How much multipotentiality does innovation need?

Multipotentiality has a strong sense and a weak sense. In the strong sense, it is the ability to perform in unrelated domains of activity. In the weak sense, it is the cultivation of interests pertaining to unrelated domains, even if this cultivation is not associated with performance.

It is this weak sense that is employed by Emilie Wapnick, founder of the “multipotentialite” tribal religion.

Her doctrine asserts the existence of a distinct “multipotentialite” type of personality, whose flourishing stands at odds with socially dominant “specialist” roles.

According to this doctrine, multipotentialites should specifically accept not completing projects as a normal consequence of their multipotentiality. The purpose of this commandment is to remove the sting of failure. Multipotentialites basically encourage each other not to take it so hard if they don’t complete a task. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide what to think of this prescription. Wapnick’s best argument is that it worked for Leonardo Da Vinci, generally not primarily remembered as a “quitter.”

Where the specialist type already has an identity and knows who he is and what his priorities are, the multipotentialite is initially clueless and spends a lot more time exploring different areas. However, infinite time isn’t available to him, and he must in any case find a way to sustain his preference for exploration.

According to Wapnick, a good solution to this problem is to start a “Renaissance business” around a combination of his interests, organized by an over-arching theme — what we at Presans like to refer to as the Sinekian “Why?” question.

Due to his very nature, chances are that if a multipotentialite follows this path, he will end up with a rather unique and perhaps even innovative business proposition. In fact, even if he doesn’t start a business, he might contribute significantly to innovative projects, because innovation requires creativity, hybrid, lateral or transversal thinking, serendipity, etc. — things that are certainly stimulated by the cultivation of multiple separate fields of interest.

However, innovation takes more than abstract ideas. Knowledge of concrete particulars is essential, and impossible to acquire outside of specialization.

Returning to our initial distinction between strong and weak multipotentiality, it would appear that what you really want for innovation, and especially for technological innovation, goes beyond weak multipotentiality. An interest in separate domains isn’t the same as a strong command of these separate domains. But it is impossible to acquire such a strong command without actually having successfully done things in them. The lateral vision gained from this type of experience is more than just a potential: it’s cross-domain expert-grade knowledge. At the highest level of refinement, an expert becomes an expert about expertise. This meta-expertise makes it easy for him to detect and evaluate other experts.

At Presans, we have a special in-house name for our meta-experts: we call them Fellows. They accompany our clients from the beginning to the end of a project, making sure the right questions are asked, the best experts selected, and the key insights communicated. All our Fellows are ex-CTO veteran types with a track record of cross-domain innovation.

The founding Fellow of Presans is Jacques Schmitt. We’ve often featured him on this blog, mostly in French. He handed the Fellow Director torch to Hervé Arribart several months ago. And when it comes to Fellows, we’re always recruiting.

Presans Fellows are the highest grade, strongest type of multipotentiality you can get on the market. They pack a lot of renaissance, they don’t quit, and they are what you need if you want to make industrial open innovation happen in your company.

One thought on “How much multipotentiality does innovation need?

  • Tuesday October 4th, 2016 at 03:48 PM
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    Interesting. What I’ve heard described as the depth vs. breadth conundrum. Recognition of the former by the latter is key in any industry from sports to accounting. Thanks for sharing.

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