, and the creative team converges on one or a few ideas to pursue. Individuals can also use the technique. Ernest Hemmingway wrote around 100 book titles for each book he wrote — and then chose one. However, being too “unfiltered” can create problems organizationally. Another Fusioneer found that the honesty and directness of her national and artistic backgrounds had to be softened if she was to remain a corporate employee or finish her degree program at an old, established school.
Burnout — Another key reason to close is empathic burnout. One Fusioneer found empathy had to be “turned off” when not in use, or it would lead to exhaustion. As an ecosystem founder, she ironically discovered she had to learn to create boundaries (and some degree of isolation) for herself while helping others cross boundaries, coming together as community. Her advice for innovators in general, though, is to join a community — open outward and don’t try to do it alone.
Thankfully, among the many ways in which these Fusioneers were open, they were open to sharing their selves and their journeys with an interviewer — and ultimately with you. Openness — in a variety of ways — was key to their innovation journeys.
Given their diversity of field, function, country, and more, hopefully the Fusion stories have helped you become a little more diverse and open, too.
How will you use and develop your sensitivity(ies), becoming more open and aware?
What kind of empathy do you have (emotional, cognitive, active)? How might you use and develop it?
What boundaries will you cross (global or other)?
Will you trust, partner, and co-create?
Are you open to the next step?
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.
 Each Fusioneer was given the MPA/MPQ (Multicultural Personality Assessment/Questionnaire) short-form from Karen van der Zee, Jan Pieter van Oudenhoven, Joseph G. Ponterotto, & Alexander W. Fietzer. “Multicultural Personality Questionnaire: Development of a Short Form,” Journal of Personality Assessment (2013): 95:1, 118–124. See also Fusioneer article/chapter Five Habits of Highly Effective Fusioneers.
 PHP Institute, Inc. Matsushita Konosuke (1894–1989) His Life & His Legacy: A Collection of Essays in Honor of the Centenary of His Birth. Kyoto, Japan: PHP Research Institute (1994).
 Hamel, Gary. The Heart of Innovation. http://www.garyhamel.com/blog/heart-innovation
 Hodges, S. D., & Myers, Michael W. (2007). “Empathy” in R. F. Baumeister and K. D. Vohs
(eds.), Encyclopedia of Social Psychology (pp. 296–298). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
 CT Tadmor, AD Galinsky, & WW Maddux. “Getting the Most Out of Living Abroad: Biculturalism and Integrative Complexity as Key Drivers of Creative and Professional Success.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103 (3), 520–542.
 Maddux, W. W., & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1047–1061.
 Woody Allen. Zelig. Los Angeles: Orion Pictures (1983). American mockumentary film.
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