Stirring Up the Magic at BIF

For many BIF storytellers, the BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit boils down to one thing: Saul.

They speak of him with reverence and a deep appreciation for the way he “gets it.” His is the governing spirit that draws them to Rhode Island for a chance to luxuriate in the space of possibility he and Team BIF creates for them every year.

Saul Kaplan, Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory and engaging host of the BIF-8 Summit, has a superior reputation as a noted facilitator of meaningful conversations about community and transformation, broadly defined. But Kaplan himself is quick to credit his BIF colleagues for consistently killing it with an incredible slate of storytellers that makes him “crazy proud” of each Summit.

When he is not scolding team BIF on Twitter for hogging the bandwidth at work (well, that was during the Olympics) or treating them to the occasional midweek Margarita, he says they are all engaging in thoughtful, extended conversations about preparation for the summit and the exciting human centered design work going on in BIF Experience Labs.

“We’re all very opinionated, so we all have very strong ideas about the work we are doing and the mix of storytellers for every Collaborative Innovation Summit,” Kaplan says.

Naturally, the mix is different every year, which keeps Kaplan just where he does his best work—on a very steep learning curve. “When the curve starts to flatten out, I know it’s time to move on,” he says.

But Kaplan hasn’t had to worry about that since he founded BIF in 2005. After a long career in the corporate world and a move into the public sector to spark economic development in Rhode Island, he has discovered that the steep learning curve is right under our feet, in the towns and cities where our organizations take on life.

Finding the fresh angle, he says, is a matter of reimagining not just business, but the way business inhabits its surrounding social system.

“I spent 30 years thinking about innovation through the lens of the corporation, so I had every black and blue mark imaginable trying to be a change agent,” Kaplan says. “Now, for the first time, I was thinking about innovation through the lens of the community.”

The new perspective was a “real epiphany,” Kaplan says, because it enabled him to see “all the parts on the playing field.” Gradually, Rhode Island came to represent for him a space of pure potential: “I started to see the community as a platform for entrepreneurship and innovation, and I began to think about how we could turn our community into an innovation hotspot. The work we do at BIF came from that. I think it’s the work I’ve been prepared to do my entire career, my entire life.”

Kaplan says innovation is often a matter of reassembling parts to deliver value more efficiently. And yet, while he advocates suppleness in today’s business climate, he has recently engaged in a very traditional activity with a decidedly fixed result: he has written a book—hard copy, pages, print, and cover. It’s the real deal.

“The irony of publishing a book right at the peak of disruption in the publishing industry has not escaped me,” he admits.

The book itself, The Business Model Innovation Factory: How to Stay Relevant When the World is Changing, may be a permanent physical artifact. But it is also one of the moving parts that now shifts into a different position in Kaplan’s innovation cosmos. He doesn’t see the book as the last word on business model experimentation. He sees it as an opportunity for discussion.

“I enjoyed, in some kind of sadistic way, the challenge of locking myself in a room and writing a book,” he says, “but I completely enjoy being out talking about it now more than I did writing it.”

Sharing stories and connections is ultimately what drives the BIF Summit. Storytellers spin their yarns, adrenalin flows through the audience, and then—the random collisions of unusual suspects begins. Kaplan insists that the event remain as unstructured as possible to protect that sacred time between stories when the collisions take off.

“We resist every temptation to over-engineer it. And when someone asks, Why isn’t the summit bigger? I say no. Intimacy is important. We’re not going to change that.”

Before each Summit, Kaplan reminds the storytellers that it’s not all about them—it’s about the magic they stir up. But when that magic happens, everyone knows the secret potion came from BIF.