The Hope & Serendipity of #RCUS

The highlight of the year - BIF.  It's the embodiment of my definition of innovation ~ the Network + Serendipity - through Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS). It's the place to renew your mind and soul - to see what can and is being done to positively change our world by people of all ages, ethnicities, experiences, industries, sectors, geographies.  This will be my 6th BIF and every year I think it can't get any better... and every year it does.  Why? Because the human desire, passion and spirit to do good is everlasting.  Despite the misery and pain we see in the world around us, there is always hope - hope being realized by action.  That's why I can't miss a BIF - it renews your hope in mankind.

What Gives You Hope?

Summer is ending, leaves are changing and we know what is coming, and I'm so filled with Hope!  Yup! InBIF10 Top Row L-R Marlea Brown, Andrew Kaplan, Nicha Ratana; Bottom Row L-R: Faisal Khurshid, Isby Lubin, Fiora MacPherson, Sarah Kandath, Me  what, in Whom do you Hope? Hope is a powerful force in life.  It is based in what is both possible and probable, not in hallucination. That's why September is Hope Month for me...because of BIF10 

BIF is the most amazing gathering of humans from all over the world sharing stories about perseverance, innovation, impact…and Hope! Every year we wonder how can the next be better and it always is.  Because of HopeHope in what the human spirit is capable of achieving:

I urge you to look at the videos, photos, and posts…. And sign up for next year!!

The Power of Your Network is the "Ask"

Originally published in Harvard Business Review, this post needs to be reread since my friend Vala Afshar will be a storyteller at BIF10 and Sidney Kushner will be attending - in just two weeks!  
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One of the biggest assets in anyone’s life is a generous network. It is a gift that grows simply by sharing it. Think of it as the Law of Accelerating Returns — the more you share your network, the more people share it in return and the more the rate of sharing accelerates. For me, my network has literally and figuratively been a source of survival. For most of us, networks have played a critical role in our lives, whether we realize it or not.

I asked executive and super-networker Vala Afshar if he thought there were any common traits or patterns that could be ‘taught’ or encouraged for networking.  We came up with a few unsubstantiated traits based on the people we know who are great connectors: 1) hard working (it does take work to network); 2) humble (now that’s pretty arrogant of me to say!); 3) quietly confident that connecting the people they introduce will result in something great even if it’s not yet clear; and, perhaps most importantly 4) who understand the power of the ask. For instance, Vala remembers arriving in America at age 10, escaping the 1979 Iranian Revolution not knowing any English, not blond and blue-eyed, and not stylishly clad. He also remembers the very few kids who overcame their shyness to ask him to play kickball — and how happy he was to be asked.

Too many of us worry that asking will appear self-serving, even if it’s not. We fear rejection. We fear looking stupid. Perhaps some of us actually fear hearing a “yes” — what would we do then? It’s tempting to say that asking takes courage. But really, think about it — what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll hear a “no.” No one’s going to throw you in jail. Let me share a brief story about a couple of normal (well, in their eyes) people and a kid to illustrate the Power of the Ask.

I first met Vala, CMO and CXO at New Hampshire-based Enterasys, now Extreme Networks, on twitter and reached out to him, since his tweets seemed so spot-on to me. We conversed over email and twitter, sharing stories of our jobs and of eating lobster, which we both love. We met last September on my way up to Maine for my annual vacation. I was greeted at Enterasys’s headquarters like a long-lost relative — even including an epicurean delight of lobster salad*. Needless to say, we really hit it off. I also learned that Enterasys provides network services to companies like the New England Patriots and the Boston Celtics.

Meanwhile, one of my mentees, Sidney Kushner**, has been creating CCChampions, an organization that creates connections between professional athletes and children with cancer to provide a source of inspiration and excitement during a very trying time in children’s lives. To date, CCChampions is working with over 6,000 professional athletes plus health care professionals, child psychologists, local students and community partners. Sidney’s compassion, drive and entrepreneurial savvy are contagious.

