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.

Providential #RCUS at BIF-7

Last week was BIF-7, Business Innovation Factory’s 7th annual innovation conference, rightly billed as one of the top conferences to attend.  It is hard to describe the power of a BIF conference; it needs to be experienced.  It’s not just the storytellers sharing the amazing things they’ve done to impact and change systems, companies, communities and individual lives.  It’s also the attendees doing amazing things to impact our world.  Last year’s conference was summed up in a great quote by Carmen Medina in her story, “Optimism is the greatest form of rebellion.”  At BIF-7, Angela Blanchard’s, “You can’t build on broken” took optimism the next step.

You can’t build on broken.  But we sure do try!  We look at what’s wrong first, we analyze and try to fix it and sometimes we do.  We start with a negative mindset: what went “wrong” with this project? What expectations didn’t you meet? What (who?) caused this failure? Perhaps it’s in our nature. Perhaps it’s the path of least resistance. Yet, maybe that’s why many of the ways we try to fix big systemic problems in our society (education, healthcare) don’t work.  Face it, it’s hard to motivate and impassion from the negative.

What if we build on what’s right? What’s working? That’s how Angela created Neighborhood Centers, Inc.  When we start with what is working, what is going right, we focus on the positive, on opportunities, on how things have been solved, creating energy and passion to really make a difference.  Chip and Dan Heath refer to these as “Bright Spots” in Switch.  The positive mindset expands, not limits, opportunities:  what went well, what expectations were met or even exceeded?  If we adopt this type of mindset, think of how we can impassion and motivate each other to design system solutions to wicked problems!  Think of what this would do to motivate our spouses, our children, and our colleagues? And yet it’s so rare.  Some call this Appreciative Inquiry.  I call it the way we should think, period! Because when you look at what’s right, it’s liberating, freeing. This seems obvious, doesn’t it? 

Angela’s had another wonderful line, “We are the only species in the world that creates the future out of our own imagination.”  This summed up many of the day’s other storytellers (and Day 2’s too!). Storytellers shared how they just went for it, how they didn’t stand by and wait to be told or asked, but saw an opportunity and decided to act.  And that’s the point – see what’s working right and go make more ‘rights’.  Connect with those who can help you, Inspire people to share your dream, and go Transform…by making a RCUS!


Here are the other stories from Day 1 – about people transforming education, healthcare, churches, communities, art and even mountain climbing:

John Werner, Chief Mobilization Officer & Managing Director, Citizen Schools – getting plain old people, not teachers, involved in educating our youth

Graham Milner, EVP Global Innovation at WD-40, a company none of us can live without!

Eva Koleva Timothy, amazing photographer who know it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer’s personal lens

Jim Mellado, President of the Willow Creek Association, a Christian organization mobilizing volunteers across the world to respond to those in need

Alex Jadad, Physician, Teacher, Innovator at the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation asked us to teach our tongues to say “I don’t know.” (and who has an infectious smile)

Rebecca Onie, Co-Founder & CEO of Health Leads looking at at common, obvious solutions to change a formidable healthcare system for the poor.

John Hagel, Author, Co-Chair Deloitte Center for the Edge, drew an important distinction between a story (finite, contained) and narrative (open-ended, participatory, evolving)

Dale Stephens, Founder of UnCollege & Thiel Fellow, shared how he hacked his own education and took it as his responsibility vs. ‘educators’

Fred Mandell, Author and Artist, called creativity a quest that not only changes the world around us, but us as well

Matthew Moniz, 13 year old Alpinist, who used his passion for mountain climbing to understand his friend’s pulmonary hyper-tension and raise funds to help find a cure.



For Innovation, Don't Round up the Usual Suspects

This is the final #RCUS – Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects post. It’s one week til BIF7, time to talk about S – Suspects.  The word has a negative connotation: criminal, shady, basically no good and so does its origin.  Suspect comes from the mid 14th Century Old French suspect meaning suspicious from the Latinsuspectus/suspicere meaning look up at, mistrust, suspect, look at secretly, distrustfully.  The noun form’s first recorded use was in the 1590s.

Being suspicious is not always a bad thing.  How many of us have been viewed suspiciously because we were challenging the status quo or not playing by the rules?  If we are trying to do something new then we are suspects.  As long as what we are doing is good, benefits customers (and thereby society), creates real value (and is moral and legal), then it’s just fine to be a suspect.  When others regard us with that raised eyebrow, we know we’re on the right track.  If you haven’t been viewed suspiciously, while you may get the big corner office, so what?

Who are the suspects in your organization? How do you treat them? How do others treat them? Perhaps its time to listen to your suspects and let them collide with others in your own organization let alone the outside world.  Today’s Status Quo was once suspicious.  Think of the radical troublemakers we call our Founding Fathers who created an amazing country and democracy that still shapes the world in unprecedented ways; think of Henry Ford who dared to not only obsolete the horse & buggy but also pay his people well enough to buy what they made; think Galileo, Zweig, Watson & Crick, Tesla.  What are you doing to encourage your suspects, to put them (and yourself) in situations to make a #RCUS?  Just try.

