What does #RCUS mean to you?

It’s hard to believe I only first learned of BIF in the fall of 2009. As part of an alumni-mentoring program at Brown University, my mentee, a senior mechanical engineer, was interested in design, engineering and innovation. So, I Googled “innovation” and “Providence.” One of the first hits was “Business Innovation Factory.” I followed Saul Kaplan on Twitter, perused the BIF website, and asked folks at Brown if they’d heard of BIF. Then I called Saul out of the blue, and he gladly met my mentee.

And therein lies the first and most important lesson reinforced by BIF: innovation is about people. It’s about Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS). At some level, we know this, but at BIF we experience this truth in a palpable way that leaves a lasting impact.

Deb Mills-Scofield twitter network visualizationSaul graciously invited my mentee to BIF-6, and I went, too. I had not been that intellectually, professionally and spiritually stimulated since I was a kid at Bell Labs. In fact, I met one of my heroes from those early days, John Hagel. What an honor to meet such a wise man that is also incredibly humble. Carmen Medina, the retired Deputy Director of Intelligence at the CIA, gave one of the most profound stories that summed up BIF-6 for so many of us with her line, Optimism is the greatest form of rebellion. Carmen and I struck up a friendship, and through her, I met the Govlab fellowship “kids” (they are all in their 20s) at Deloitte in Washington, DC and she’s come to Oberlin College to meet some kids there.

This is what makes BIF unique—the opportunity to create connections among strangers at a profoundly human level that develop into deeper, trusting relationships. These new associations extend far beyond the two days we spend together in September within the Trinity Reparatory walls. My Twittersphere has exploded with connections since I first attended BIF-6. As a result, my life and work have been enriched in a way that is difficult to put into words. Putting ourselves in situations to randomly collide with unusual suspects dramatically increases the diversity of our connections, which (hopefully) expands our worldview and awareness of opportunities and others’ needs, hence our ability to create meaningful, worthwhile and abiding solutions.

Retweets and Mentions of @dscofield.
Twitter network before attending #BIF6
Pre-#BIF6 twitter network
Twitter network after attending #BIF6
post-#BIF6 twitter network
Current Twitter network after attending #BIF6, #BIF7, and #BIF8
Twitter network now
Source: Valdis Krebs

No BIF storytellers’ path to success is linear—they are inter-related, inter-meshed, inter-dependent, networked. And they are messy—rich with experience, failure, learning, experimenting, and applying. BIF underlines the need humans have to connect with and trust each other. We need to understand each other’s culture, challenges, pains, opportunities and joys in order to create workable solutions. Without this real human interconnection, we will continue to put Band-Aids on symptoms instead of solving truly wicked problems.

The second major lesson from BIF stems from Carmen’s BIF-6 idea -- optimism is the greatest form of rebellion. Optimism means looking at the positive side of a challenge. It is an attitude, a mindset, a worldview, but it’s not based on fantasy. Angela Blanchard touched on this idea at BIF-7 when she said, “You can’t build on broken.” But you can build on what is possible, even if it’s not necessarily probable. Optimism is very freeing—it shows there are ways to make things better that we are not trapped in the status quo, that we can create alternatives and learn from bright spots.  When we’re optimistic, we also tend to be ‘lucky.’ Just ask Tony Hsieh, who described at BIF-6 how he uses luck to vet employees and at BIF-8 orchestrates serendipity through architecture and place. Luck isn’t happenstance; it is part of the optimism that keeps us attuned to see the positive in the first place. As you see, this is a virtuous cycle. At BIF-8, the role of optimism in innovation created awe with Dr. John Donoghue’s story about enabling paraplegics to actually feed themselves through brain-computer interfaces to feed themselves.

BIF demonstrates that the potential of optimism knows no age, gender, or geographic/ethnic boundary. At BIF-6, seventh-grader Cassandra Lin told us how she helps provide fuel to those who can’t afford it with her TGIF (Turn Grease Into Fuel) project; at BIF-7, eighth grader Matt Moniz described how he climbs mountains to raise money for a cure for his friend who has pulmonary hypertension; at BIF-8 Nicholas Lowinger, 15, shared how he turned his Bar Mitzvah service project into a social venture donating shoes to people in homeless shelters across the USA. Optimism serves a wide community, as we learned from Ben Berkowitz whose SeeClickFix.com app fixes potholes and Angela Blanchard whose Neighborhood Centers captivated us all. BIF participants also show how optimism can transform education: Nigerian born Ntiedo Etuk uses 3D video games to teach math, literacy and science to K-12 kids, John Werner and Dennis Littky reach out to educate the under-served, and Hillary Salmons who manages to keep Providence, RI middle school kids engaged, excited and learning after school. And finally, optimism can heal: Rebecca Onie and Nancy Schlichting demonstrated how they address healthcare needs at a very human and personal level. 

We desperately need to see real examples of world-changing innovation and the “ordinary” people who create it. It is too easy to succumb to the pessimism around us. We don’t realize how incessant and engrained a negative outlook becomes within us. It is harder to envision solutions to real problems, so nothing transformative occurs and we reinforce the vicious cycle of “Yes, but…” instead of “Yes, and…” If we are going to provide meaningful jobs, raise people out of poverty, really educate all of our children to create a wonderful 21st century, and provide effective and affordable healthcare, we need to see what is possible instead of assuming it is impossible. Through its powerful stories, BIF immerses me in that possibility and energizes me to live, exemplify and spread it in the real world.

The last lesson I learned from BIF, if there can be a last one, is how applicable these stories are. I have used them to show my clients and colleagues how to focus on the virtuous side of strategy and innovation. The BIF stories are real world examples that illustrate how making money and making meaning simultaneously is the only sustainable form of success. The use of real stories creates a culture of terrific, optimistic rebels who innovate and build on what’s working, not on what’s broken. In the process, they provide exciting opportunities for their people, their customers and their communities. It doesn’t get much better than that.

This post was written by guest contributor Deb Mills-Scofield. Follow her on twitter @dscofield.Deb Mills-Scofield has been an ongoing attendee of the annual #BIF Summit and has seen her network and opportunities for transformational work skyrocket. This is a visualization, courtesy of Valdis Krebs, of what her twitter network currently looks like after three years attending the #BIF Summit.

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