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Books > The Medici Effect - excerpts


Excerpts from The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson

From Frans Johansson: in a nutshell, it says that we have the greatest chance to develop a groundbreaking insight at the intersection of different disciplines or cultures and that this is true in science, business, policy and the arts. It looks at why this is so and what a person or team can do to execute such intersectional ideas.

The reason this might be of interest to you is because I have used Mike Oldfield and Tubular Bells (and some of Ommadawn) as the core example to describe the book’s main concept.

Our thanks to Frans Johansson and Harvard Business School Press who have accepted to publish excerpts on tubular.net. Here is an excerpt from chapter 7.

Chapter 7: Ignite an Explosion of Ideas

Submarines and Tubular Bells

The Explosion at the Intersection

The most fascinating implication of Simonton’s research, however, is how beautifully it explains the Medici Effect at the Intersection. Why is the intersection of disciplines or cultures such a vibrant place for creativity? We discussed one reason in the last two chapters: It increases the chances that an idea will be good because it brings together very different concepts from very different fields, as in the case of the game Magic. But there is another, stronger, reason for its power. When you connect two separate fields, you also set off an exponential increase of unique concept combinations, a veritable explosion of ideas. Or, to put it succinctly, if being productive is the best strategy to innovate, then the Intersection is the best place to innovate. The following story will show you why.

Richard Branson, founder of successful Virgin Group, got his lucky break in 1971. Given the force of his personality, there is little doubt he would have made Virgin happen one way or another. But as we’ve just learned, you need that lucky break. And Branson got his when he met the shy hippie teenager Mike Oldfield. It turned out that Oldfield had some strange new ideas about music, and Branson wanted to start a record label. When they struck a partnership, the teenager went on to become one of Great Britain’s most successful musicians, and Branson went on to become one of Great Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs. The album that catapulted both of their careers was called Tubular Bells.

When the album was first released, sales were low because Branson had no money to promote it. But that changed as word of mouth started spreading. About a year after its release, Tubular Bells had climbed to the top of the U.K. charts. It held that spot for an incredible fifteen straight months. Today it has sold about 16 million copies worldwide and still sells around 100,000 copies a year.

This feat seems even more spectacular when you consider that Tubular Bells was unlike any other album preceding it. It was a strange mixture of rock and classical music. The combination of these fields was deep; this was definitely not a rock band playing classical tunes, or a symphony playing pop songs. No, Tubular Bells sat right at the intersection of the two fields, combining elements that could be found in both domains. But what, exactly, happens at such an intersection?

Say that you are a rock musician around 1973, when Oldfield released Tubular Bells, and say that you are trying to come up with a new sort of music. One way to approach this challenge would be to break down the components that actually constitute a rock song and look at different ways of combining them. Although there are many variations and concepts, for the sake of this example, let’s look at three major groups of concepts that define rock music: instruments, structure, and vocals.

Instruments: Rock in the early days was quite a rigid music form in terms of the instruments used. Bands usually consisted of guitar, drums, and bass. Occasionally other instruments were included, such as the saxophone and the piano but the stereotypical band was pretty simple. Let’s say that the average rock composer used four instrument combinations.

Structures: Rock music was also fairly limited in its structure. The number of chords used in rock songs tended to be quite low. Moreover, almost every song consisted of two or three verses with a chorus in between. Let’s say a rock musician could choose from twelve different structures.

Vocals: In contrast, rock employed a variety of voice concepts. Voices could be hushed, raspy, strong, weak, smooth, soulful, and so on. It was not even necessary for people to know how to sing to be considered rock musicians. Bob Dylan had no clue, but that did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest artists ever.  Let’s say a rock musician had fifty voice concepts to work with.

How many combinations, then, could the average rock musician generate based on these variations? How many times could he combine different instruments with different structures and different vocals before he ran out of combinations? By simply multiplying the variations in each group, we see that a rock musician in this example has 4 x 12 x 50, or 2,400, combinations to work with when developing new music. The musician wouldn’t necessarily actively try to combine these areas of music (although this can be a good idea when you go intersection hunting), but they are subconsciously part of the process for generating new music ideas. Let’s switch gears now and look at classical composers. They have a very different set of choices available to them.

