How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Fusioneers see the world like no one else. That’s why they can see opportunities others miss. Some create a lens on the world that excludes what’s not in their mission but opens them up to opportunities within that self-crafted mission. They see for themselves and peek in the back-room. They see with their hands and feet. They play. They see deeply, not only connecting fields (where in-depth they address the same things, just with different language), but also breaking through assumptions (allowing radical new directions) and seeing underground (e.g. a new archaeological site). They see big-picture and little, near and far, and patterns & connections. They see from different perspectives (including other people’s), and see what doesn’t exist (but should). They see what’s next, and they see again (innovation leading to innovation). Their vision is unique. Each one sees what others miss.
“I shut my eyes in order to see.”
— Paul Gauguin
Overall, the Fusioneers were attuned, observant, open-minded scanners who saw the details and beyond. Openness helped them see, but there’s much more involved in seeing that you would think, at first glance.
Seeing is not just a state of openness or a reflex after looking. It is an action (or series of actions), enhanced by your actively-developed mental collection. Sometimes, we cannot see without adding new mental models (of what we might see) to that collection.
Sister Cyril’s students, for example, when she sent them out to survey poor children under a bridge, returned and reported that there were no poor children. “They’re all quite fat.” Sister’s students hadn’t yet learned to recognize the advanced stages of malnutrition, when the body swells. After more experience with poor kids, Sister’s students began to see poor children all around them. And they reached out to help.
“Indeed, great innovators are great observers. But human nature leads us to attend selectively to the things we believe are important; observation is framed. Attention is yet another skill that must be cultivated.”
- Roberta Ness (2015)
The students cultivated their skill of attending to poor children, and in fact, Sister Cyril did the same. Living and working in the heart of Kolkata (Calcutta), she was surrounded by needs to which any nun would be attuned and attentive. They could easily become overwhelming.
Yet, by understanding and honing her mission (“we educate children”), she filtered out needs that were outside her “lens” and opened more fully to those within it. She did not provide assistance to a poor mother, for example, who could not house and school her child, but she did offer schooling and housing to the child. Like her students, she saw needs everywhere — through her own lens. If she could see them through the mission-lens, she founded programs to help. If they fell outside, she left the opportunities to others.
So, developing your own “lens” can both restrict and expand your vision — restricting sight to your mission, but sensitizing your sight to see more opportunities within your mission.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
— Max Plank
With your own customized lens on the world, you will see differently from others, and seeing based on what’s in your head is nothing new. Indeed, changing “the way you look at things,” as well as what’s “at the back of your mind” is a well-known (if underused) way to change your world. The things you look at will change, whether by mere observation or active intervention.
The Nokia executive, for instance, always had new technology at the back of his head and a keen desire to find new ways to use it. When he scanned the world, he saw with the eye of a technologist looking for new needs to fulfil with new technology. He did just that — pioneering ringtones, photo printing, location tagging, customized information services, and more.
The SwineTech founder also saw differently from those around him, supplementing the usual farmer’s view-of-the-world with that of a farmer cum veterinary assistant cum pre-medical student with an interest in entrepreneurship. His view meant he could see USD 8 Billion of opportunity others missed.
That Fusioneer wasn’t working on farms because he went where he completely “didn’t belong.” He was the son of a farmer and working on farms. However, he did cross over from one farm to another (a highly unusual practice), cross-fertilizing ideas and best practices. Most farmers felt others didn’t belong on their farms and didn’t welcome visitors (or new ideas) without a reason (e.g. veterinary assistance). So, he belonged and didn’t belong.
The inventor, on the other hand, did go where he “didn’t belong.” He was dissatisfied with being told it would take a week to make a rubber stamp and went with the manager into the back room (where customers “don’t belong”). Having worked in the printing industry, he told the manager he could make a stamp in an hour. It shouldn’t take a whole week. A printing technician doesn’t usually go into stamp-maker back-rooms, but having done so, he brought his outside perspective and practices and created something new, having seen how (inefficiently) things were done. The result: his most successful patent.
“He sees things more sensitively than other people.”
- Teng Yu-Mein, wife & former colleague, speaking of inventor Robest Yong
The medical anthropologist hung out in “crack houses” in order to understand needle-sharing practices in the early days of AIDS. Most associates from Harvard Medical School didn’t go to crack houses and weren’t really welcome. However, once she went, she shared what she learned, and her boundary-crossing research may have saved many lives.
Being there in person learning “on the ground” is also a hallmark of the international-relations author. He finds discrepancies between theory and reality and reconciles them — bringing us new theory and practice that informs the decisions of our world leaders.
As the saying goes, there’s no substitute for “being there.”
“At just the right moment, when I was looking for something, it walked in the door.”
