Frans Johansson is one of my intellectual heroes. His insights stimulate my mind; his passion for ecumenical understanding nourishes my soul. In this brilliant book, he advocates that companies must be willing to take their efforts at innovation beyond the borders of their business to include other industries and disciplines. He calls this cross-fertilization the “Medici Effect,” after the fifteenth-century banking family that broke down traditional barriers separating disciplines and cultures to ignore the Renaissance.
As Johansson carefully explains, however, this book is really not about the Medici family, although the community of creative people its members funded exemplifies all manner of exciting possibilities for collaborative productivity; nor is it really a “business book,” although Johansson asserts — and I wholly agree — that there are lessons to be learned from that community which can be of substantial value to organizations in the 21st century. For example, to corporations which rely on multi-lingual communications and multi-disciplinary initiatives to compete successfully in a global marketplace.
So, what is this book’s core concept? The idea behind it is simple: “When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary ideas.”
Johansson achieves three specific objectives: He explains what, exactly, “the Intersection is and why we can expect to see a lot more of it in the future”; next, he explains “why stepping into the Intersection creates the Medici Effect”; finally, he outlines “the unique challenges we face when executing intersectional ideas and how we can overcome those challenges.” With regard to the third objective, I am again reminded of a passage in Leading Change in which Jim O’Toole observes that there are always unique and formidable challenges when threatening what he characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”
In Part One, Johansson focuses on the Intersection that, for most of us, offers the best environment in which to innovate. Next, he explains how to create the Medici Effect within that creative and collaborative environment. Then in Part Three, he offers specific suggestions as to HOW to make intersectional ideas happen. I share Johansson’s faith in what an Intersection makes possible, no matter who is involved, no matter where that Intersection may be located. I also agree with him that we can all create the Medici Effect because we can all get to the Intersection. “The advantage goes to those with an open mind and the willingness to reach beyond their field of expertise. It goes to people who can break down barriers and stay motivated through failures.” There are countless examples of groups whose talented members created the Medici Effect. For example, the research laboratory that Thomas Edison established for himself and his associates in Menlo Park (NJ) in 1876; he relocated it to West Orange (NJ) in 1883.
Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman examine more recent examples in their book, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, notably the Disney studios that produced so many animation classics; Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which developed the first personal computer; Apple Computer which then took it to market; in the so-called “War Room” which helped to elect Bill Clinton President in 1992; the so-called “Skunk Works” where so many of Lockheed’s greatest designs were formulated; Black Mountain College which “wasn’t simply a place where creative collaboration took place” for the artists in residence from 1933 to 1956, “it was about creative collaboration”; and Los Alamos (NM) and the University of Chicago where the Manhattan Project eventually produced a new weapon called “the Gadget.”
Although the brief excerpt which follows is taken from Johansson’s Introduction, it serves as an appropriate conclusion to my brief commentary: “We, too, can create the Medici Effect. We can ignite the explosion of extraordinary ideas and take advantage of its individuals, as teams, and as organizations. We can do it by bringing together different disciplines and cultures and searching for places where they connect. The Medici Effect will show you how to find such intersectional ideas and make them happen. This book is not about the Renaissance era, nor is it about the Medici family. Rather, it is about those elements that made that era possible. It is about what happens when you step into an intersection of different disciplines and cultures, and bring the ideas you find there to life.”
What we have in this substantial volume is a cohesive, comprehensive, and cost-effect system that will enable aspiring leaders to understand what Martin Luther King, Jr., meant when asserting that ”everyone can be great, because everyone can serve…You don’t have to have a college degree to serve, You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve…You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” You also need what Strock offers in this book: an abundance of practical advice that will provide invaluable assistance as the reader proceeds through the four-week process which is central to Strock’s “Serve to Lead” system. Throughout his lively and thought-provoking narrative, he anchors his insights in real-world situations and rigorously examines the major leadership styles and those who best exemplify them.
He poses identifies and then explains “Ten Principles of Twenty-First Century Leadership” (Pages 26-64) that serve collectively as the ideological foundation of the “Serve to Lead” system. Strock also realizes the truth of what Thomas Edison once observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Therefore, most of his attention throughout the book is focused on explaining HOW to apply those principles in effective service to others.
With regard to the four-week program that Strock recommends, one that will help aspiring servant leaders to get their values in alignment with their life experiences, here is what it involves.
Weeks One and Two: Audit allocation of resources (especially hours and dollars) to serving others
Week Three: Conduct a rigorous evaluation of most important relationships in all domains (i.e. home, at work, in the community) to determine how each can be strengthened
Week Four: Move to the next level by reviewing and evaluating core values, ongoing thought patterns, routines, and “habitual ways in which you process and respond to your life as you experience it.”
The details of HOW to accomplish these worthy objectives are best revealed in context but I do not hesitate to suggest that James Strock is both an idealistic and a pragmatist, one who is determined to do all he can to help each reader to become an increasingly more effective leader through high-impact service to others.