Our systems — be they companies, government agencies, schools, churches or healthcare organizations — become brittle, rigid, bureaucratic, and sometimes even dangerous when there are no rebels or change makers who have the courage to say, “This isn’t the right way.” Look no further than General Motors’ recent debacle. This inspirational post reflects on what might happen in a world without rebels.
I’ve heard people rave about the SXSW Interactive, Film and Music conference for years, and never understood why it’s such a cult-like experience. Though I hate huge crowds, long lines, and managed chaos, I found the people and ideas absolutely fascinating in their diversity, honesty and generosity. While I bumped into a couple of people who missed the point and were shilling their companies, most people were there to learn, share, question, and play. No doubt, the playfulness created the conditions for learning much.
Oh brother, after five days I became sucked into the cult. I may never be able to go to a typical business conference again.
Here’s a summary of my SXSW highlights:
A danger for everyone at work — particularly us change makers — is becoming obsessed with our own agenda.
When we’re focused on pushing our agenda forward come hell or high water, we get blinded from taking in potentially valuable new information and from enjoying and learning from our colleagues.
When our agenda has us, we are handicapped from being effective change makers. Or effective period.
There is one week every September where I fully immerse myself in ideas, possibilities and new people. Last week I attended the Business Innovation Factory’s annual innovation conference. Here’s what I learned and was reminded of:
1. Show up more. (Or better, always.)
When we lay bare our vulnerabilities and dreams, we connect with people in rich ways. As author and venture capitalist Whitney Johnson said, “There are no regrets when you show up, and when you show up your dreams can find you. Dreaming is at the heart of disruptive innovation.”
2. Good questions start good ideas.
I’ve attended every BIF conference and have noticed that innovators ask good questions, and those questions get people thinking in new ways. One of my favorites this year were what educator Angela Maiers uses to challenge high school students as part of the Choose2Matter movement: What breaks your heart about the world? What can you do about that? What do you need?
3. Do the work, the path will appear.
Food geek Scott Heimendinger kept his day job in technology and on weekends and nights wrote a food blog and started experimenting with sous vide cooking. Acknowledging that it’s OK to be risk averse, which he is, Scott just kept working away on his love for molecular gastronomy as a side project. Eventually, he found his new path as director of applied research at The Cooking Lab. Innovators just start without knowing what the outcomes should or will be.
4. Nothing is too big to change.
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, has created a new higher ed approach, aimed particularly for disadvantaged, often marginalized adults who want to get ahead at work. For just $1,250 people can earn an associate’s degree and learn the competencies they need to get a promotion and access the social mobility needed to have a better life. Rather than tweaking the traditional higher ed model or continuing to engage in side issues like student loan rates, SNHU created a new model that goes to the root issues: people want to learn competencies in new, affordable ways so that they can get better jobs FYI: Fast Company has named SNHU one of the worlds’ 50 most innovative companies.
5. Oh, God.
Speaking of not being too big to change. Just as Pope Francis’ stunning interview urging The Catholic Cburch to preach more about mercy and less about dogma was published last week (Hallelujah!), Rabbi Irwin Kula was speaking on stage about the urgent need to un-bundle wisdom and practices from the people who own them, and to make sure that our moral enhancements keep pace with technological enhancements. “Religion is just a tool box,” he said. “It’s time to consider blending practices from all religions and make love and empathy the source of what we are designing for the world.” Amen.
6. “A network is worthless if you do not give it away.”
The wise and generous innovation adviser Deb Mills-Scofield reminded people that it matters not how large or extensive your network is if you do not use it for good, sharing it with others to open up possibilities for them.
7. The fastest way to change is…
The easiest and fastest way to create more innovation in an organization is to accelerate generation change, said Bruce Nussbaum, former Business Week editor and now professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons The New School of Design. My thought: how do we help Baby Boomers share their wisdom and transition to new roles so that younger people can step in and create more of the change that is so needed?
8. Sleep is not over-rated.
Towards the end of the week after many consecutive 16-hour days of intense listening and provocative conversations, I was reminded of how much I value sleep and quiet think time.
9. Optimism is the greatest form of rebellion.
The huge value of empowering the rebels inside organizations seemed to resonate with many, as did Carmen Medina‘s belief that optimism is the greatest form of rebellion and positive change. Rebels at Work see possibilities, not insolvable problems.
10. Oh joy...
Playfulness, joy and unexpected silliness are essential to our humanity. Erminio Pinque, founder Big Nazo Lab, creates big, funky, life-sized foam creatures for parades and for their own special Big Nazo Shows. Erminio told me that the surprise of the creatures and costumes opens people up to being people. While going through airport security recently, the TSA screeners pulled the foam creature masks out of the suitcase and yelled across to their colleagues, “Hey Joe. Check this out.” Everyone in line forgot their frustrations and frantic schedules and laughed together. Like children in awe of the world’s wondrous surprises.
11. Digital handshake, in-person hug.
Tim McDonald, director of communities for the HuffingtonPost, and I sat together during the conference. As we said our goodbyes he gave me a big bear hug and explained that he sees meeting people via social media as “the real world,” and when he gets to meet them physically he likes to give big hugs. I love his approach to digital handshake, in-person hug. Talk about connecting.
12. Control is for beginners.
The life of Carl Stormer‘s wife was upended when she had a massive stroke at age 43, and they learned to keep going and find meaning in a life that is not what one would choose. Carl’s wife believes that control is for beginners. And that, dear friends, was my greatest takeaway of an intense week of learning.
