How to build breakthrough ideas

Arash Ranjbaran Qadikolaei
5 min readMay 7, 2022

How to generate breakthrough ideas

Summary of “The Medici Effect” by Frans Johansson


The Medici effect refers to the extraordinary number of new innovations that can happen at the intersection of different fields.

Five big ideas of this book are:

  • The Intersection is the best place to create an explosion of new breakthrough ideas.
  • Our existing knowledge of a field can create associative barriers which inhibit creativity.
  • You can increase your chance of finding innovative ideas by diversifying occupations, interacting with diverse groups of people, and going intersectional hunting.
  • The strongest correlation between the quality of ideas is the number of ideas.
  • To make an idea happen, you must get going with just enough but not more resources, break out of your network and execute past failures.

1. Break down the associative barriers

If you were asked what word you think of when you read the word “foot”, most likely you would answer shoes, hand, toe, and leg. In an experiment of over 800 people, there were only 14% answered differently. That’s the associative barriers — predictable chains of association based on your existing knowledge. The associative barriers can prevent experts from recognizing a discovery. In the search for intersections, low barriers provide an advantage. There are four suggestions to break down the associative barriers.

Increase exposure to diversity

Expose yourself to a range of ethnics, classes, professionals, and organizational cultures… This helps you become open-minded about the multiple ways to approach a problem.

Learn differently

Formal training can hinder your creativity by imposing rules from past experts. Broad education and self-education help you learn without getting stuck in a particular way of thinking about those things. As Darwin said, “I consider that all that I have learned of any value to be self-taught”.

Reverse assumptions

If you don’t have the time for the first two strategies and need fresh insights immediately, this technique is for you. First, think of a situation, product, or concept related to your challenge. Write down all the assumptions associated with it. Next, write the reversal of those assumptions. Finally, think of how you can possibly implement the reversal. The goal of this exercise is not to come up with a specific idea, but to free up the mind and escape the routine chains of association.

Try different perspectives

Forcing yourself to view a project from perspectives different from what you normally do can create insights. Apply the idea to someone or something else (a different gender, an object…), or create artificial constraints for your solution.

2. Increase your chance of finding innovative ideas

A creative idea is simply a combination of concepts. Intersectional ideas are groundbreaking because the concepts involved are so different and the combinations so unusual that nobody would have thought them possible. Due to the random nature of these combinations, innovations depend partially on luck. This applies to the two main ways creative ideas happen:

  • “Flash-in-the-sky serendipity”: You actively think about a problem. After an incubation period, the solution suddenly appears out of nowhere.
  • “Prepared-mind discoveries”: Happen when someone with a prepared mind encounters a phenomenon he/she had not set out to find. Though you can never fully control these combinations, you can increase the chances for them to occur by these three strategies.
  • Diversifying occupations
  • Interacting with diverse groups of people
  • Going Intersectional hunting: take a walk, take notes or collect random items, analyze the characteristics of each, and force a connection between your problem and those characteristics.

3. Have a lot of ideas

“The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas” — Linus Pauling, Nobel laureate in chemistry and peace

A lot of ideas from groundbreaking innovators never amount to anything. Only 35% of Mozart’s, Bach’s, or Beethoven’s composition is played today. The strongest correlation for the quality of ideas is not intelligence, not a past success, but the number of ideas.

4. Capture the best idea

Once you step into the Intersection, there can be a massive number of ideas. How can you capture the best ideas then? There are three strategies.

Strike a balance between depth and breadth

  • Gain knowledge in one area before striking another
  • Work in a multidisciplinary team

Actively generate many ideas

  • Make it a requirement to generate many ideas first before examining each idea
  • In group brainstorming, allow 15–20 minutes of individual brainstorming and require everyone to get involved in combining or building others’ ideas
  • Techniques such as brainwriting can make group brainstorming more efficient

Allow time for evaluation

If you want creativity, avoid strict time pressure. Research has found that not only did people are less creative under serious time pressure, they actually believe they were more creative. Additionally, creativity decreased not just on the day of intense time stress, but also on the following day, the day after that, and the day after that.

5. Making Intersectional ideas happen

There are still many challenges after you have gotten a great idea. Firstly, failure is inevitable. Even the best ideas won’t be perfect from the beginning. You must try ideas that fail to find those that will succeed. The two things to keep in mind during the process are:

  • Plan resources for trial and error
  • Remain motivated and positive

Secondly, your existing network and structure might hold you back as they prefer predictable success and avoid uncertainties. This can include your colleagues, career track, mentors, institutions, customers, traditions, peers, distributors, suppliers…

You must be willing to break out of the value network in pursuing the Intersectional idea, and even be prepared for a fight. Finally, get going with just enough resources but not more.

Research has shown that minimizing risks is not a viable strategy due to “risk homeostasis” — the tendency to compensate for taking lower risks in one area by taking higher risks in another. In other words, more money, time, experience, or better contacts don’t decrease the risk of failure since with more resources we will try to accomplish more.