Every year some of the most brilliant minds from business, science, art, technology, education and government come to the Business Innovation Factory’s BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI for two days to share their stories about innovation. It’s sort of like the TED conference, but more intimate and relaxed. But, like TED, it blows your head off with new ideas. There are no rules, best practices, methodologies, how-to presentations. Instead, each person takes away something meaningful to them.
Here are 10 patterns and my personal takeaways from the 39 diverse speakers:
1. A positive view: people who make new things happen are positive people, yet grounded in realism and a splash of skepticism. They don’t just see the glass half full; they see a tank half full. Their wrinkles indicate that they laugh more than worry. They want their work to make a difference.
2. Anger fuels action: anger fuels people to do things. Carne Ross, the Independent Diplomat, quit the British Foreign Service due to his anger over how issues in Iraq and Kosovo were handled by official powers, like the British government and the United Nations. MOMA’s Paola Antonelli nailed an interview that led to her position at the Museum of Modern Art by angrily addressing an interviewer’s dismissive statement on design. “Anger can make you do interesting things. Beneficial good can come from positive anger,” she said. Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, started an open source automotive company based partly on his anger with America’s dependence on foreign oil – and his tour of duty as an elite Marine sniper in the Middle East.
3. Focus on the outcome: these people see possibilities, focus on realizing the big outcomes, and don’t worry much about any “right” way to get to the outcomes. As Alan Webber, so-called world detective and co-founder of Fast Co., said, “ There are those who want to do something and those who want to be someone. My advice is to do something vs. be someone.”
4. Sacrifice: inventing, creating and accomplishing require heavy lifting and personal sacrifice. If you want to “do” meaningful things, you have to be ready sacrifice – whether that sacrifice is money, ego, security, parental approval, and alienation from peers. So many of the speakers have jumped off secure cliffs, not knowing where they’ll land, and, frankly, not caring about the landing because the figuring-it-out-while-falling is where so much new thinking and creative approaches happen.
5. Cut through the b.s.: People who make things happen cut through the b.s. and tell it straight up, no pussy footing around. They don’t couch a problem in jargon or bureaucrat-speak. Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman Management School at University of Toronto: Business schools today are turning out “jargon-spewing economic vandals. Stephen Trachtenberg, retired president of George Washington University: “Universities are in more denial than any other institution in society today… How did we get so outer directed that we let magazines like US News & World Report tell us how to run our law schools?”
6. Let go: Creating innovative ways often requires letting go of assumptions and presumed wisdom, Greg Matthews, director of consumer innovation at Humana, decided to not focus on “wellness” and getting people to make behavior changes like every other health insurance company trying to reinvent themselves. Instead Humana is creating new services that tap into what people already like doing, like offering cities bike sharing programs, creating games for health, and developing social media health applications. Echoing the need to let go and look at issues differently was Richard Saul Wurman’s advice that “embracing ignorance is the only way to embrace a new project.
7. Slow way down: This was a shocker. Jonah Lehrer, science writer and author of How We Decide, talked about neurobiological research that proves that the mind needs to be quiet and in a state of relaxation to produce insights. If you’re too focused, your attention will drown out the quiet mind, the right hemisphere “insight machine.” Jonah explained that there are two characteristics of those “aha’ moments of insight. They are mysterious; the subconscious throw up the idea out of nowhere. And we have a feeling of certainty when the “aha” happens, we just know it’s the answer we’ve been searching for.
8. Revere humility: I’ve spent too much time in Silicon Valley and VC conferences where hubris reigns. (Merriam-Webster defines hubris as “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.”) The people at BIF-5 were so incredibly accomplished, doing big things for our world, but humility was a marked characteristic. This vulnerability is a way to stay open to possibilities and new insights. My guess is this vulnerability also attracts talent. followers, supporters, fans and customers.
9. Stay grounded on the right questions: Almost every speaker kept saying, “ So the question I kept asking myself.” Or, “ the question that needs to be answered is…” Good questions trigger good ideas.
Alan Weber recommended that we all “ask the last question first,” defining business victory before setting out on creating and running the business. Knowing what victory is – whether for our careers or our businesses — helps guide decisions.
Nell Merlino, founder of Take Your Daughter To Work Day and CEO of Count Me In, a non-profit helping women entrepreneurs, asked, “why do half of women-owned businesses never grow beyond than $50,000 a year. The answer to that key question is helping her organization focus on how to help women grow their businesses. (The two greatest obstacles: women are afraid to hire people and they think that if they pay attention to the numbers, their dream will die.)
10. Make it fun: Invention is serious fun. Humana is designing games to help people manage health. NYU’s Natalie Jeremijenko is creating wacky, fun ways to get communities involved in solving environmental health issues, like being able to text fish in the East River. (I didn’t quite get it, either.) Sarah Endline is making sweetriot candy because it’s fun and because it helps farmers in developing countries achieve economic independence. Bill Shannon, CEO of kidney dialysis company DaVita, a Fortune “Most Admired” company, appeared on stage dressed as one of the Three Musketeers. (His picture is above.) Part of his message is that companies need to create environments where people share, learn, personally succeed, and have fun. “The work we do is so hard that we need to create the most fun work atmosphere.”
The Business Innovation Factory will be posting the videos of all the speakers within the next couple of weeks. Check them out here. Then, put it on your calendar to come to Providence next October. You will be inspired.