Frans Johansson: Renaissance Man

Things are clicking these days for Frans Johansson.

The 41-year-old business consultant and author has turned heads with his recent book about creativity, “The Click Moment.” His New York City-based firm, The Medici Group, is snagging business with clients such as Nike, Caterpillar and Pfizer. Johansson himself is crisscrossing the globe to speak, including a stretch not long ago in which he delivered 10 keynote talks in five countries within a couple of weeks.

All this momentum is vindication of Johansson’s long-standing argument about the connection between diversity and innovation.

About a decade ago, Johansson published his first book, “The Medici Effect,” which claimed that diverse points of view are central to developing new ideas, products and services. The book made a splash among some chief diversity officers, but impact was minimal in companies where diversity was entrenched around compliance or fairness concerns. Until recently, diversity wasn’t seen as crucial to business results. That’s changing, and Johansson is emerging as a trusted voice making the link between diversity efforts, innovation and profits more visible. “The Medici Effect” has sold more than 250,000 copies and continues to be in demand; one organization ordered 700 copies in November.

Johansson has not attained the clout of business gurus such as Jim Collins, Marshall Goldsmith or Malcolm Gladwell, however. What’s more, his writing has taken knocks for being short on substance. But the fact remains that Johansson has been connecting the diversity and innovation dots in engaging ways for years. His consulting firm has come up with counterintuitive tactics to tap diverse backgrounds and voices to break new ground. While many companies begin by calling attention to differences when employees collaborate, Johansson said those discussions should come after people take action. Call it equal opportunity innovation — or diversity by doing.

Increasingly, Johansson’s ideas about diversity fueling innovation are taking hold at organizations around the globe. The excitement has a lot to do with Johansson himself, said Scott Page, a University of Michigan economics professor and author of “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies.”

“Frans has brought so much positive energy to the topic of diversity and helped transform how we think about diversity. Instead of framing diversity policies in terms of zero-sum us vs. them thinking, Frans emphasizes the power of diverse collectives,” Page said. “Frans encourages people to think of diversity as the foundation for a flourishing organization.”

Combining Ideas Can Lead to Great Things
Johansson embodies many of the principles he preaches. He’s a poster child for the way the world is shrinking, insofar as his mother is African-American and Cherokee and his father Swedish. Johansson grew up in Sweden, where he experienced firsthand how different cultures can come together with interesting results. For instance, Swedish pancakes are richer and sweeter than their American counterparts, but generally served later in the day. Johansson’s parents blended the traditions. “We would have Swedish pancakes for breakfast,” he said. “I saw what happens when people combine ideas. It was always great.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at Brown University and an MBA at Harvard Business School, Johansson became an entrepreneur. He founded a Boston-based software company during the dot-com boom. But in the early 2000s, the company hit rough times, and Johansson had an epiphany about innovation. It struck him that when existing, disparate ideas come together, the potential outcome is an explosive amount of new concepts, products and technology. “It’s not enough to add them, you multiply them,” he said. “It set me on this path of exponential innovation.”

Johansson saw support for his theory in inventors such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Edison, who operated at the intersection of different disciplines and generated prolific ideas. He came to see the Medici family of 15th century Florence as personifying the diversity-innovation link — by bringing together artists, architects and artisans from around Europe and as far away as China, the family helped touch off the Renaissance.

When he wrote “The Medici Effect” in 2004, Johansson didn’t intend to appeal to the diversity executive. “I was squarely in the innovation space,” he said. But his wife, Sweet Joy Hachuela, was working with JPMorgan Chase on employee networking groups and was asked to provide a business case for diversity. Hachuela made the connection between “The Medici Effect” and the D&I world. “She came home and said, ‘Your book is good. This is the business case for diversity.’”

Catalyst for Diversity
Soon after, Johansson spoke to a group of JPMorgan Chase executives, and the book found a receptive audience among CDOs hungry for a way to describe diversity’s value. Among those who seized on “The Medici Effect” was Heide Gardner, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Interpublic Group, which owns a number of marketing and advertising firms and employs about 45,000 people worldwide. Gardner’s background in marketing drew her to Johansson’s focus on innovation. Several years ago, she invited him to speak at Interpublic.

During Johansson’s presentation to a few hundred people, he highlighted the case of cosmetics firm Maybelline creating a hit in Japan. Parent company L’Oreal diversified Maybelline’s teams, which led to employees in Japan talking about the desire for curved eyelashes among Japanese businesswomen, and an Italian employee suggesting a curved mascara brush to solve the problem. It did, and within two years, Maybelline was the No. 1 cosmetics brand in the country.

Maybelline happened to be an Interpublic client, and Johansson overall was a hit. “He captivated the audience,” Gardner said. “It didn’t hurt that it was one of our clients.”

Thanks to the way diversity executives like Gardner embraced the book and brought it to their senior leaders, Johansson was once credited with devising a “side-door strategy” — in other words, entering the CEO’s office by way of the CDO. But he freely admits he had no such intention. In fact, the way the book found a natural but unintended audience helped crystallize the idea for his latest book.

