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!