But let’s face it — Providence, RI, where Sidney lives, is not exactly a professional sports powerhouse. Yet Boston is nearby! So, sucking up courage, I ask Vala if he’d talk to Sidney and, if willing, then introduce Sidney to the Celtics. What’s the worst Vala could say? No. And I’d perhaps look like a fool… but I’m very used to that. But Vala said that after about 5 minutes of talking to Sidney, he wanted help. Still, since the Celtics were a fairly new client, Vala was a bit nervous about making the ask. Nevertheless, he did, and a 30-minute discussion ensued in which the Celtics offered to honor Sidney as part of their Heroes Among Us program at their January 9th game in a special in-game presentation. Vala said he had goosebumps and when he told me, I certainly did. When the Celtics called Sidney, he was speechless — all he could do was text me, not even talk.

On January 9, 2013, because Sidney will be honored on the famous parquet floor of TD Garden, more kids suffering with cancer will have an opportunity for joy, inspiration and valuable distraction from their pain. As parents, both Vala and I can only imagine what this would mean to our children.

And let’s face it, Vala and I have gotten great great joy from bringing Sidney and the Celtics together — beyondSidney and KJ (an 11 kid with cancer) are high-fiving on center court as CCChampions got honored as a "Hero Among Us" by the Boston Celtics! expression, so perhaps it’s very selfish of us. And in the end, despite feeling awkward at certain moments, we really risked very little to help make this happen.

When we don’t use the “Power of the Ask” we are in essence saying “no” before the question has even been asked — saying no to opportunities that change our businesses, our organizations, ourselves…and actual lives. So even if it feels uncomfortable, look for even just a small way can you use the “Power of the Ask” in your network — for someone you work for, with or manage. Make this your year of the Law of Accelerating Returns.

*This feast has become an annual tradition and on Sept. 15, we will be celebrating our third year dining upon the epicurian delights of Chef Brian Townsend (aka Director of Global Technology Services & Operations at Extreme Networks)

**Sidney graduated from Brown in 2013 and CCChampions is having an impact beyond his dreams. I am also very honored to be on his board. 

Why Higher Ed Needs Flying Lessons

Anita Verna Crofts is a Flight Instructor at the University of Washington.  © Tony Asgari PhotographyYes, you read that correctly. She wrote this post last year and it's only appropriate to repost as we start the new academic year.  Anita is one amazing lady who is taking education to new heights - Flying Lessons. There is hope for higher-ed!  Thank you Anita! Come meet her at BIF-10!!

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The University of Washington Announces Flying Lessons

I have never flown a plane or sat in a flight simulator, but I’ve been teaching people how to fly for years. This spring the Department of Communication at the University of Washington made it official by naming me their Flight Instructor.

Everyone has wings. Sometimes you need to be reminded to use them.

Choosing to be named the Flight Instructor reflected my approach to teaching, which encourages students to lead and soar higher than they ever imagined possible, inside and outside of the classroom. In addition to the classes I teach, my punch card includes:

  • Encouraging students to see their education as an opportunity to build knowledge and relationships that spread their wings. A degree isn’t just about making the grade, it’s about making a network that lasts a lifetime.
  • Reminding students, faculty, and staff to seek the perspective that comes with altitude gain. The broader landscape looks different and reveals patterns that are invisible from the ground.
  • Supporting faculty efforts to move students from co-piloting planes to taking over the controls themselves. Everyone has the ability to pilot their own plane.
  • Championing opportunities for students to lead in class, on campus, and in the community. The sky’s the limit.

© Tony Asgari PhotographyThe vision for my role reflects the entrepreneurial instincts of the Communication Leadership graduate program, where I teach and serve as Associate Director, and the department as a whole. Our program houses two unique degrees in digital media and community/networks, both aimed at creatives who are on the frontlines of shaping superb communication strategies through story-driven content, audience engagement, and insightful analytics. The freedom faculty, staff, and students enjoy to dream, build, and grow is my fuel.

As the Flight Instructor, I help students navigate takeoffs, weather turbulence, and stick their landings. Last week an incoming student tweeted to me, “I would love to talk to you about my flight plan.”

Buckle up. It’s time for takeoff.

Fly the friendly skies with Anita on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and avcrofts.com.

Control is for Beginners.....

My latest HBR post. Yes, control really is for beginners.  You don't get 'jazz' with control...only with freedom. After seeing Carl Størmer's story at BIF9 and an intense & casual chat with my friend, and daughter's jazz voice teacher, Kim Nazarian of the New York Voices, I have a very different view of management, leadership, creativity, innovation and the music of life.  Please read and comment....