So, go make a #RCUS – Random, at the edge, Collisions, that create energy, of Unusual, not ordinary, Suspects, suspicious challengers of the status quo.  It may be a bit scary, strange and incredibly rewarding and fun.

p.s. If you can’t make BIF-7, it will be live streaming – check the website for details!

The Unusuals Innovate

As we near major #RCUS-making at BIF7, let’s move onward to U! You and U!  We’ve discussed Random Collisions, so its time to talk about Unusual.  (I do tend to think ‘differently’ - in paradoxesoxymorons so bear with me.) Unusual created the image of a slinky in my mind: what we know greatly depends on whom we know which greatly depends on what we know which greatly depends on whom we know…iteratively in a potentially closed, yet expanding slinky spiral circle.

Therein lies the challenge! How do we expand our circle beyond the usual? How do we create intersecting circles? How do we even step out on the edge of the circle? Well, it’s not that different from how we put ourselves in situations to have Random Collisions.  Etymology first.  The word unusual is ‘not’ (un) in front of the word usual which comes from the late 13th Century Old French usuel, from the Latin usualis meaning ordinary and usus meaning custom. Not a big surprise; no big revelations.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t help thinking of Capt. Renault ‘s (Claude Rains) classic line in Casablanca, “Round up the usual suspects.” (By the way, Casablanca is one of the most quoted movies of all time!)

When we think of unusual people, we think people who are a bit different, perhaps a tad bizarre, perhaps distinguished, eccentric – different from you and me.  We usually don’t expect to meet these types of people in our everyday lives and routines, but perhaps we could!  Since I live in Oberlin, Ohio – home of the eponymous college - it’s pretty easy to meet unusual people in my ‘routine’.  But I’d posit that meeting unusuals is not just an issue of physically colliding with them, but a mindset of looking at the unusual, atypical, unique aspects of people we already know, as well as new ones we meet.  Porter Gale, in a terrific post, talks about the impact of her serendipitous encounters in seat 4C.

In the past year, at least for me, it seems the velocity of serendipitous #RCUS’s is increasing.  You know when you’re looking to get a new car you start seeing that car all over but you didn’t before?  I wonder if we start becoming attuned to look for the unusual the more unusuals we meet!  In hindsight, as I look back at the many unusuals I’ve met over the past 18 months, the collisions don’t seem as much random as somehow ordained, even destined. There is a great word in Yiddish – Bashert (באַשערט) – destined, fated, meant to be. That defines most of my #RCUS’s over the past year or so.   And these #RCUS’s, while starting out on a professional plane quickly becomes multi-dimensional – adding depth and impact.  They have led to amazing clients, colleagues, collaborators, co-conspirators, co-creators and chums.

So, in this upcoming week, can you step to the edge of your circle to meet some unusual people? To discover something unusual in the usual people you meet?  Take Good’s 30-day challenge with me and let’s share meeting unusuals this week!

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.

Currency of 21st C? Connections!

Sitting behind me at BIF-6 last September was a nice, unassuming guy. We struck up a conversation. As a result, a wonderful friendship developed (which is easy to do at BIF).

This guy was Michael Lee Stallard. Three years ago, Michael wrote a very important book underscoring this very point, Fired Up or Burned Out. It was inspired from his own career experiences on Wall Street and Texas Instruments.

Michael’s point is that companies need to help their people achieve their potential if the company is to grow. The way to do this, while most call it ‘engagement,’ is by really truly connecting with your people and getting them to connect with each other. It’s not the formality of cross-functional meetings; it’s the depth of understanding and really connecting at a personal, even one-to-one level with your people.

Many companies go through various routines, some genuine, some perfunctory, to connect – town hall meetings, newsletters, videos, intranet discussion groups, picnics, etc. These are important ways to share information and help employees feel included.

But if there isn’t a real personal connection at some level, in some way, they can easily ring a bit hollow. This can be very threatening and confusing – it means making yourself vulnerable to those who work for you – but perhaps you really work for them!

In Michael’s book you learn how to start “connecting” with examples of how others have done it right, and wrong. He provides questions to ask yourself and others to get a feel for where you are and a roadmap for creating real genuine connections in your organization…ones that can make a big difference.

Interestingly, three years later, we are seeing this theme gaining traction and recognition. At the 2nd Annual Open InnovationSummit in Chicago, connections – relationships – trust was key to success.  At BIF-6, connections – relationships – trust was key to success (Saul Kaplan uses the term “connected adjacencies”).

Steve Denning’s new book, Radical Management, stresses the importance of connections – relationships – trust.  So does JohnHagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison in the Power of Pull.

In my professional life, it is the connections – relationships – trust that have gotten me to where I am (which is a good place) more than the achievements (patents, papers, etc.).  I had tremendous mentors at Bell Labs and AT&T, great clients who challenge me and wonderful colleagues who stretch and teach me.

This holds true in my personal life as well, with incredible parents, family and friends. The adage – it is all in who you know is really about how you know them as well. Read Michael’s book – it’s very worthwhile and worthy of your time. It can make a big difference for you personally and professionally…in fact, read it with your people!