— Dr. John Goodenough, co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery
Actually, the “being there” advice is usually given to parents, and it brings to mind something kids have to teach us about seeing. I remember telling my kids repeatedly, “we don’t see with our hands.” However, I’ll not be saying that anymore, because now, I think they’re right.
Working on something or “playing” with it does help you “see,” as anyone who leads prototyping or design thinking will tell you. The photographer and best-selling author/publisher may put together and take apart a book 20 times before finalizing it. It’s important to play with something and use your hands to “see.”
The sport scientist working with the Australian Olympic team only “saw” the insight that helped make Olympic history by modeling judges’ scores and then “playing with the numbers.” If he didn’t model and didn’t “play,” he never would have seen it.
So, you may have to look for something (or play with it) in order to see it walk through the door.
Although modelling is one good way to “get under the surface,” it’s not the only way. Sometimes, just an inquiring mind that sees like a child can lead us to what no one else sees.
The serial entrepreneur, for example, noticed dry grass in the park and, lingering over the pattern, realized it wasn’t just grass or perhaps subterranean pipes. He saw the shape of a fort and realized the road — Fort Road — must have been named for a fort that was now submerged. He allowed his vision to linger, allowed his mind to linger and connect (with the street name), and pursued government approval (over multiple years) for an archaeological dig.
Seeing beneath the surface can be purely metaphorical, and, indeed, seeing and understanding a field in depth can reveal underlying concepts or models that are the same across domains (as in the work of the integrative thinking researcher or the scientist who studies psycho-endo-neuro-immunology).
Seeing deeply allowed the autism audiologist to break through an assumption (that hearing problems are a result of autism, not the cause) and open a pathway to early diagnosis and treatment for 70 million people.
Depth of understanding was key to the urban farmer, who was able to understand the perspectives and motivations of multiple stakeholders (and manage them) because she was a local — deeply rooted in her community.
However, understanding deeply was not enough to sprout two new urban farming organizations. She saw her surroundings with a traveller’s eye, knowing it could become something else.
Most of the Fusioneers saw not only local and global but also small-picture and big-picture, like the international-relations author who also saw on-the-ground-reality and academic theory. They’re able to see both and switch as needed.
Most were highly adept at seeing patterns, like the artist and quantum chemist who looked down from a mezzanine and saw the same pattern of movement in a group of people that she’d seen in quantum chemistry. When she was in art school, one of the tests was to identify a painting’s artist and year by the brush-strokes. She was correct 100% of the time — multiple years in a row.
She saw the world in brush-strokes. Having developed her pattern-recognition abilities in one field, she couldn’t help but apply them in others. Her view led to the creation of a new field and one of the “100 Most Innovative Firms in the World” (according to CIO Magazine).
The dance ethnographer who knows thousands of dance patterns had no trouble seeing patterns in work energy that led to the resilience movement. She also sees interaction patterns in the MBA and executive teams she coaches.
The sports scientist (while mathematically modelling) saw a pattern in the “error term” that he used for Olympic insight. The happiness expert sees patterns in social systems and helps leaders find and rectify destructive patterns and rifts. The coffee connector sees whom in the network should be connected for mutual gain and connects them. (That’s one reason everyone comes to his café to network.)
So, having honed a skill for discerning patterns in one domain, you may find patterns in others. Whether useful for developing patterning skills, dedication, or purely by coincidence, it is interesting to note that the Fusioneers include a piano prodigy, a concert-trained pianist, an amateur pianist, and a pianist-violinist composer.
If you can see patterns, you’ll of course want to be in a position to see them. In the artist-chemist’s case, she was on a mezzanine looking down. She wasn’t part of the system. She saw with a bird’s-eye view.
Likewise, the sports scientist worked with Olympic coaches from another angle. He always sought a different perspective so his observations would bring something new — not next to the athlete (where the coach would be), but from the stands. Not from below the diver or gymnast, but from multiple perspectives all around, with a newly-invented training device.
Not only is it useful to see with your own eyes from multiple perspectives, but it’s also useful (and possible) to see through others’ eyes. Fusioneers with a great deal of empathy, like the “chief dream igniter,” see more fully than average from someone else’s perspectives. In her case, she saw that female prisoners wouldn’t necessarily turn around their own lives but would take effective measures to prevent their children from walking a path to prison. Only by sharing their perspective and understanding what they wanted was she able to make a breakthrough that would sustainably help them change and make a change for the next generation.
In fact, empathy (and others’ perspectives) may be the secret sauce for joint venture (JV) leadership, as in the case of the JV executive who understands parent organizations, employees, clients, and customers — interweaving them all to achieve success together. Likewise, the serial entrepreneur, the urban farmer, and the ecosystem builder all bring together multiple stakeholders to achieve what each one wants but no one can achieve alone.