America's Future is #RCUS

After every BIF, we always wonder if it can get any better and each year is as unique and powerful as the one before. This is a testimony to the human spirit. The media tells us everything that's wrong in the world but it's Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS) that show us otherwise.  This year, I had the honor of being a story-teller and can attest to the optimism and realistic hope.

Our hope for the future is based in #RCUS.  The more #RCUS, the more we meet people with whom we create powerful positive solutions to our world's wicked problems. #RCUS inspires and transforms our world in ways we may know now, later or may not ever realize.  Here are a few BIF9 Storytellers who inspired me.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to Learn How to Fly?

Jessica Esch (frequent poster here) introduced me to Anita Verna Crofts a© Tony Asgari Photography couple of years ago at BIF.  This is one amazing lady who is taking education to new heights - Flying Lessons. There is hope for higher-ed!  Thank you Anita! Come meet her at BIF-9!!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The University of Washington Announces Flying Lessons

I have never flown a plane or sat in a flight simulator, but I’ve been teaching people how to fly for years. This spring the Department of Communication at the University of Washington made it official by naming me their Flight Instructor.

Everyone has wings. Sometimes you need to be reminded to use them.

Choosing to be named the Flight Instructor reflected my approach to teaching, which encourages students to lead and soar higher than they ever imagined possible, inside and outside of the classroom. In addition to the classes I teach, my punch card includes:

  • Encouraging students to see their education as an opportunity to build knowledge and relationships that spread their wings. A degree isn’t just about making the grade, it’s about making a network that lasts a lifetime.
  • Reminding students, faculty, and staff to seek the perspective that comes with altitude gain. The broader landscape looks different and reveals patterns that are invisible from the ground.
  • Supporting faculty efforts to move students from co-piloting planes to taking over the controls themselves. Everyone has the ability to pilot their own plane.
  • Championing opportunities for students to lead in class, on campus, and in the community. The sky’s the limit.

© Tony Asgari PhotographyThe vision for my role reflects the entrepreneurial instincts of the Communication Leadership graduate program, where I teach and serve as Associate Director, and the department as a whole. Our program houses two unique degrees in digital media and community/networks, both aimed at creatives who are on the frontlines of shaping superb communication strategies through story-driven content, audience engagement, and insightful analytics. The freedom faculty, staff, and students enjoy to dream, build, and grow is my fuel.

As the Flight Instructor, I help students navigate takeoffs, weather turbulence, and stick their landings. Last week an incoming student tweeted to me, “I would love to talk to you about my flight plan.”

Buckle up. It’s time for takeoff.

Fly the friendly skies with Anita on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and avcrofts.com.

Innovating Higher-Education

MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) are a very hot topic in higher education and corporate training.  Nabeel Gillani started Coursolve.org to connect organizations using MOOCs with students around the world to solve real world problems.  UVa’s Darden School of Business and University of Washington are finding unexpected value and learning by using Coursolve.  We are in a new age of education, and just leave it to our students to make sure they are front and center! Nabeel is pursuing a Master’s in Learning and Technology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Education and is also co-founder of Coursolve.org.  He finished his undergraduate education in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science at Brown University in 2012.  You can read more of his thoughts on MOOCs in Stanford Social Innovation Review as well.
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Every Friday, I try to remember how to multiply and divide 2-digit numbers as 9-to-11 year olds at St. Nicholas Primary School show off their math prowess.  Technically, I’m there to tutor them, but often they’re the ones teaching me.  Last Friday was no different:  with 15 minutes left, I walked over to David, a 10-year old math whiz.  Sensing his boredom, I asked him a classic question:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  He responded with “A scientist – probably an astronomer.”  And then, he took me to school.

“You know, outer space is like a big spikey ball that keeps on getting bigger,” he said.  I was stunned by his image of an expanding universe.  David proceeded to talk about the origin of black holes and the relationship between time and space.  He then discussed the big bang, conceptualized the possibility of multiple universes, and described “infinity.”  Up until that point, I knew David as the kid who kept talking as we took attendance at the start of each session, but in 15 minutes, he had dropped enough knowledge on me to make a first-year Physics undergrad take notes.

