Interview with Frans Johansson

| 27 June 2014


The highly sought-after keynote speaker and business strategist, Frans Johansson was in Johannesburg for the SAPHILA Conference 2014 at Sun City. He is the author of THE MEDICI EFFECT, an international bestseller that shattered assumptions about how great ideas happen, and THE CLICK MOMENT, his acclaimed follow-up on how to harness serendipity to stand apart. The ideas in his books have echoed around the world, growing in impact in areas such as urban, regional, and economic development; education and training; creativity; and entrepreneurship. He is also the CEO of The Medici Group, which works with organisations looking to drive growth and transform leaders and cultures. I had an opportunity to sit down with Frans and chat to him on how he sees innovation and how companies should be adopting change in a fast-changing business world.

Q. Who is Frans Johansson?

A. My mission in life is to create ideas and make them happen, I’ve always done that in my life. But it is also to create change in society and businesses by helping them make the change happen, to make a difference by using innovation in order to to drive that change. So it is create, but create in its fullest meaning.


Q. You talk about innovation and countries driving business. You still believe that the USA is right at the front. Why is this and what about other superpowers like China?

A. The USA still has the edge and there are a few reasons for this but the most fundamental one is that it has a very diverse population of many cultures. It uses this diversity to leverage this to great effect. You find people coming together from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, sharing knowledge, different ways of doing things and this is what ultimately drives innovation. This is why a country like South Africa has a unique advantage in Africa with regards to true potential and growing innovation by the cross-cultural sharing of ideas.

Q. How does technology accelerate this innovation you talk about?

A. One of the amazing things about technology and why I think people here should be thinking about innovation every day is that technology infuses almost everything. Technology drives innovation and drives behaviour and that in turn determines how consumers react and how ultimately companies should respond to them. It can drive entire political changes. I talk about this in my book The Click Moment. The Arab Spring for example. One of the key aspects of this uprising was the availability and the democratisation of social media. Images that were hidden and suppressed by dictators and governments came out on Facebook and Twitter. This is technology in action and the interaction with human behaviour.

Q. You talk about how difficult it is to predict the future. There is so much change happening and so quick that is impossible to predict what the next five years are going to look like. Why is it so difficult?

A. What I am saying is this: If you can predict a trend with a 100 percent certainty and there is no debate about this fact, then it is not useful to you because everyone else is doing what they need to do as well. It is not a competitive edge knowing these sorts of facts. So for instance I predict that globalisation will continue to increase and memory will become cheaper, that’s a pretty good prediction, expect everyone else has the same kind of predictions. So that is not really going to help you. If you have a trend that you cannot know for certain then you are making a bet and you know what, the vast majority of trends are that way. Remember what people had to say about the iPhone when it came out? How would argue against it. At the time some of the smartest people on the planet said it wouldn’t succeed and look where that product is today. What I am saying is that people, smart people, are making all kinds of business decisions right now, and they have no clue how it will play out five years from now. Your organisation has to be ready for that and the question is, is it? Most organisations have a structure to take a stand over the next five years and move in that direction. If I for example had to ask if you thought Facebook would be around in the next five years? How certain would your answer be about that? This is the ultimate point I am making. Everybody is looking for the true answer; everyone is looking for the formula, or the algorithm. The surest way to see if some has got formula is are they able to replicate their success over and over again. But wherever you look, the answer is no, they are running into challenges.

Q. One person who is innovation and making waves is South African-born Elon Musk. What is your take on this entrepreneur? 

A. I think Elon Musk is one of the most interesting and exciting entrepreneurs around today. At any given time there are a couple of people out there who are on the same journey. Another person like this is Richard Branson. It a question of not success or failure, but rather about how many times he is trying to achieve what he wants to achieve. That is true for people like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Picasso it is a fundamental fact of innovation.

Q. What are your thoughts on big data and the impact that it will have on business.

A. I think big data can be a tremendous competitive advantage. There are many interpretations of exactly what is big data. I believe that it has many issues and that is because when people look at big data and run the same interpretation of those numbers they are going to reach the same conclusions which means that you are going to land up in the same place where others are. So you are part of the pack that is doing the same as the others. I believe big data has a competitive advantage on two occasions. One, when nobody else has access to that data. Amazon for example has access to its own data that they use to their own advantage. Secondly, the way you analyse the data needs to be unique to your organisation. You have to be able to see something in that data that is not available to rational analysis because the rational analysis is what is going to be the conclusion to everyone else out there. You have to find something unexpected. So how do you do that is the question? You have to have people that are not the obvious suspects and choices looking at this data. If you do that, you might see something else there that is unexpected. That’s where big data can add a tremendous amount.

Q. What excites you about the future?

A. I like to say the possibilities, because of what it is we can accomplish. We have all this technology around us that extends our memories. Through the phone, through online and being connected. We don’t need to remember phone numbers, look in a map book for example. The technology today is doing it for us. In that sense it is augmenting the human and expanding humans. Many see this as scary, I see it as exciting and I think that it is fascinating.

He ended off his keynote address with this statement, which really reflects how business today should be approaching their future strategy.

We live in unpredictable times where the rules are changing so fast that formulas for success are disintegrating. Fortunes can turn. Market leaders can fall. Innovations can become obsolete. Does your strategy reflect this new normal?

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