I went on a journey last week. Truth be told, I actually went on multiple journeys. Physically, I traveled from my home in Marblehead down to Providence to attend the Business Innovation Factory’s BIF-9 Summit. But I took another journey once I got there, one that I didn’t expect. It was a journey of enlightenment, but not in a religious way. It was a journey of inspiration, but not in a post-“Hoosiers” way. Let me explain.
Upon entering the Trinity Rep and obtaining my registration materials, I found my way to the theater and grabbed a seat next to my Innovation Excellence colleagues. “This should be good,” I thought to myself, but honestly, I had no idea what to expect. Within minutes I was challenged by Saul Kaplan, founder of BIF, to check my pretenses at the door and listen to the people I was connecting with. Don’t spend BIF time convincing other people that you are right, he said. Instead, listen to what others say and be inspired to create the future that we all know and want. You transform, you don’t tweak. Tweaks are not going to cut it.
Create the future? Here? Now? Huh. I’m intrigued but like any good non-cultist, a little skeptical. How exactly are we going to do this?
The answer came quickly: by meeting 30 storytellers on the stage and experiencing Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS, sounds like ruckus) with some of the 300 attendees during the extended breaks, lunches, and receptions. But it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows from the beginning, at least not for me. Saul described the BIF Genome: Connect, Inspire, Transform. But new BIF-ers — about half of the audience, based on a show of hands — may have experienced a slightly different three-word experience: Reflect, Accept, Respond.
Step 1: Reflect
The first four BIF speakers were perfectly suited to the Reflect stage. Doug Ulman, CEO of Livestrong, described his personal battle with cancer and how that led him to create Livestrong, a community of support for cancer patients and survivors and those afflicted by the disease. Whitney Johnson, author of Dare, Dream, Do (2012), evoked beloved lowercase poet t.s. eliot with his quote, “do I dare disturb the universe?” and suggested that last night’s dreams are the foundation for tomorrow’s disruptions.
Next came 17-year-old Easton LaChappelle, who is pretty much your average Colorado high school student except for the fact that he taught himself robotics so that he could build a shoulder-to-fingertip robotic arm with a Nintendo Power Glove, some Legos, and a 3-D printer — for $400.
The first session ended with Stacy Pearsall, a veteran Air Force combat photographer who, after suffering a traumatic brain injury, reinvented herself as an author, educator, veteran’s advocate, and owner of the Charleston Center for Photography. She reminded the crowd of the haphazardness of personal reinvention and the hazards of relying on preconceived notions, as most people do when thinking of military veterans.
During the first break, I walked to the lobby in a muted silence and immediately overheard one of the most memorable quotes from the event from an unknown participant: “I don’t come to BIF to feel inadequate; it just happens naturally.” That was it! The muted silence was driven by a low-voltage feeling of inadequacy. While I was certainly inspired by the incredible stories that I most definitely didn’t do justice to in this article, I can’t deny the fact that I was reflecting on my situation, my job, my place in the world — and how meager and selfish it seemed to be. Was I alone? Clearly not — there was at least one other person in the room who felt similarly. This moment of reflection was a necessary first step in experiencing BIF and thinking about my place within this new community — and whether or not it was ok that my life’s work hadn’t been driven by aspirations similar to those of the storytellers I had just experienced.
Step 2: Accept
The Accept stage is driven by accepting others’ influence upon you, regardless of who they appear to be. For me, this was driven by the deeply personal stories related by a number of speakers. I’ll admit that I always scan the list of speakers for any conference I’m thinking of attending, and I make judgements of quality based on title and company. While those are important pieces of information, they are (along with the requisite head shot) the proverbial cover of the judged book. The backstory for many speakers is what led them to become who and what they are today, and is what can drive you toward your own defined or undefined goals.
Take Ping Fu, whose resilient character was built as she overcame an unrelenting series of personal obstacles: separation from her parents in China, being asked to leave the country due to her unpopular perspective on single-child policies, arriving in America alone with no money and little English, achieving her degree in computer science, and eventually to her role in founding Geomagic, a pioneering company in what I believe to be the next transformational industry: 3D printing.
Or Dr. James Doty, a neurosurgeon whose personal experience with heartache and heartbreak have fueled a passion for compassion. His research into the neuroscience of compassion and its impact upon health, wellness and longevity has led him to drive for changes in technology to create more healthful and compassionate states of being for all global citizens.
To give you a sense of the emotions that were evoked within the theater, consider this: I nearly cried five times at BIF-9 over the course of two days, and did shed tears once, thanks to an emotional moment delivered by Rabbi Irwin Kula as he closed his story. The emotional connection to the storytellers and what drove them to their current destination was powerful, important, and memorable.
Step 3: Respond
The Day 1 program set me up for the final Respond phase. How would the reflection on my own situation and my acceptance that unlikely participants can fuel enormous change translate into my response? The truth is, I don’t yet know. But there were many words of inspiration and encouragement laid at my feet for the taking, none of which had anything specific to do with what I do for a living, but all of which offered motivation to do more in some way, at some time.
Angela Maiers asked the audience to believe that we were geniuses, and that the world needs our contribution — the same message she shares with kindergarteners, middle-schoolers, and high-schoolers, and the same message I shared with my children upon my return home. Andrew Mangino encouraged the pursuit of passion, because when we discover a passion, we discover we can do anything. Carmen Medina declared that optimism is the greatest form of rebellion, and I believed her. Rosanne Haggerty cautioned that our pride in our most recent innovation might be the barrier to finding the next. And Evan Ratliff perhaps put it best when he asserted that “[s]ometimes you have to create the world you want to live in.”
These are just a few of the many morsels of inspiration from the storytellers that initiated a response in me. The conference closed several days ago, and yet I am still going back to the Tweet stream for #BIF9 to continue the conversation and find additional connections that might influence my response, that might allow me to create the future.
After the conference ended, I was having a decompression drink at the Trinity Brewhouse with some new friends. When asked what I got out of the conference, I shared my early feelings of inadequacy. Was it not ok to simply be trying to build an innovative small business, to pay my mortgage, to keep my family fed, clothed, and happy? Must everything we do need to be about creating the future? I shared that even if I were to be given the opportunity to tell a story on the BIF stage, I wouldn’t have anything meaningful to say. And then I realized something important, something important enough to share with everyone who hasn’t spoken from the BIF stage.
My story isn’t finished yet.
Disclaimer: I attended BIF-9 on a media pass. Food and beverages were provided.
image credit: mari anixter, stacy pearsall
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Doug Williams, Chief Research Officer and Principal Analyst, leads the development of IX Research. Doug is the primary author of IX Research‘s syndicated research reports, and is responsible for the development of the IX Research Panel and IX Custom Research lines of business. A former analyst at both Forrester Research and JupiterResearch, he launched and led Forrester’s innovation and co-creation practice for product strategy professionals. He authored 36 highly rated Forrester Research reports on innovation, open innovation, and co-creation, and was the primary author and developer of Forrester’s Open Innovation playbook. Doug tweets from @DougWilliamsMHD.