I am constantly reminded that students – many of them less than half my age – are capable of so much.  I spent the past four years at Brown University learning how to play basketball from an elementary schooler and watching 12 year-olds in Providence channel their creativity into building computer games.  Years later and halfway around the world, David gave me one of the most engaging Physics lessons of my life.  By enrolling as a student in formal institutions, what I’ve really done is become the student of other students.  I’ve been lucky to learn from people with unique interests and insights, backgrounds and experiences ready to apply their knowledge to shaping the world.

It is this observation – that students can use their talents to break down barriers and change the world – that has driven the development of Coursolve.  Coursolve is a platform that connects organizations with courses to empower students to solve real-world problems.  Over the past few months, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of my closest friends to explore how a wide range of students, learning both online and offline, can meaningfully contribute to solving hard problems. 

A key partner in this exploration has been Professor Michael Lenox of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  As a part of his recent massively open online course (MOOC) on business strategy, Professor Lenox invited small enterprises, nonprofits and other organizations to join the course and solicit students to provide strategic analysis and insights as a part of their final projects.

We’ve been inspired by the results so far.  For entrepreneurs like Rajan, who solicited the help of students to significantly alter the course of his biotech startup’s business development, accessing insights from a diverse body of learners was game-changing.  But Rajan wasn’t alone.  Rebecca, co-founder of the Food Recovery Network, discussed the value students added by asking fundamental questions that challenged her existing business assumptions.  Ashutosh, the founder of a not-for-profit online language learning organization, mentioned how guidance he received from one student could help his initiative become financially sustainable. 

Over 100 organizations received, on average, about 4 final strategic analyses each.  Out of over 1,000 survey respondents that identified as part of an “organization”, 60% said they would want to work with students to address their challenges in the future. 87% felt that what they received from the course was worth their time and effort (most organizations – 55% – spent only 2-5 hours per week).  Moreover, over 80% of the respondents felt that people outside of their organizations could provide valuable advice on business challenges.  As for students, over 85% of the survey respondents left feeling confident in their abilities to help businesses address their strategic challenges, and 88% said that having real-world problem solving in future courses was important to them.

These results have given us immense hope for what the future holds.  Our latest partnership is with Professor Bill Howe’s Introduction to Data Science MOOC, where students will have an opportunity to help a wide range of organizations answer important questions by analyzing internal or public datasets.  The 8-week long course started on May 1st, and already, we’ve seen research firms, environmental advocacy groups, and small community organizations post projects.  Since we are especially excited about what students in these settings have to offer, Coursolve is also working directly with course participants to gain insights into how we can improve our social media strategy. 

As Coursolve develops over the next few months with new partnerships and a more robust platform, it will continue to help enable students with different cultural backgrounds, academic interests, and life experiences learn by directly engaging with some of the toughest problems of our time.  If we help open doors to smart people around the world, there’s no telling who will step through —and what they will accomplish.  Who knows, some of them might even teach us a thing or two about the universe. 

Thanksgiving of Trust

Tomorrow is a day of thanksgiving and blessing for me.  It is the 4th Open Innovation Summit at BW’s Center for Innovation & Growth (CIG).  My friend, Saul Kaplan from the Business Innovation Factory, is the keynote speaker and two other friends are on the panel. For the past 3 Summits, friends-clients-colleagues have taken a flyer (literally), trusting me, to come share stories, sacrificing a few days at the office.

I am honored and very humbled that these people would give up their time, other opportunities and fly or drive hours to share their stories with people they don’t know in a part of the country they have no ties to because I asked.

Why did they do this? Trust. Trust is a very precious gift –to give and to receive.  It must be treated with tremendous stewardship and care.  I have amazing friends and colleagues.  Some of these relationships started in real life and some started via Twitter or “cold calls”.  How these relationships started has no bearing on their depth and meaning.  What has bearing is their nurturing, transparency, vulnerability and sharing.  Yes, sharing.  Trusting relationships are gifts to share.

