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Create the Medici Effect

A new book looks at creativity at the intersections of fields, disciplines, and cultures. An excerpt from The Medici Effect explores the far-flung food ideas of chef Marcus Samuelsson.

Editor's note: More and more, innovation is springing not from particular industries or disciplines, but rather across them, says Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures. "When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas."

Architect Mike Pearce drew insight from termite towers to design a building without air conditioning—in Africa. Math student Richard Garfield created the monster game "Magic: The Gathering," by combining the fields of card games and collectibles, and sprinkling in community as well. Johansson calls this cross-fertilization of ideas the Medici Effect, after the fifteenth-century banking family that broke down traditional barriers separating disciplines and cultures to ignite the Renaissance.

In the following excerpt, Johansson introduces New York chef Marcus Samuelsson, who combines traditional Swedish cooking with anything-but-traditional pairings. Sea urchin sausage and cauliflower sauce, anyone?

In early January of 1995, Jan Sandel, the executive chef at the Swedish restaurant Aquavit in New York City, unexpectedly died of a heart attack. The owner, Hakan Swahn, immediately had to find someone to head up the kitchen. He decided to place newly hired Marcus Samuelsson in charge while he searched for a permanent replacement. But Swahn was hesitant because Samuelsson was quite young. "Our organization was big and complex, and our reputation was excellent. It is not the type of operation you just hand over to a twenty-four-year-old," he explained. In retrospect, it may have been the best decision he ever made.


At the time, Aquavit had become a well-respected Manhattan restaurant, with one star from the New York Times. But something strange started happening only weeks after Samuelsson headed up the kitchen. New dishes based on unique combinations of food from all over the world began showing up on the menu. The new items, such as oysters with mango curry sorbet, didn't always seem to make sense, but they tickled both the imagination and the palate. They were unlike anything the guests had ever tasted before.

Only three months later Ruth Reichl of the New York Times gave the restaurant a rare three-star review because of its innovative and tasty food.1 Samuelsson was the youngest chef to have ever received such a prestigious rating. "Mr. Samuelsson's cooking is delicate and beautiful," she wrote. Since then he has become known as one of America's leading chefs. He has been featured in magazines such as Gourmet, Food & Wine, Forbes, and Gear, and on networks such as the Discovery Channel and CNN. His cookbook was voted the Best Cookbook in North America, the James Beard Foundation awarded him Best Chef in New York City, and he was recognized by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as one of the Global Leaders of Tomorrow.2 When Aquavit owner Swahn met Tom Zagat, of the famous restaurant guide Zagat Survey, Zagat remarked, "You have become an institution."3

What was behind Marcus Samuelsson's spectacular achievements? What were the reasons for his innovative success? Talking to Samuelsson, one might get the impression that pure charm, youthful energy, and hard work are the secret. His voice is filled with vigor and purpose. He is quick to jump up and greet any customer he recognizes, which is almost all of them.4 His memory of faces and names seems limitless. Within minutes he had me engaged with a number of guests who had just walked through the door. "Meet Renee," he said with a smile. "She is the president of the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce. You guys should talk." Charisma, energy, and persistence—without a doubt these qualities will help anyone, but they alone cannot explain his rise to chef stardom. Solving that mystery must start with his culinary creations.

There is clearly something special about the food that Samuelsson creates. The menu says the food is Swedish, and you can instantly see that this is true. Ingredients such as herring, lingonberry, and salmon in part define Swedish cuisine. At Aquavit, however, these ingredients are combined with foods you would never see at a typical Swedish restaurant, at least not until Samuelsson began using them. Take a look at the following menu items:

Caramelized Lobster
Seaweed Pasta, Sea Urchin Sausage and Cauliflower Sauce
Salmon Plate
Gravlax and Tandoori Smoked Salmon, Espresso Mustard Sauce and Dill Foam
Chocolate Ganache
Bell Pepper and Raspberry Sorbet and Lemon Grass Yogurt

Lobster is Swedish; seaweed pasta is not. Raspberry sorbet is Swedish; lemon grass yogurt . . . well, most Swedes at this time had probably not even heard of lemon grass, let alone yogurt made out of it. In these recipes we can find at least part of the answer to the mystery of Samuelsson's success. Although it defies intuition, combining tandoori spices and smoked salmon works extraordinarily well, and that daring is what makes Samuelsson unique. Impossible combinations are original and playfully wonderful. How about nettle soup with a sea urchin lollipop? Or a dessert of green apple sorbet with white chocolate mousse and whipped fennel cream? By using Swedish culinary building blocks consisting of seafood, fresh ingredients, game, and certain preservation techniques, Samuelsson combines foods from all over the world, giving Aquavit guests a unique and stellar adventure in tastes and flavors.

