How Diversity + Collaboration = Innovation

Author: Michelle Russell       


We are living in “a hinge time,” according to Dawn Markova, Ph.D., and Angie McArthur. As the co-authors of Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking With People Who Think Differently see it, we’re no longer in a “market-share economy” in which analytic and procedural problems call for rational solutions. Instead, they write, we are moving to a “mind-share” world, requiring us “to think together in ways that are innovative and relational.”

Assuming that Markova and McArthur are on to the next big thing, then business events — whose currency is the exchange of ideas and knowledge — have a bright future in the mind-share economy. But there are two hurdles the traditional conference model needs to overcome. First, information has most often traveled in one direction, from speaker to passive audience — the opposite of “thinking together.” And second, experts like Markova and McArthur say that coming up with transformative solutions to challenges facing industries, professions, and the planet requires a diversity of thought, backgrounds, disciplines, and experiences. Because the value proposition of many conferences and conventions is to bring together like-minded people, that key ingredient for true collaboration and innovative outcomes is often lacking.

How can the business-events industry shift toward the mind-share economy? We turned to two diverse thinkers — TED Fellows Director Tom Rielly and Frans Johansson, CEO of The Medici Group, a New York City–based consultancy firm that promotes innovation through diversity — for their insights.


How to foster collaboration at events is something of a “paradox,” requiring both unity and diversity, according to Rielly, who joined TED Conferences LLC in 2006. “Unity means coming together around something,” he said. “People have shared goals, like they want to get better at managing HR in their company, for example. They may have a philanthropic link, like trying to solve the water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. The stronger the ties are, the more effective the conference is going to be.”

At TED, people share similar world- views even if they may be from different political camps. “[Politics] is not as important as their devotion to trying to make the world a better place in one way or another,” Rielly said, “even if it’s through business.” And that sense of unity is bound by trust. “When you go to TED and you have a conversation with someone next to you,” he said, “there’s an assumption that they’re probably a person that we would judge is worthy of being there and therefore they can trust them enough to be open enough to have a conversation, which could lead to collaboration.”

But unity isn’t the same thing as heterogeneity. “If everybody at a conference is a 30-something-year-old pharma sales rep and there are no other people to balance them out,” Rielly said, “by and large you’re going to get one kind of interaction and one kind of experience. What’s far more interesting is to have people around you who are going to challenge your worldview in different ways, so that while they might have in common that they’d like to see the world be better, everyone has vastly different approaches to how they think that should happen.”

That means if a conference is seeking innovative outcomes — any conference, in any industry — it should draw people not only from different organizations, but from different disciplines. Attendees come to TED from academia, NGOs, human-rights organizations, and the legal, medical, filmmaking, and artist communities. And they all have an edge. There’s “some differentiating thing about them,” Rielly said. “When you put those people together in a group where there’s some shared values and an assumption of trust, then you’re likely to get a more exciting possible outcome of people deciding to do stuff with each other.”

The history of TED is “rife with successful collaborations,” he said, including the founding of Wired magazine, which received its first funding from MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, “who was in the audience and gave [co-founders Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rossetto] $75,000 and sent them off to the races. So I think on one hand you want to have enough shared values, commonality, achievement, or alignment, but at the same time you want the most diversity of thought possible and the most diversity of achievement and what people work on,” as well as diversity in terms of country of origin, gender, and ethnicity.


If the TED conference is a collaborative experience, the TED Fellows program is collaboration on steroids. Twice a year, the program opens applications to “find a new class of extraordinary thinkers and doers,” targeting innovators in their twenties and thirties. According to, TED Fellows “provides transformational support to a global network of 400 visionaries — scientists, artists, activists, entrepreneurs, doctors, journalists, and inventors — who collaborate across disciplines to create positive change around the world.” 33419324513_09decdd772_o

The TED Blog puts it this way: “What happens when TED Fellows converge? They cross-pollinate their unconventional approaches to help each other achieve big objectives.”

When considering potential Fellows, Rielly looks to see if they’re “the kind of folks who like to just talk with each other about some problem and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can x that with you,’” he said. “Like, we have this MacArthur [Fellows–]genius-grant-winning scientist [and TED Fellow] Manu Prakash [a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University]. And he was talking to an Israeli artist who was making this piece of art that was like an hourglass that owed into two hourglasses, to four hourglasses, to eight, to 16. And the sand was getting stuck on certain sides of this piece of art and not evenly owing, and Manu was like, ‘Oh, I just need to run a simulation for you, on the computer. No problem.’ And so he did and that fixed that. That’s a very weird collaboration. Manu is inventing low-cost medical technology for the developing world, but they were in collaboration.”

Rielly offers another example of unusual collaboration between Fellows: Yana Buhrer Tavanier, a Bulgarian human-rights activist, and Julie Freeman, a British scientist and artist, who co-created Fine Acts (, an initiative that uses art to effect social change around the world. Fellows are able to collaborate in person, including at special events during TED, and through a digital community.

“There are a couple of things that work really well to make collaboration of this depth work,” Rielly said. First, Fellows need to feel safe, “like they’re not going to be ridiculed or taken advantage of. They need trust that the other people are out for their best interests. They need curiosity, and that is something that our Fellows have in spades. They’re just so interested in everything. Then they need to have that key kind of openness to try stuff, and then they need follow-through, right? You do stuff, you’re together, it’s exciting, you go home, you go back to your lives, and nothing happens. That can happen with the Fellows, it’s just that there’s a higher hit rate, I think, than usual.”