So, as you approach thanksgiving, take a few minutes to reflect on the people who trust you, who’ll take a flyer on you, who’ll support you.  Do you do the same for them? How have you positively impacted their lives at any level? Brought them wisdom? Brought them joy? Each and every one of them is a gift that’s been entrusted to you – treat those gifts accordingly…let them know.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Lessons From BIF-7

I’m tired of all the “Woe is America” stuff – we’ve lost our innovation edge, we’re stagnating, etc.  What I see is the opposite – incredible innovation in products, services, processes and business models.  It’s just not in the mainstream media.  That’s what makes the annual BIF conference so important:  30 plus stories of amazing, cool, disruptive, transformative innovation models.  I thought I’d share a glimpse of the many “business” lessons I learned from some ‘non-traditional business’ stories at BIF-7.

BIF-6’s theme was summed up by Carmen Medina, “Optimism is the greatest form of rebellion”.  Angela Blanchard iterated that at BIF-7 saying, “You can’t build on broken”.  So let’s start with her story.

Angela Blanchard @CajunAngela of @NeighborhoodCtr  BIF-7 Story & Video 

Despite growing up in poverty in Texas, Angela thought she was one of the luckiest people. Hurricanes were a part of life and Angela knew the systems didn’t work and smart brains couldn’t figure it out.  When people came to help, they focused on what was broken, what wasn’t working.  But after these disasters, the community was always more caring, patient, generous and collaborative.  As President/CEO of Neighborhood Centers in Houston, Angela has created a powerful model for community redevelopment with national, global application. 

Lesson: You can’t build on broken.  

Experiment: In performance management, process, quality, workflow, customer satisfaction, etc., we focus on what’s broken, what we need to ‘fix’.  What if we put the same amount of rigour into looking at what’s working, what’s strong, what’s right? Bright Spots?  What if we identified an issue and looked at what’s working instead of what’s broken.  How does that make a difference? If you got a few people to this regularly, could your culture change!

Some of the many cool things Jon Cropper has done includes helping MTV move into Asia, Latin America and South Africa, working with (the) Quincy Jones, and heading up Nissan North America’s youth and multicultural marketing (know the “Shift_expectations” ads?).  Jon defined “Simplexity”: make it simple on the outside, hide the complexity inside.  His theme was Generosity feeds the Soul.  He urged us to focus on projects, products, services that can inject optimism into the world.  Its not how many eyeballs you reach, its how many hearts you touch.  And, you need to out-educate your competition. (BIF-7 Story & Video)

Lesson: Generosity feeds the Soul

Experiment: How can we look at What/Who/When/Why/Where/How we bring offerings to market in a way that touches hearts and minds? That truly makes things better, not ‘more’, than before? What if we took 1 product or service and asked ‘5 W’s 1 H’ for injecting optimism.  What could you do?

Whitney Johnson @johnsonwhitney  BIF-7 Story & Video 

Whitney Johnson is an elegant, wise, caring and courageous woman.  Whitney rose from a secretary to a top-ranked analyst at Merrill Lynch.  Her honesty and authenticity built trusting relationships between investors and CEOs.  But after rising to the top, Whitney felt the need to build and create something more meaningful.  She walked away from a 7-figure salary and prestige.  After some introspection, she agreed to head up Clayton Christensen’s venture fund, Rose Park Advisors, to help companies grow.  Whitney says, “If it feels scary and lonely, you’re probably on the right track.” Embracing uncertainty is a must, because there is no assurance of what comes next, but that leads to innovation and growth.  No matter what, though, be authentic.

Lesson: If it feels scary and lonely, you’re probably on the right track.

Experiment: Find something you’ve been yearning to do, at work, or try at home if it’s safer for you.  Give it a try – even just a small try.  Ask yourself what the risks/benefits really are, muster up your courage, and just try it. 

Alex Jadad @ajadad  BIF-7 Story   

Dr. Alex Jadad has a contagious joy through his healing eyes and smile.  He is a physician, educator, researcher, public advocate, innovator and very human.  There is a tool to assess clinical trial quality named after him – “the Jadad Scale”.  His list of accomplishments, but more so, the lives impacted, is astounding.  Despite the fame, Alex is a physician who wants to heal the soul, not just the body.  He is frustrated with medicine’s almost sole focus on diagnosis and fixes instead of dealing with chronic disease and pain.  Alex wants to “put more life into our years, not just years into our life”.  To him, health is the capacity of an individual and a community to adapt and direct their own lives.  Alex asked us to teach our tongue to say, “I don’t know” and we will progress.  His grandfather, also a physician, said his mission was, “to remember, remember, remember, cure sometimes, alleviate often, console always.”  Nary a dry eye.