“The Click Moment,” published in 2012, highlights the importance of serendipity in innovation and success. Johansson makes the case that initial plans often go awry in today’s rapidly changing world, but complex forces can act on a product or idea to make it valuable. He also offers suggestions to improve the odds for successful innovation, including opening oneself to chance encounters with diverse individuals and ideas, placing many rather than few bets and trusting in one’s unique perspective and passions.

A corollary to Johansson’s serendipity concept is that an idea can take a while to come to fruition. That’s effectively what happened with “The Medici Effect.” It was published at a time when diversity and innovation were largely separate camps in corporations. But growing amounts of research about the link between innovation and diversity (See “The Diversity-Innovation Connection”) have created a shift. That shift also relates to increasing globalization in the business world during the past decade, said Michel Deschapelles, a consultant with executive search and advisory firm Egon Zehnder. Organizations are more interested in tapping the power of diversity as they seek to make inroads in emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil.

Despite the attention, many organizations struggle to transform diversity into better business results, Deschapelles said. Egon Zehnder assessed more than 4,000 senior executives at multinational corporations from 2000 to 2011 and found only about 11 percent are proactive about diversity and inclusion, 1.2 percent strategically bridge diversity gaps and only 0.1 percent create an inclusive mindset across the organization.

Given those challenges, it often helps to bring in an outside organization, Deschapelles said. “You need a catalyst to get the group to be more inclusive,” he said.

Johansson is one such catalyst, but diversity consulting is a large field. There also are a growing number of authors who make the case that diversity is a key to business success. And again, Johansson’s writing has taken some hits. A number of Amazon reviewers gave “The Medici Effect” a tepid 3 stars, calling it repetitive and hollow, among other things. And “The Click Moment,” despite its relatively recent publication, wasn’t one of Amazon’s top 100 business books as of late 2013.

On the other hand, Fast Company named “The Click Moment” one of its best business books of 2012. “The Medici Effect” also has earned accolades. It has been translated into 18 languages, and overall, Amazon reviewers give it 4 out of five stars. Innovation guru Clayton Christensen called it “one of the most insightful books on managing innovation I have ever read.”

Johansson also has come up with an intriguing method to help organizations put the diversity-innovation connection into practice. Dubbed an “innovation experience,” it helps get people from diverse backgrounds working together immediately. For example, Johansson may gather everyone from senior leaders to the office intern together from all over the world. Employees are intentionally seated to create diverse tables of four or five people each. But the event doesn’t begin with participants calling attention to their differences or their status. Instead of a typical ice-breaker or formal introductions, Johansson will kick off sessions with brief remarks about the power of diverse viewpoints to generate innovation. Then he asks participants to roll up their sleeves for assignments such as coming up with new product ideas or strategizing about how to increase revenue.

Only later, after they’ve accomplished some work, might participants reflect on what led to smart ideas or successes. That’s when they may realize how diversity fueled progress or breakthroughs.
“We believe action way, way trumps analysis,” Johansson said. It’s vital for people to see their collaboration resulting in promising ideas and concrete plans, he said, using the analogy of a sports team scoring: “You start getting points on the board.”

Playing in Different Worlds
This action-oriented innovation runs counter to other diversity training sessions and interventions, where differences are highlighted from the get-go. And Johansson’s approach works, Gardner said. In the wake of Johansson’s talk at Interpublic, The Medici Group led a session to jump-start thinking about how to increase the company’s organic revenue. Employees from different subsidiaries, demographic groups, corporate functions and ages worked together to propose solutions.

Interpublic didn’t fully implement any of the ideas from the session, but a number of the concepts were promising, the exercise was fun, and it convinced participants the diversity-innovation link is real, Gardner said. “Going through the experience, you do come away valuing the different perspectives.”

Gardner so valued Johansson’s work that she became a member of The Medici Group’s advisory board — an unpaid role — and she is not Johansson’s only happy customer.

Lorie Valle-Yanez, chief diversity officer from Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., is also a fan. She said an engagement with The Medici Group prompted some interesting conversations about innovation at the insurance and financial services firm.

Johansson also inspired Valle-Yanez to widen her lens when recruiting her own team. Instead of seeking diversity and inclusion professionals, Valle-Yanez has taken on folks with a sales and marketing background, which led her to expand the audience for MassMutual’s annual diversity report to include the company’s independent agents — a move that could help agents sell the company’s products more effectively. Valle-Yanez said Johansson “is the only person or company that I know of that teaches the practical steps that actually make innovation happen.”

It’s high praise and is reflected in his growing influence. The Medici Group now counts some 30 percent of the Fortune 100 as its clients. The firm of about 15 people has assignments in countries including Argentina, Australia, Germany, India, Singapore, South Africa and Sweden. Johansson estimates his speaking engagements have roughly tripled since 2009, and said he’s reaching larger audiences as well as higher-level company officials.

Outside the diversity field, he’s also making a splash in innovation. “I have chief innovation officers that want me to come in and talk about diversity,” he said. “That didn’t happen 10 years ago.”

This sort of crossover is a big part of what makes him tick — straddling boundaries as he has his whole life. “I like the fact that I can sort of play in different worlds,” he said.

There’s growing attention to globalization, diversity and innovation, as well as to their intersection. Johansson is right there at the center. “The time is now,” he said. “I’ve never seen more interest.”

Call it Johansson’s click moment.