To achieve those hits, it’s important to strike the right balance between face-to-face and online interaction. “If you really want to build a robust community, it can’t just be in person and it can’t just be online,” Rielly said. “It needs to be both and it needs to have different sides and different located events that meet their needs over time. It’s a mistake to think that you can foster a community of getting people together once and then say, ‘Okay, talk online.’”


For an in-person event, Rielly said, there should be more opportunities for people to interact than just long net- working breaks. Where TED once had only 45-minute or hour-long breaks between sessions, now workshops have been added to the mix. “What we do — we started this in Fellows and it’s kind of passed through into the main conference now,” Reilly said, “is we say to the audience, or in our case, to Fellows at our Fellows-only event, ‘Would you like to do a workshop?’” Those who are interested have to pitch the work- shop to Rielly and his team, and write up a description that includes their AV needs, what they’re trying to accomplish, and the end goal for participants.

“The most important thing you can do,” Rielly said, “is curate those workshops.” That includes thoroughly preparing speakers, making your expectations clear, and “forcing” them to walk through how the workshop is going to work. At the TED Fellows program, workshops run 90 minutes, and the host can’t speak for more than 20 minutes. “The rest of the time has to be discussion or participation of some kind,” Rielly said. “We do circles — basically chairs in circles or sitting on the ground — [to create] as little a barrier between people as possible.

“Whatever happens, no desks, and nobody sitting in rows, which is ick,” Rielly said. “We try to do stuff outside whenever we can, walk in nature, and that can get the most intense conversations going, because you are getting people away from the trade-show hall.” It’s better to hold workshops toward the beginning of a conference, he said, so during the rest of the program, “the people who did spark with each other can have more time to spend together.”

One format to avoid? Don’t get Rielly started on panels. While event organizers might think that panels give the audience a more interactive experience than a solo presenter would, that’s rarely the case. “Never have panels,” Rielly said. The whole structure is set up to fail, he said, as people spend far too much time introducing themselves, leaving little time to talk and have a real interaction. On top of that, often the panelists and moderator are not care- fully prepared and therefore you have “an extremely frustrating experience” for everyone.

A better option is to invite three “awesome” panelists for an hour-long session in which they each speak for 15 minutes, and then give people enough time to ask questions. “Then each of the panelists will feel responsible to prepare, whereas they can just wing a panel,” Rielly said. “You’re going to get a much more satisfying result.”


Frans Johansson — who has traveled around the world as a keynote speaker since the 2004 publication of his bestselling book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures — is poised to go beyond the usual programming that he’s seen at events. He’s launching a new initiative that brings The Medici Effect’s core principle — diversity of thought plus collaboration leads to innovation — to life onstage, through a co-presentation with an accomplished professional in an entirely different eld.

“Almost all events share the same mixture of keynotes and panels,” Johansson said. “Maybe you’ll throw in a show, like an artist, or there are breakouts or workshops. Put together those four elements, and basically you’ve got an event. And this was frustrating to me from one perspective. I felt there was so much more one could do. It got me thinking about the talk component of it.” 

So when he was asked to speak at a Disney event with Walt Disney Imagineers several years ago, he saw it as an opportunity to experiment, working together with Joe Rohde, creative portfolio executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. “It was a question of, could we do an event together, and not one where I do something, and he does something, and maybe we have a chat?” — which, Johansson said, would be sequential, not interactive. “I wanted something that was deeply integrated, fused.”

So they “fused” Rohde’s design sensibility and experiential understanding with Johansson’s grasp of creativity and innovation. “People walked into this room, and all they saw were these two mountains we had built, no chairs,” Johansson said. “Joe and I took to each mountaintop, debating and yelling across to each other whether creativity is planned or serendipitous. The audience, about 200 people, gathered around the mountains, taking a side. The whole room was the stage and everyone was hyper-engaged. In the end, our debate came down to the fact that creativity is both — planned and serendipitous. In conversation following the event and hearing from the coordinator, the message landed deeper, because the audience had the chance to experience and feel the interplay and debate through to realization.”

If it’s difficult to picture the session the two created, perhaps that’s the point. You had to be there to experience it. That was the first test of what Johansson is now calling a “Fusion Talk.” The question in his mind was whether it could be replicated with a completely different co-presenter.



Laila Ali and Frans Johansson

The following year, Johansson further tested out the concept by partnering with boxer Laila Ali to explore how to use an innovator mindset with the discipline necessary for a boxer. “It was the two of us, onstage, creating a unified event. And that’s where I realized: That’s what pulls it together. A Fusion Talk is when you’re able to take ideas from one person and you’re able to infuse that with actionable insights to make it an actionable experience for the audience.”

Johansson is now in discussions with harp soloist Lavinia Meijer about a Fusion Talk in which they integrate “the ideas of playing the harp along with ideas of innovation, so that the audience doesn’t have to question what they’re actually listening to with the harp performance. They are able to listen to it and experience it and at the same time make it meaningful in their own situation, because I’m wrapping it into ideas, concepts, creativity, innovation.”

Also in the works: a Fusion Talk with Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall to explore how supernovas relate to the innovative capacity of a city like Seattle. “You would imagine nothing,” Johnansson said, “but actually they are very related, and so in this talk we’re designing, we’re getting the audience to see what the universe is all about, and then how does it directly apply to technology around us?”

The purpose of a Fusion Talk is to deliver an entirely unique and cohesive one- or two-hour experience, one you can’t get anywhere else. “Bottom line,” Johansson said, “I’m excited by this, because I’m looking to innovate the event experience.”

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