Lesson 1: Put more life into our years, not just years into our life

Lesson 2: Teach your tongue to say “I don’t know” and we will progress

Experiment:  More is not always better.  Can you find some products or services that are over-engineered, over-complicated where high quality and ease of use could trump features? Where you could provide real benefit for your customers?  As for “I don’t know” – it takes confidence, courage and humility to say those words and listen, understand, and care.

Rebecca Onie  @rebeccaonie  @HealthLeadsNatl   BIF-7 Story & Video 

While volunteering in the Housing Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services as a Harvard sophomore, Rebecca realized many of illness’s underlying causes couldn’t be solved by a prescription; they were poverty-related.  They were obvious, but the healthcare system didn’t have a way to solve them.  She co-founded Health Leads using college kids to connect patients with the resources they needed most: food, shelter, heat, transportation, etc.  Today, Health Leads is a national non-profit serving 7000 families in 5 urban clinics.  Rebecca’s keys to transforming our healthcare system? Tenacity, not taking “No” for an answer, always asking more questions and tackling ‘bite-size’ pieces instead of the whole.  Since the odds of failing are so great, it’s important to take big risks because every success is more impactful.  As Rebecca said, vision doesn’t change the world, execution does!

Lesson: If failure is inevitable, every success is more significant

Experiment:  Is there a project that could have a significant impact on your customers, your employees, and your shareholders? Does it seem overwhelming? What if you make it into small achievable steps? What if you step back and look for obvious, simple (perhaps not easy) solutions?

Dan Pink @danielpink  BIF-7 Video 

Dan Pink, known for his fabulous books A Whole New Mind and Drive, talked about 2010’s two Physics Nobel Prize winners, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, breakthrough in extremely thin graphene.  This wasn’t their ‘day-job’ though.  Their discovery came from their “Friday Evening Experiment” time, what Dan calls “non-commissioned work”.  Most work today is commissioned – work we’re paid, told, reviewed to do.  A 1990’s study of commissioned vs. non-commissioned art showed that while both types were technically equivalent, the non-commissioned art was judged as more creative.  It’s usually the non-commissioned work that creates the path to breakthroughs.  In 2000, Andre Geim won the Ig Nobel Prize for using magnets to levitate a frog.  So, if you want to really change the world, you need to levitate some frogs.

Lesson: Non-commissioned work is powerful

Experiment: Every company has someone somewhere doing non-commissioned work.  Why don’t you try to find a few of those people in your company and give them some time to focus on that work? See what happens, but have patience.

I must conclude on a personal note. First semester freshman year at Brown, I took Intro to Computer Science by Prof. Andy Van Dam.  Many of us still have nightmares about one homework assignment – write a program (C+) to run the elevators in the SciLi (Science Library).   Andy was a formidable figure to us kids…a god.  If you like the Internet, thank Andy – he invented hypertext and is the father of graphics (and some say the model for Andy in Toy Story). At BIF-7, I was privileged to see Andy and get to know him ‘adult-to-adult’.  What an incredible joy and honor to reconnect with such a brilliant and caring man who positively shaped so many of our lives.  (BIF-7 Story & Video)

Many thanks to Frank Gullo’s posts, Jess Esch’s stunning notes and Amanda Fenton’s mindmaps for helping me create this post!

Connect-Inspire-Transform Well Lived

BIF’s motto is Connect-Inspire-Transform.  That’s exactly what happens at the magical BIF conferences.  We hearChristine Costello, Eli Stefanski, Katherine Hypolite, Chris Flanagan, Tori Drew incredible stories, have profound conversations, eat and drink (even al fresco!), and have Wi-Fi.  What more could we need?

Connect-Inspire-Transform is also what it takes to make the magic happen.  Oh, along with some collaboration and leadership, which define the smiling faces of BIF team: Tori Drew, Chris Flanagan, Katherine Hypolite, Eli Stefanski, Christine Costello, Jeff Drury, James Hamar, Sam Kowalczyk, and Saul Kaplan.  At BIF-7, these folks are so welcoming, smiling and make it all seem so simple.  And perhaps at some level it is simple, but it’s definitely not easy. 