Although it defies intuition, combining tandoori spices and smoked salmon works extraordinarily well.

Samuelsson has accomplished this by breaking down traditional barriers in cooking. He has an uncanny ability to draw associations from almost any cuisine in the world and see how they connect with his base of Swedish ingredients and cooking techniques. This ability has placed him at the intersection of Swedish food and global tastes. The solution to our mystery now seems rather simple. Samuelsson's creative genius lies in his ability to generate unique food combinations that surprise the palate. He creates food that is daring, distinctive, and, of course, extremely good. Marcus Samuelsson and Aquavit should be doing well.

But New York City is made up of thousands of restaurants, many of them with outstanding chefs who have seen and experienced food from all over the world. How was Samuelsson, at such a young age, able to so stun food critics and lay diners alike? How did he escape the limitations of what could be labeled Swedish or European cooking? What enables him to so freely connect disparate concepts, ideas, ingredients, and styles?

The answer is that Samuelsson has low associative barriers. He has an ability to easily connect different concepts across fields. Specifically, he has an ability to find winning combinations of foods from Sweden and the rest of the world. We can all break down our associative barriers like that. In fact, if we wish to find the Intersection, it is a requirement.

What are associative barriers?
Take a moment to consider the following situation:5 Susan is twenty-eight years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in biology and minored in public policy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of sustainable development, global warming, and overfishing, and is politically active. Which statement is most likely to be true?

A. Susan is an office manager.
B. Susan is an office manager and is active in the environmental movement.

If you answered B, you are in good company; most people would give that answer. But the correct answer is A. If you are confused about this, consider another analogous question. Which statement is more probable?

A. An apple is green.
B. An apple is green and expensive.

This time the answer is apparent; clearly it is more likely that an apple is just green than that it is both green and expensive. The two questions are similar, but expressed in different ways. Yet we tend to make a mistake in the first case but not in the second. Why? The key difference between the two presentations is that in the first case our mind quickly makes a number of associations. Key words, such as sustainable development, global warming, and overfishing, are all associated with the environment. In most instances it would make sense to infer that Susan is active in the environmental movement. Therefore we are more likely to make assumptions about who Susan is as a person, rather than maintain a mind open to possibilities. These connections happen automatically and subconsciously. The effect is subtle, but very powerful.

Psychologists have an explanation for what happens during this process: They say that the mind unravels a chain of associations. By simply hearing a word or seeing an image, the mind unlocks a whole string of associated ideas, each one connecting to another. These chains of associations tend to be clustered around domains related to our own experience. When a chef sees a cod in a fish market she may think of a particular recipe, which in turn makes her think of the menu items for the upcoming evening. But a writer for a sport-fishing magazine may see something very different. He may think instead of his latest fishing trip, instantly recalling the tackle he used and a story he should write about it. The mind works this way because it follows the simplest path—a previous association. Although the chef may know of sport-fishing, and even have done it on occasion, it is much more likely for her mind to quickly lead the thought pattern, with little or no effort, to the field she uses most—cooking. Chains of associations are efficient; they allow us to move quickly from analysis to action. Although chains of associations have huge benefits, they also carry costs. They inhibit our ability to think broadly. We do not question assumptions as readily; we jump to conclusions faster and create barriers to alternate ways of thinking about a particular situation.

Researchers have long suspected that these associative barriers are responsible for inhibiting creativity.6 Experiments have been conducted to examine the difference between high and low associative barriers. One of the first conclusions made by one of the earliest creativity researchers, J. P. Guilford, is that creative minds tend to make unusual associations because they engage in so-called divergent thinking.7

Consider the following exercise: What words do you think of when you read the word foot?8 The most common response by far is shoe, followed by hand, toe, and leg. Eighty-six percent of the subjects in a test with more than 800 people answered with one of these words. On the other hand, only one person each responded with rat, snow, physics, dog, or hat. Consider another example—what words do you think of when you read the term command? The most common responses to that word were order, followed by army, obey, and officer. These answers accounted for 71 percent of all responses. Only one person each answered with words such as polite, obedience, war, and hat. Guilford's conclusion was that a person with low associative barriers is more likely to think broadly when responding to a word such as foot and is therefore able to come up with more unusual ideas. This means that a person with low associative barriers would find his chains of association taking irregular paths outside of a specialized field, rather than predictable ones inside a field. For such a person, foot and command may even connect; notice that the word hat appears in both cases. Individuals with high associative barriers would more than likely produce the common responses, but remain unable to see how the two words are linked unless specifically prompted to find a connection.9

This is what I mean when I say that Marcus Samuelsson has low associative barriers. He makes unusual associations outside the field of Swedish cuisine. When Samuelsson thinks of, say, tomatoes, his associations reach further than for most Swedish or European chefs. When I say pesto, he doesn't think basil; he says dill. If I say tandoori, he doesn't instantly think chicken; he says smoked salmon. This can go on all day.

