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.











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!

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.