October 9, 2009

Innovators ask good questions – BIF-5 Summit day two roundup

Yesterday was the second and final day of the Business Innovation Factory Summit (BIF-5). BIF-5 was an extraordinary meeting filled with lessons, insights, and inspiration. (For my take on day one, see the Oct. 7, 2009 blog post, “Lessons learned from innovators at the first day of BIF-5 Summit.”) I’ve been afflicted with the same bug as many of the other 300 people who participated: difficulty sleeping, and a compulsion to share the stories I heard. BIF founder Saul Kaplan warned us this would happen, and posted this on Twitter after the close of the summit:

Saul Kaplan’s tweet about “re-entry” after BIF-5

The theme from day 2: “Question”

The strongest innovators question everything. Some questions kept recurring during the presentations. These questions are relevant to Immersive Internet adopters and technology marketers, who are trying to effect change in an early technology market:

  • Why do we do things this way? Bob Schwartz, currently general manager of global design at GE Healthcare, asked himself, “Why does it have to be this way?” He was talking about the uncomfortable, “coyote” experience (cold, hard, emotionless stare) people have when giving blood at Red Cross blood mobiles. Stephen Tractenberg, president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University, commented on the legacy of the US higher education system. Why do we let a $2 billion university facility lie fallow for 4 months of the year? Our system is based on an agrarian model, as if students have to go home for the summer to help with the crops. Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conferences and author of 82 books, insisted that the house lights be turned up and the stage spotlights turned down, after multiple previous speakers complained about the blinding lights. He said, “Why do we put up with anything? Why? If you have an itch, just scratch it, no matter where it is or where you are.” The lesson: the answer to “Why do we do things this way?” rarely is “just because.” If we dig deep enough, we may find an old, dead legacy. Understanding the legacy is an important first step for people trying to make changes.
  • What do you want to do? Dr. Alice Wilder, educational psychologist and TV producer who worked on Blues Clues and other shows for children, asked, “Are you a big idea person, or a common sense implementer?” Both types are needed for invention to become innovation. Bill Taylor ruminated on the “What do you want to do?” question while he and fellow co-founder Alan Webber were being interviewed about their experiences founding, running, and then selling Fast Company magazine. When they launched Fast Company they wanted to write about the world as it could be and they thought it should be. Patricia Seybold of Seybold Group described how the question, “What do you want to create?” is core to the philosophy of the African Rural University for Women, where she is a council member. Students work with their families to envision what they want and then put a plan in place for achieving it. The lesson: innovators may not know how they’ll get where they want to go, but they uphold a clear vision of what they want to accomplish.
  • Are you doing something you love? Bob Schwartz put it this way: “How do you find meaning in what you do? How do you give people rich experiences?” He was referring to work he’s done ranging from creating consumer product packaging at Procter & Gamble to redesigning the experience children have when getting an MRI using GE Healthcare equipment. Richard Antcliff, CTO at the NASA Langley Research Center, is one year into a management experiment in which he is letting the Strategic Relationships Office organize itself into teams. Employees and even contractors work (at least part of the time, in the case of contractors) on the projects they find interesting. Bye bye hierarchy. See the org chart below. Alan Webber, who has a new book out called Rules of Thumb, recommended that we all keep two lists: 1) what gets you up in the morning and 2) what keeps you up at night. By keeping these lists at hand, and living by them, we can make sure we are doing serious work that is meaningful. The lesson from all these storytellers: if people follow their passion and do something they feel is important, that are engaged and productive. And the world becomes a better place in the process.

Rich Antcliff’s org chart for the Strategic Relationships Office at NASA’s Langley Research Center

Erica Driver

Erica Driver was a co-founder and principal at ThinkBalm. She is a leading industry analyst and consultant with 15 years of experience in the software industry. She is quoted in mainstream and industry trade press including the Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CIO, and Computerworld. Prior to co-founding ThinkBalm, Erica was a principal analyst at Forrester Research, where she launched the company’s Web3D coverage as part of her enterprise collaboration research. She was also the co-conspirator behind Forrester’s Information Workplace concepts and research. Prior to her tenure at Forrester, she was a Director at Giga Information Group (now part of Forrester) and an analyst at Hurwitz & Associates. She began her career in IT as a system administrator and Lotus Notes developer. Erica is a graduate of Harvard University.