Interview – Frans Johansson – Author of The Click Moment
I had the opportunity to interview Frans Johansson, the author of the new book, The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World and the popular book The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation. He is also the founder and CEO of The Medici Group. I first met Frans at a Business Innovation Factory event in Providence, RI several years ago and wanted to explore with him just what the significance of the ‘Click Moment’ is and how it relates to innovation.
Here is the text from the interview:
1. How would you describe ‘The Click Moment’ to people unfamiliar with the term?
Most events, insights, meetings and impressions in our life reinforce what we already know or what we are already doing—or they barely register at all. But there are also a few moments that make us see something new, choose a different path or make a decision that changes everything. I call those moments “click moments” and they tend to be completely unexpected, serendipitous and random. The fact is, success is far more random and serendipitous than we’d like to believe. My book, The Click Moment, examines great click moments that turned the tide, be it for a company or one’s career. I also offer a blueprint for how to create click moments and harness serendipity to your advantage.
2. What are some of the greatest challenges companies can face when pursuing an emergent strategy for a product or as a company?
The greatest challenge is that you can’t predict which idea, initiative or strategy will work. Yet, business rules dictate that we plan and analyze the numbers to formulate THE strategy for how “our company” can dominate “X” market. That’s the quickest way to fail big (for example, Solyndra) or to have the rug pulled out from under you (ask Nokia). Instead, reality is far too complex and the rules of the game constantly keep changing—making it impossible to use the lessons of our past to predict the future. For instance, intelligence agencies spent billions in software to predict change in the Middle East; yet they never foresaw the sweeping changes called Arab Spring that got its start from a face-slap in Tunisian market.
The second biggest challenge is to understand the implications of this lack of foresight. For instance, companies will sometimes say that they understand that it is hard to predict success and start down a road of “emerging strategy”. But few other actions support such a desire. For instance—they avoid searching for answers in unlikely places, see surprising results as something to avoid or at least explain away. When these companies have to select which initiatives to work with they simply can’t help themselves in trying to figure out the answer before hand. They want to run a return on investment (ROI) analysis on each idea to see which is the best, for instance. This is, of course, folly since any such calculation ignores complex interactions and the fact that the world keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The founders of Google tried to sell their company 9 months after it had started to Yahoo for $1 million. Neither the founders nor Yahoo had any clue what the true ROI was of this little company. Overcoming the urge to remove all unknowns from a project is overwhelming and this urge is responsible for an enormous amount of wasted opportunities.
So if strategy, planning or analysis is not as helpful as we have come to believe in creating success – how do you increase your chances to succeed? Well, if predictability is the enemy of success, make unpredictability your friend. We have to invite serendipity and randomness into our actions. One can, for instance, place lots of small purposeful bets, see what resonates or evolves, and then double down on those that take off. But it doesn’t stop there, you have to be constantly alert to random and complex forces, and be ready to act and shift direction, if needed.
3. What is one thing people can do to better recognize serendipitous events?
It’s not so much about recognizing serendipity as ‘attracting,’ if you will. That’s hard because we as people are creatures of habit. In order to attract, engender, and invite serendipity, we must break out of these habits, place ourselves in new situations—invite people that don’t make immediately “logical sense” to our meetings, take our eyes off the ball—even if briefly, spend time pursuing leads where the return is not obvious. That said—click moments are often characterized by being surprising and eliciting some sort of emotional response. Surprise indicates that you did not plan for what just happened—which means you may have just stumbled upon something unusual, something that will set you apart form your competitor. Howard Schultz stumbled into a café in Milan, tasted a cafe latte for the first time in his life, and changed the course of Starbucks forever.
4. How can people capture the randomness of the world and focus it in their favor?
In my book I talk about 3 separate approaches. First you have to create more click moments within your life or your organization. One way to do this is to actively create new unexpected intersections. Bring together people from outside your company, or between siloed departments or between different countries or cultures. These interactions will help you find serendipitous insights and opportunities—those that others might not have logically figured out.
Second you have to take a chance on some of these click moments by placing as many purposeful bets you can afford while not being completely distracted. This means you are taking statistical advantage of the randomness that rules our world. Angry Birds was Rovio’s 52nd game. You have probably not heard of their 51 earlier ones. If you tried 52 times at anything you would probably have a decent chance at finding something that helped you stand apart, too!
Finally you have to harness the complex forces these types of bets precipitate. The ultimate point of these types of bets might not be whether or not they worked out—but instead what other spill-on effects they have created. If you are fortunate they may have created a virtual circle where network effects make your initial win increasingly powerful, such as the case for eBay or Facebook.