"Lingonberry?" I ask.
"Chutney," he answers.
"Caesar salad?" I suggest.
"Caesar salad soup," he responds.

See what I mean? Samuelsson looks for related concepts in distant places and unexpected areas of cooking and then tries to reconcile these far-flung ideas into recipes. He has, in other words, managed to break down the associative barriers between different fields of cooking. And as a result, his ideas stretch exponentially farther.

How associative barriers help and hinder us
In the search for intersections, low barriers provide an advantage. The problem is that there are strong benefits to keeping our natural cognitive barriers in place. Our brain evolved the way it did for a reason. It generally enjoys finding order in things, grouping concepts together, and finding structure in the environment surrounding it. A person with high associative barriers will quickly arrive at conclusions when confronted with a problem since their thinking is more focused. He or she will recall how the problem has been handled in the past, or how others in similar situations solved it.

A person with low associative barriers, on the other hand, may think to connect ideas or concepts that have very little basis in past experience, or that cannot easily be traced logically. Therefore, such ideas are often met with resistance and sentiments such as, "If this is such a good idea, someone else would have thought of it." But that is precisely what someone else would not have done, because the connection between the two concepts is not obvious. Two people or two teams—one with high barriers, the other with low barriers—will approach a similar opportunity in completely different ways. Consider the following story about Charles Darwin and John Gould.10

When Charles Darwin returned from a five-year trip around the world on the HMS Beagle, he had collected a host of birds from the Galapagos Islands. Although Darwin generally was an excellent note taker, he had kept poor records on the birds. The original purpose of his trip, after all, had been to study geology. Once in London, Darwin gave his collection of poorly labeled birds to one of the most prominent zoologists at the time, John Gould. Darwin explained to him that the collection consisted of mixed birds such as finches, wrens, and blackbirds, and they were of little importance to him.

Six days later he heard back from Gould and was surprised to learn that the birds were not such a jumbled mix after all. Gould explained that they "are a most singular group of finches, related to each other in...form of body and plumage: there are thirteen species in all...." This confused Darwin. The beaks in these finches were different and used for different things. Some were good for cracking nuts, others for pecking out insects. And then there was the fact that the number of species matched the number of major islands in the Galapagos ... thirteen. Soon Gould surprised Darwin yet again. Darwin had also collected mockingbirds on the Galapagos Islands, and he had assumed that they were all different varieties of the same species. Gould told him that, no, this was not the case. Instead, each variety represented a distinct species, one from each island. But this was as far as Gould went.

Gould was clearly the expert taxonomist, but it was Darwin who proposed the radical notion: Was it possible for a species of birds to split into two (or more) species if the birds were isolated on separate islands? This notion eventually became the basis for what may be considered the most significant scientific revolution of our time, the theory of evolution.

What is remarkable about this story is not the insight and success that Darwin ultimately garnered, but that John Gould was unable to achieve it. He had the expertise, he was a leader in his field, and he had all the pieces of information available to him. But Gould associated everything he observed according to the rules of taxonomy, and he therefore attempted to fit what he saw in Darwin's bird collection into those rules. His insight was good and helped increase our understanding about the number of finches in the world. Darwin's insight, on the other hand, explained why the field of taxonomy exists in the first place. He had this flash of insight because he was able to break down his associative barriers.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures. Copyright 2004 by Frans Johansson.

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Frans Johansson is a writer, consultant, and entrepreneur residing in New York City.

1. Ruth Reichl, "A New Chef Expands on the Swedish Tradition of Balancing Salty and Sweet," New York Times, 29 September 1995.

2. The information about Aquavit and Marcus Samuelsson was provided through interviews with Jennie Andersson, PR manager for Aquavit, and from Aquavit's press kit.

3. Milford Prewitt, "Aquavit," Nation's Restaurant News, 22 May 2000.

4. Marcus Samuelsson, interviews by author, February and April 2002 and February 2003.

5. This example is adapted from one in Michael Michalko's book Cracking Creativity (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2001).

6. An excellent discussion on this topic can be found in Sarnoff Mednick, "The Associative Basis of the Creative Process," Psychological Review 69, no. 3 (1962): 220-232.

7. J. P. Guilford, The Nature of Human Intelligence (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967).

8. Test developed by H. J. Eysenck, Genius: The Natural History of Creativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

9. Dean Simonton, Origins of Genius (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

10. The information for how Darwin came upon the idea of evolution was found at <http://www.aboutdarwin.com> and <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/darwin/diary>.