Instruments: Classical composers can choose from a wide range of instruments. Symphonies, for instance, can include violins, horns, flutes, harps, gong-gongs, and drums, among many, many others. Let’s say a classical composer has thirty instruments to choose from.

Structures: Classical composers allow themselves much more variation in the number of structures than most rock musicians do. Music tends to flow and not rely on repeated sequences. Pieces can also vary greatly in length, with some pieces longer than thirty minutes. Let’s say for the sake of this example that a composer of classical music can choose from some forty structures.

Vocals: Classical music has few vocals. Strictly speaking, these are simply not included in a symphony. In other compositions they tend to be in the form of a choir. Let’s say that a classical composer has two choices.

If we calculate the variations as we did for the rock musician, we find that a classical composer can choose from a total of 30 x 40 x 2, or 2,400 concept combinations when trying to come up with new music. The actual number is of course higher, but the big strokes of this example remain faithful to the differences between rock music and classical music.

Now we get to the key point of this exercise. If a person has knowledge of both rock and classical music but views them as separate fields, he can choose from 2,400 combinations in either genre when looking for new musical ideas. But what happens if this person has been able to break down the associative barriers between the two fields? What happens if this person steps into the intersection of the two fields, the way Mike Oldfield did with Tubular Bells? It would seem that the number of available concept combinations goes up dramatically since it is now possible to freely mix and match ideas between the domains. And it does. In fact, the number rises exponentially. Such a person has 2,400 x 2,400 concept combinations available. That is equal to almost sixmillion new ideas—5,760,000, to be exact.

If this number seems staggeringly high, that’s because it is. This is what I mean when I talk about the power of the Intersection. This is the heart of the Medici Effect. By breaking down associative barriers and stepping into the intersection between fields, the number of available idea combinations increases beyond anything we can achieve in a single area.

This, then, explains why diverse teams can be more creative than homogeneous groups. It explains why diversifying occupations can increase our output of exceptional ideas. The intersection of fields not only provides the perfect environment for widely different ideas to come together, it also makes it possible for lots of different ideas to do so.

Living with the Explosion

Mike Oldfield lives and breathes at the Intersection, which explains his inexhaustible output of new, interesting music. The guitar was and has remained his core instrument, but Oldfield played more than twenty instruments in Tubular Bells. He used vocals sparingly, except for a section called the “piltman song,” which Oldfield recorded after having swigged half a bottle of whiskey. Vocals grew increasingly important in later albums, though.

David Bedford, a friend of Mike Oldfield’s who ultimately rescored Tubular Bells for symphony orchestra, commented a few years after the album had been released: “He stands out in the rock scene because he’s the only one who uses a sort of logical construction to his pieces, and they have a semiclassical feel to them. And he’d probably stand out in a classical concert situation in that he’d have a rock feel to him, because his whole background is rock and so that tinges everything he does.”

The intersection of rock music and classical music (and later, folk music and electronic music) has provided Oldfield with more combinations than he can use in an entire lifetime. Just as Marcus Samuelsson’s food creations sometimes defy expectation, Mike Oldfield’s combinations may seem impossible. For instance, in a segment from Ommadawn, generally considered one of his best albums, he plays an electric bouzouki, the bagpipe, and the guitar. In another section of that recording he overdubs an electric guitar sixty-four times. This has the same effect as having sixty-four guitarists simultaneously playing the same piece of music, and is reminiscent of how a classical composer would approach the same section. The combinations work, and they work well.

The explosion of ideas at the Intersection, then, is what makes it possible for innovators to produce so many remarkable ideas. It gives them an incredible advantage. Oldfield, for instance, has kept his pace and had released more than twenty-five albums by the turn of the millennium, with no signs of stopping. Some of them failed spectacularly, others sold millions. All of them were part of the explosion.

Copyright Frans Johansson © 2004

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Mike Oldfield Tubular.net