5. What is the most important culture change for organizations to make in order to support innovation?
In my keynotes, I often ask the audience, “Where does innovation happen in your organization?” Not surprisingly, the most common answers are “products,” “engineering,” “leadership,” “strategy,” and of course, “innovation group”. But once in a while, someone shouts out, “all of us”. That’s what I was looking for. Enabling everyone to take ownership of—and be allowed to contribute to—the innovation process is, to me, the single most important culture change an organization can make.
6. What are some of the biggest barriers to innovation that you’ve seen in organizations?
Jumping off the point I just made, many organizations feel compelled to compartmentalize innovation to only certain people, teams, or groups. In this kind of environment, not only are diverse perspectives not being shared, but also doing so is implicitly discouraged. Yet, the most groundbreaking innovations happen at the intersection of ideas, cultures, perspectives, disciplines, etc. I explore this concept in my first book, The Medici Effect.
Another huge barrier to innovation is the reward structure. Most organizations do not value or reward failure, so employees do not take risks. When you don’t take risks and instead do the logical thing, you essentially do what everyone else is doing—and will not stand out. Creating a culture that rewards failure—when in the pursuit of excellence—can change how people think about risk.
Now, I’m not saying that organizations should take big risks either. Rather, they need to rebalance risk, and this ties into the third significant barrier that I often see—the lack of execution. Put another way, the big innovations we see appear to be homeruns. But the real story behind these big successes is often one fraught with failures, many small bets, where there was no real way to know whether an idea was going to work or not—until you tried to make it happen, that is. You don’t have to swing for the homerun. Instead, identify what I call the “smallest executable step”. Its outcome will determine your next move, and in this way, you relentlessly execute and push your ideas forward.
Lastly, many organizations rely on a controlled process that doesn’t allow for the reality of how things actually work. At my own company, we talk a lot about this, what I call the “innovative heartbeat”. There’s an expansion period when we question everything—our processes, how we do something, our products—and then a contraction period where we nail down what we just turned inside out. In the real world, passion counts and randomness reigns. Organizations must allow for and take advantage of these forces.
7. What skills do you believe that managers need to acquire to succeed in an innovation-led organization?
Tomorrow’s innovative leader is what I call an “intersectional thinker”. The lines between different cultures, industries and fields are blurring—and these people try to find ways to actively take advantage of this fact. An intersectional thinker searches for ideas at the intersection of these different areas in order to create unexpected, serendipitous click moments.
These leaders are resourceful, meaning they consider existing resources in how they approach innovation, and they can make things happen with minimal financial investment. They do it this way because they are aware of how unpredictable the world is, that in such a world you are better off inviting randomness—and then doubling down on the ideas that take off. Success is rarely about how much money is invested. Take, for example, the Apple Newton and the Palm Pilot. Apple put in $500M into the Newton while Palm put in $3M. The former went nowhere and the latter went on to be the dominant handheld device in the era before the iPhone.
They are also wary of detailed data-driven analysis as a main source of predicting future success. Not because big data is not important—but because this type of analysis is available to everyone, so they don’t see it as a competitive advantage. Instead they look to use serendipity to stand apart—the type of insights no one else could have logically arrived at. Oh, and they are comfortable doing so. They also understand that passion is a word that connotes a deep intensity and willingness to try things out, without a guarantee that they will work. And so they look for passion within themselves, but also among the people they are supposed to lead.
8. If you were to change one thing about our educational system to better prepare students to contribute in the innovation workforce of tomorrow, what would it be?
The education system here in the US, and in other countries for that matter, has been entirely constructed according to the idea that learning can be planned, step-by-step, through each grade all the way until college and beyond. This idea leaves deep roots as we continue to think about advancement in predictable, logical moves up, up ever upwards some sort of ladder. But one remarkable insight I came across, while writing my new book, was that virtually no one’s career ultimately plays out this way. Instead the big breakthroughs happen serendipitously: it’s a meeting that leads to a new job, one surprising client that gets your start-up off the ground, an unexpected outcome of an action you took. Our educational system should prepare us for this fact.
In addition, I grew up in Sweden, so when I came to college in the U.S., I was amazed by the diversity of students. I remember thinking that in this student population, with many interesting connections, backgrounds, and young and evolving perspectives, great phenomenal ideas could be seeded and grown. But I also realized that this wasn’t a message that was explicitly made at the school. What if it had been?
I believe it holds true for education at any level. The educational system is supposed to prepare students for the future. By the time they graduate and enter the workforce, they will be working together with people who are different from them; these people come from different industries, cultures and backgrounds. It will be critical for them to be skilled and able to unleash the diversity of the teams in which they work. I believe the time to really make that point is early in a student’s career.
As a special bonus, here is a video of Frans Johansson speaking at BIF-4:
Braden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B pull marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is currently advising an early-stage fashion startup making jewelry for your hair and is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.