Seeing What’s There — and What Isn’t
Beyond seeing motivations and desires, they see what doesn’t exist but should. In fact, that’s what launches their journey to integrate multiple stakeholders. Fusioneers like Sister Cyril noticed not only what was there (like an influx of children into the city) but also what was unsaid or missing (like schools).
The fast-food entrepreneur saw 50 people in a restaurant take-out queue (line) and fast food from his home country (Canada) that was missing from his new home (Australia). The ecosystem founder saw a vision in a dream of libraries for poor children, alongside the reality — none. She saw both an existing startup hub (in San Francisco) and one missing from Asia (in Singapore). The urban farmer saw not only the vacant lots that surrounded her school but also the urban farms that could be there — but weren’t.
“Our existing models, metaphors, and frames shape our ways of looking, and precedents constrain what we end up looking for. They can provide useful shortcuts for transferring insight from one field of practice to another, but they are our enemies in producing new insight; they are the pictures we took using yesterday’s lenses.”
- Mihnea Moldoveanu (2015)
The wealth-management Fusioneer studied not only existing economics and financial systems but could also see where two trends were leading — globalization and deregulation. He was able to use new trends so see how then-current economic and financial models and practices would play out. He connected two trends, found current system’s weakness (financial-advice conflict of interest) and reimagined how to operate.
While others remained trapped in “business as usual” operating models, he and his partners imagined a better one. That made all the difference. Their new model upended the industry, and now the industry follows them.
Likewise, the biofuels entrepreneur-cum-digital marketer has entered a new phase of creativity — enlightened incubation. Seeing a shift in the world towards something new, and a new cohort to enact it (the millennials), he’s willing to let go of existing models, metaphors, frames, and precedents, and is now framing new ways to promote human enlightenment.
Fusioneers are often described as “visionary” — and deservedly so. They see far more than what’s in front of their eyes.
Sister Cyril noted — as most startups will tell you — that when you start building something new — if it’s radically new — you won’t have the models, you won’t have the resources, you won’t know the timeline, and you won’t know if there’s a “market.” In fact, you won’t know much of anything.
Her advice: “Just do it.”
She says if you just start, the road will unfold before you. That seems to be the modus operandi in the startup world, and it’s the same for cross-domain innovation, much of which results in “startups.” If she’d planned, she never would have taken the first step.
However, by walking where she at first couldn’t see, she’s co-founded 15 programs over the past 35 years, and as people learned of her noble purpose and good work, resources and people came to help. They’ve never failed. It’s changed her own life, surely, and 450,000 more.
So, you see with your feet. The road unfolds, people join if it’s worthwhile, and you’ll see your way once you’re on your way — but not before.
Beyond the curve in the road, with innovation success comes more innovation success. Failures are repurposed (as the DNA researcher does), and one innovation can lead to another.
The Nokia executive, for example, began his ringtone journey by creating a special ring for the Nokia 5110, celebrating India’s 51st anniversary of independence. With that special ring on his mind, he watched an upcoming movie theme song on MTV and realised a special ring would be very useful for promoting movies. It would have to be programmable, however (unlike the 5110), since movies launch continually.
Thus began his ringtone journey, which would set Nokia on a path to growth in India and pioneer what became a USD 2 Billion industry (ringtones) by 2011. Without the first innovation (the 5110), he might not have made the second (“Tones for Your Phone”).
We see the world differently after each step of the journey.
Having opened themselves to the world around them, opened to themselves, and collected ideas, skills, people (and more) into a unique mental workshop, Fusioneers see the world uniquely through that “workshop window.”
That window (or “lens”) helps them filter out what’s outside their mission and open more to what’s within it. However, that opening-closing requires not only actively collecting into their unique workshop but also defining a mission. They do their homework.
Seeing is a product not of the moment, but of the moment and the mind.
Perhaps Gaugin was right — you must shut your eyes in order to see. But when you open them, what do you see — and how?
What is your lens on the world — your mission?
What do you see that’s big? Far? Little? Close? Do you see from different perspectives (including someone else’s)?
Do you go where you don’t belong — or want to? Do you see patterns, and how?
Do you see with your hands and feet and heart?
What do you see that isn’t there? What’s next?
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.
Mihnea Moldoveanu and Olivier Leclerc. The Design of Insight: How to Solve Any Business Problem. Stanford, CA (USA), Stanford University Press, 2015, p. 3.
Ness, Roberta B. “A Renewed Vision for Public Health Education.” American Journal of Public Health, Vol 105, 2015, No. S1, p. 115.
For more Fusion articles, click here.