Updated: Jan 4, 2021
What is the Medici Effect?
In 2004, the American management guru and entrepreneur Frans Johansson published his book ‘The Medici Effect’, with groundbreaking insights. As a child of a Swedish white father, and a dark Turkish mother and born in Germany, he knows better than anyone that ideas, concepts and cultures can perfectly intermingle with each other and lead to excellent results.
Johansson’s book owes its name to the wealthy banker's family De Medici, which had a lot of influence in Italy in the 15th century. This family unleashed an explosion of creativity during this period and encouraged painters, sculptors, poets, scientists, philosophers and architects to come up with inspiring ideas. By supporting them financially, they were given freedom, which ultimately laid the foundation for the Renaissance. It was precisely the combination of different disciplines that brought a lot of innovation to art, which in turn led to change and renewal in that time period. Johansson calls this so-called cross-fertilisation the Medici effect; traditional barriers in art and culture are broken.
In his book, he describes the Medici effect. The term explains the innovation that takes place when disciplines and ideas intersect in different sectors. This brings ideas from various fields together, which benefits teams and organisations. It results in groundbreaking ideas and concepts and increased creativity. Johansson, for example, indicates that architect Mike Pearce was inspired by termite constructions, to design a building without air-conditioning.
Medici Effect example Aquavit
In his book, Johansson provides another example of the Medici effect. He describes how the new chef from the respected New York restaurant Aquavit created a pioneering innovation. At the time, the restaurant was primarily known for traditional Swedish dishes. However, chef Marcus Samuelsson cooked anything but classic combinations and was the founder of so-called ‘fusion cooking’. He made new dishes based on unique combinations of dishes from around the world.
He combined essential ingredients from Swedish cuisine, such as herring, blueberry juice and salmon, with elements from all over the world. This resulted in remarkable combinations, such as seaweed pasta with sea urchin sausage and cauliflower sauce, tandoori smoked salmon with espresso mustard sauce and dill foam and pepper-raspberry sorbet with lemongrass yoghurt.
The strength of Aquavit’s New York chef lies in the fact that he has low associative barriers. This enables him to connect disparate concepts, ideas, ingredients and styles spontaneously. It is also the basis of the Medici effect. The human brain quickly makes a number of associations. Specific keywords, such as ‘sustainable development’, ‘socially responsible organisation’ and ‘hole in the ozone layer’, are directly associated with the environment and global warming. These kinds of association connections happen unconsciously and automatically.
These associations, however, take place on the basis of personal reference frameworks. For example, a sea fisherman will have a completely different association with the word ‘tuna’ than the fishmonger or restaurant visitor. Everyone’s brain will follow the most straightforward path of previous associations that have been made. The fisherman is proud to think back to the moment when he took the enormous fish of over 100 kg from the sea, and the fishmonger knows precisely how much trouble it took to fill up the 1 metre long fish and cut it into pieces, while the restaurant visitor remembers his tasty grilled tuna steak with sesame sauce.
Of course, such thought chains have benefits, but they also allow the human brain to quickly reach conclusions and thereby create barriers to alternative ways of thinking. Such associative barriers impede creativity. In other words, the less associative barriers, the more broadly one is able to think.
In order to break away from fixed thinking patterns and search for cross-pollination from different perspectives, low associative barriers are therefore required. After all, people with high associative obstacles will come to conclusions too quickly if they are asked to ponder about a specific problem. They are stuck and are too focused on their own conceptual framework from their reference. They draw from their memory, how they previously solved a similar problem and remain stuck in that thought.
The Medici effect uses low associative barriers. This can also help in business; breaking free from fixed thought patterns and associating freely through brainstorming in order to arrive at creative ideas. Often managers and employees are stuck in a certain way of thinking, which is difficult to breakthrough. They’ve already thought of a consequence, before any new idea has even been tried. It is precisely the Medici effect that provides for broader thinking and the possibility of combinations that have not previously been thought of. A group from different disciplines will make ‘cross-pollination’ possible, leading to innovative ideas. They will approach a problem situation from separate stand and viewpoints.
The Medici effect can be evoked by bringing employees from different business units and various specialisations together within one organisation. For example, employees from the Marketing, Financial Affairs and ICT departments can come together in a workshop, and provide an equal input for a problem. The goal is that they are open to each other’s points of view and opinions, listen carefully to one another, think along with each other and have a constructive attitude. They will encourage each other to come up with innovative ideas. This will result in better and more surprising ideas, at the interface of the various disciplines. In addition, designs are conceived together, which means that they will be supported broadly and carried out with more motivation. This will ultimately result in less frustration and a more successful innovation process.