The BIF team is authentic.  They truly live and breathe their mission – it’s not just a saying or a goal, it’s a way of life; it’s how they work.  There are many moments of more perspiration than inspiration, of last second changes.  BIF’s core values remain constant throughout.  That’s part of the paradox of innovation – the need for the stability of core values and beliefs to transform our world for the better.  Having been privileged to sit in for a brief moment of rest and nourishment with Olga’s fabulous tarts (and #innopies) before BIF-7, the passionate kaleidoscope of laughter, frustration, triple checking, sighs, and smiles was palpable, and powerful.

One example stands out.  BIF was live streaming.  My friend and client, Matt Hlavin of Thogus was at BIF (along with a bunch of “Clevelanders” who were nagged into going to BIF, gratefully).  During Angela Blanchard’s story, Matt’s right-hand, Lisa Lehman, watching it live in Avon Lake, OH, texted Matt that Angela didn’t have the ‘clicker’ in her hand seconds before Angela looked for the clicker!  Someone watching in real time, 650 miles Tori's "Magic" Shoesaway, was so engaged that she noticed such a detail!  And the next book for the Thogus leadership team’s “group” read is John Hagel’s Power of Pull along with Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation.  That is the power of BIF – connecting people all over the world and inspiring them so they transform their worlds, miles and time zones away.  Next year, when you’re at BIF, remember that – and thank one of those BIF team smiling faces.

Serendipitous Innovation

As I’ve been getting ready for my ‘sabbatical’ and BIF-7, the role of serendipity has been top of mind.  Serendipity is a hot topic, especially its role in innovation. One of the best reads isJohn Hagel & John Seely Brown’s book, The Power of Pull.

Serendipity is loosely defined as a “happy accident”.  Horace Walpole created the word in a letter to Horace Mann on January 28, 1754 stating, “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”  The word is based on a Persian fairy tale from the 14th century titled The Three Princes of Serendip “whose heroes were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” [1] Serendip is the old name for Ceylon now known as Sri Lanka.  It stems from the Arabic Sarandib originating from the Sanskrit Simhaladvipa that translates to “Dwelling Place of Lions Island” (source: Wikipedia).  Even the origin of the word is serendipitous!

The cycle of serendipity (or not) came to me while having coffee yesterday with Valdis Krebs: “what you know depends a lot on who you know which depends a lot on what you know which depends a lot on who you know”…iteratively.  If you stay within those confines, your network remains fairly constant and self-selected.  Your chances of learning something new, of encountering ‘happy accidents’ is reduced, perhaps not zero, but not high.  It’s when you venture outside of that circle that your network, and knowledge, starts to expand - you ‘know’ more people so you ‘learn’ more which leads to knowing more people and on and on.

As I reflect upon how I know what I know, almost all of that knowledge & network has been serendipitous - Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS), to quote Saul Kaplan.   Let’s look at Random (and then examine the other words over the next few weeks before BIF-7).  The OED defines Random as “Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard.”  Originating in the 14th Century with an unclear origin, it meant impetuosity, sudden speed, violence.  In the mid 17th Century, it took on the meaning of haphazard, from the Old French randon (v. randir “run impetuously, fast”) from the Frankish rant “running” from the prehistoric German randa.  But here’s where I think it gets very interesting.  Originally, randa meant ‘edge’ – which lead the English rand, an obsolete term for ‘edge’ (now the South African currency).[2]

It is this last, or very very early, meaning of ‘edge’ that intrigues me.  Innovation, especially disruptive innovation, comes from the edges, from the fringes.  So, for the next week or so, just try to put yourself in Random situations – situations that are not planned, not directed and even perhaps at the edge of your usual business or personal world and see what happens.  If you’re willing, please share in the comments or here.

p.s. I am a bit enamored with the entomology of words – it shows the flow and evolution of language which means of people, of societies, of commerce (words moving from Sanskrit to Arabic, from German to French to English, etc.), of culture…of our own past and future.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serendipity

[2] http://www.word-origins.com/definition/random.html

Paradox of Innovation and Status Quo

As much as I love change, innovation, #RCUS (Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects per Saul Kaplan) and challenging the Status Quo, I realized how much the comfort and haven of some Status Quo means to me as we got settled at our place in Maine.  The familiar faces in our little grocery store and post office, seeing long-time friends, the same lobster boats and buoys in the harbour provide a sense of calm, certainty, stability that, paradoxically, frees me to challenge, change, and innovate.

