With great diversity, come great ideas


This post is inspired by the following books — Range by David Epstein, The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson and Rebel Talent by Francesca Gino. Similar concepts have been explored in “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson.

By diversity, I mean diversity of interests and information for an individual and the diversity of people and experiences around him.

Three examples first.

The Medici Effect

Europe in the 14th century was in the dark ages after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. There was no progress in the sciences or the arts. Religious orthodoxy was rampant and it discouraged free thinking. But commerce and trade were slowly starting to boom. At the forefront of this trade boom was the Medici family of Florence.

Thanks to the trade boom, Florence slowly became a melting pot of people from all over the world. This intermingling of people encouraged free exchange of ideas and led to the invention of the double entry bookkeeping system. With their growing wealth and power, the Medici patronized various art forms leading to further intermingling of people from different backgrounds and the uninhibited exchange of radical thought.

Fuelled by the Medici, these ideas spread far and wide and led to the re-awakening of Europe. This was the beginning of what we now know as the Renaissance. It was a period of glorious innovations across all disciplines.

This phenomena of innovation that occurs at the intersection of multiple fields, disciplines and cultures, by combining existing concepts to create extraordinary new ideas is known as the Medici Effect in honour of the family which made it happen.


How innovation happened in different types of Labs — Range

Psychologist Kevin Dunbar spent a year observing how different molecular biology labs worked. This was in the 1990’s when innovation in these labs was at its peak.

He found that the labs most likely to turn unexpected findings into new solutions made a lot of analogies and made them from a staggering variety of domains. This was more likely to happen in labs which had people from more diverse backgrounds and also individuals with a range of diverse interests. When they came across outliers or new observations, they drew on their diversity to make relevant analogies.

In one instance, two labs were working on the same E coli problem. One of them was entirely made up of highly qualified e coli experts. The other had people from chemistry, biology, genetics and physics backgrounds in addition to some e coli experts and a few medical students. The latter team figured things out quickly leveraging their diversity to draw analogies about the problems they encountered. On the other hand, the experts struggled to make progress as they were limited in their ability to make meaningful analogies. This is as close one can come to doing a perfect A/B test between a team with range and one with limited diversity.

Innocentive — What do scientific experts go when they can’t solve their problems. — Covered in a lot of books including Range and Rebel Talent

Innocentive is a platform where scientific challenges are posted for outsiders and amateurs to solve for a financial reward. Two remarkable observations about the challenges that have been solved.

More than one –third of the challenges actually get solved by these outsiders. Who are amateurs and hobbyists. Problems which couldn’t get solved by the subject matter experts that posted them.

Another trick — a problem had a higher chance of success if it was framed in an interesting way to attract a diverse array of solvers.

Remember these are science problems of the highest difficulty.

How food preservation was invented

History is replete with similar examples. One of the most famous examples of an amateur solving a difficult scientific problem — food preservation.

Napoleon Bonaparte offered a mega prize for food preservation. The world’s greatest minds had been working on this problem for more than a century including Robert Boyle , the “father of modern chemistry”

The problem was eventually solved by Parisian foodie and confectioner Nicolas Appert. He was a jack of all trades who had experienced all forms of culinary activities from wine making to brewing to candy making. While the experts were sharply focussed on preservation as a chemistry problem and limited in their exploration of solutions, Appert used his diverse exposure to find a unique solution

His innovation was a precursor of canned food and involved tightly packing food inside champagne bottles. The bottles were then tightly sealed and boiled for hours.

The moral of these stories is clear. If you are in the business of innovation and solving problems, then you better embrace diversity. Become a curious person and expand your range by gaining knowledge across subjects. Engage with interesting people and work in diverse groups when you are looking for more analogies.

Lessons for organisations — Develop and hire individuals with range. Encourage free intermingling of diverse individuals and create real cross functional teams for growth.

My personal analogy story — Personally, my great analogy driven inspiration came when when I was running TechGig. We were really struggling to take it to the next level. And that’s when I thought of doing the hackathon version of the Brand Equity Quiz. This analogy gave me clarity and just made it super simple for me to sell the idea to everyone — my bosses, my team mates, the sales teams, the companies which signed up in droves and their employees who participated willingly. No fancy presentations to make my case. . The result was Code Gladiators which is now well and truly the hackathon equivalent and just as popular.




CoFounder at CaratLane

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CoFounder at CaratLane

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