When life slows down during the summer I notice more, read more, and reflect on changing trends and emerging opportunities. Here are some of my random observations.
Chief Communications Officers/Chief Marketing Officers:
There are a lot of C-level titles in companies and one that is slowly fading away is the Chief Communications Officer. The duties of that position are increasingly being folded in under the Chief Marketing Officer. SAP, FedEx, IBM and other companies have all recently made this change. Much of marketing and communications is similar, particularly the shared goal of building the company’s reputation. But reputations need to be earned, not just communicated, and therein lies customer experience, product and service, front line employee engagement, customer service and a host of other factors that fall largely into the marketing bucket. There are still some special communications skills distinct and separate from marketing but do they warrant a C-level executive and another organizational silo?
Press releases/one or two sentence explanation:
Not to pick on the PR profession here, but I am on a distribution list where I get press releases and pitch emails, most of which seem kind of dumb. Most are irrelevant to me and written in such gobbledygook corporate-speak that I don’t know what the point is. Please tell me in a straightforward sentence or two why your idea or news is relevant and worth me taking a closer look at. You can also skip writing those phony press release quotes that no one publishes and probably lengthen the review process inside the company . If you use a formulaic press release style I just hit “delete.”
Less reading/ more tweeting:
As people spend more of their discretionary time on social networks they seem to be reading fewer books. I’ve talked with people of all ages this summer who told me they “just don’t have time to sit down and read a book” and yet their Tweets and Facebook posts are voluminous. While I find great value and enjoyment from social media, what I learn from reading a book is of much greater value, from learning and spiritual perspectives. Is there a future for both?
Newspapers at the end of the driveway/tablets:
When I walk down to the end of the driveway at 5:45 a.m. to pick up my New York Times in its blue plastic bag and The Providence Journal in its clear bag I look around at my neighbors’ driveways and realize we’re one of the few houses that still subscribe to the paper editions. My ritual of reading the papers and drinking one good cup of strong coffee before the house wakes up may be ending. The online iPad editions of newspapers are becoming good reading experiences, perhaps even better than the paper versions. (And I do know that trudging through the snow and ice in the winter to get the paper is miserable.)
Focus groups/unstructured data + communities:
A client recently asked for a focus group to better understand a situation. I was kind of shocked that he thought getting 10 people around a table for a couple of hours would be worth the time or money. There are so many easier and less expensive ways to quickly tap into the wisdom of the crowds and get a read on an issue or an idea. And the insights are likely to be better than the old facilitated focus group format. By polling people in one of the company’s communities we had 140 thoughtful considered responses within 24 hours. Cost? A few hours to design the questions and analyze the results. For meatier issues where it does make sense to get people together to think more deeply about a topic I see the opportunity in the Art of Hosting type approaches.
Suburban McMansions/neighborhoods, co-housing:
With the middle class being squeezed financially and the Baby Boomers aging, the appeal and maintenance cost of big houses is diminishing. People are beginning to choose new options — smaller homes in neighborly neighborhoods and co-housing communities, like this one in Vermont that I recently toured, and this one in Rhode Island, focused on the arts and agriculture. Or moving into cities and embracing the no-car life, like in new city centers like Brickell in Miami. The real trend, however, may be that people want to be part of communities with people, not just living next to people.
Large scale shopping malls/e-commerce, neighborhoods, Makers:
Those big sprawling shopping malls are starting to sag as people look to shop in areas with smaller stores and more of a neighborhood feel. The headline in Neilsen’s recent “Brick by Brick: The State of the Shopping Center” report — Go Big or Go Small — captures the trend. The WalMart and Target super-centers are thriving, but the days of the shopping mall are waning. E-commerce continues to grow, as do smaller, more neighborhood-like lifestyle centers where you shop, eat, go to a movie, and take a walk. The big trend to watch, however, are inidivdual DIYers and craftspeople creating products and new markets for selling them, like the Maker Movement and its Maker Faires and marketplaces like Etsy, a personal favorite.
Less consulting/more job seekers:
The hardest work of a consultant is developing business opportunities, and many marketing consultants I know are looking for positions with agencies or inside companies for this reason. I have a hunch too that it’s just much more rewarding to work with a team than work solo. It’s similar to the desire to live in a neighborhood with people vs. living on a three-acre lot in a big house where you never see people. People are longing for people. Many employers don’t look favorably on resumes where people have been self-employed for a while; they haven’t been on a neat track. Keep an open mind, there’s some tremendous talent available if you change your lens (and don’t rely on those resume keyword scanners.)
Tans/diet & exercise:
Seeing people coming out of the tanning salon next to my dry cleaners with the goggle marks still around their eyes, makes me go, “Hunh?” People with those deep, dark Coppertone tans seem as trendy as people who smoke. Fortunately, tans are fading. (excuse the pun). The opportunity: people who eat healthy food and exercise seem to have a healthy glow, much more attractive than tans. While at a recent yoga retreat I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful women at all ages, up through the 70s, looked sans makeup. And tans. (Or maybe I’m just envious that I haven’t been able to get to the beach this summer and am justifying my longing for a wee bit of a tan from swimming and body surfing.)
Enjoy the rest of your summer, and keep on noticing the slow shifts that are opening up new opportunities in every field, as well as signaling what to let go of.