Yet there is still constant change.  In Maine, it's in the water.  Several years ago, an old lobsterman had the most elaborate buoys: stripe of red, stripe of white, stripe of red with something different painted in the stripe of white every year such as a buoy, a lobster, and after 9/11, the American Flag. Our kids got one of his buoys every year.   One year, there were about half the number of his buoys in the bay.  When we saw him at the Co-Op, he informed us his wife had died that winter and he just wasn't up to it.  He looked frail.  The next year, his boat wasn't in the harbour and there were no buoys.  He had died that winter.  There were new boats and buoys in the harbour.  Death and renewal.

What does this have to do with innovation, business, anything? I think a lot on (at least) two levels:

  1. While we have to embrace the increasing velocity of change and uncertainty for meaningful, effective innovation, change for change's sake is not the goal.   Sometimes the way it is now is really ok.  We need to discern the difference and continually re-evaluate.  Nothing stays totally the same forever.  While the islands, shoals, and hidden rocks are still there, their contours have changed, perhaps ever so slightly, due to the tides, the weather - due to just being there.
  2. We need to start looking for subtle changes and patterns that provide enormous opportunities.  Most non-locals here in Pemaquid probably don't even notice the changes in lobster boats and buoys - but they are significant indicators of shifts (and generations).  While boats and buoys are tangible, many times the patterns are in the intangibles, which is harder to perceive (and measure).

So, I leave you with two challenges as you go on your summer vacations, kids baseball and soccer games, walks down the halls at work, visits to plants, boarding planes, even daily commutes:

  1. Identify the constants in your life, your work, that are working well and that aren't. Do they need to be changed? Do they provide the stability that allows innovation or do they impede it?
  2. Look for subtle patterns and changes - especially in places you don't normally look and think about what opportunities can arise from these.

Please feel free to share your learnings with your fellow readers either through comments here or on twitter at @dscofield or email me

Yes, Compare Apples & Oranges!!!

One of my favorite authors is the Albanian,  Ismail Kadare, and there's been a lot of discussion of the Mideast in my home. Trust me, these are related.

The media keeps comparing Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia’s futures to either Iran or what? Pakistan? Indonesia? Turkey? Always to other Mid-East, Asia, or Asia Minor countries (yes, Turkey straddles both continents, in so many ways).

No one compared these countries futures to any European country. I kept thinking about Albania. Now see the link?

Having read Kadare’s books and learning a bit of Albanian history and ‘freedom’ post-1989, it seemed Albania could be just as likely a model for Egypt as any of the others. Kind of wondered if I wasn’t a bit nuts with this analogy until Monday 2/14’s WSJ article by Matthew Kaminski.

So what in the world does this have to do with strategy and innovation? Everything! When we start creating our organization’s strategic direction (which should be a living, ongoing, adapting process) and look at how and where we can innovate, we tend to look at others ‘like us’.

This is natural, but not helpful.  Blockbuster did this, was offered the opportunity to buy another ‘near’ it, but not ‘like it’ and got Netflixed*.  What if Blockbuster had looked at those not “like us” or even combined what it did with what others did…the power of “AND”?  Apple and Best Buy have built success on not looking at those ‘like us’ AND combining what’s out there (e.g., iTunes, iPod). Who else can you think of?

So, try these two things to grow your business:

  1. Stop looking at those ‘like us’… look at those very “not like us”;
  2. Start combining…instead of asking do you want this or that, put them together!

Sometimes it’s worth comparing apples and oranges! As Capt. Renault said in Casablanca, [don’t] “Round up the usual suspects.” Go look for unusual suspects.  My friend, Saul Kaplan, puts it so eloquently: innovation is found in “random collisions of unusual suspects” – in RCUS (ruckus!) – go make a RCUS! You’ll be amazed at what you discover and learn to grow your business, your people and yourself.