Tell Me Another One: More Stories from the Business Innovation Factory

By John O. Harney

What would it be like if work and play were more alike?

That was the dangerous question raised by Stanford University behavioral scientist Byron Reeves at the BIF-7 conference in downtown Providence on Sept. 20 and 21.

Reeves had met J. Leighton Read at a soccer game in Silicon Valley, and they began talking about work. Their conversation led to ways to marry the primitive engagement of interactive games with the dull technology of most computerized evaluation and productivity tools. Ultimately, they coauthored a book: Total Engagement: How Games and Virtual Worlds Are Changing the Way People Work and Businesses Compete.

If you worked in a call center, said Reeves, your work would be energized if you could participate in an epic narrative in which you could measure in real time how well you were answering customers’ questions in a sort of competition with others. The more context, the better, Reeves said. He cited experiments in which players in first-person shooter games performed better when they had fuller stories.

IBM has meetings with clients where employees use avatars and dress them as outlandishly as they wish, but in the process, they are doing work. Reeves noted that guild leaders from the game World of Warcraft could play key roles in this world of work. He added that security officials could outline a potential terrorist in the London subway by using visualization technologies similar to those that TV broadcasters and advertisers use to diagram humans with meshy gridlines.

The problem with the concept, Reeves quipped, is that work might become so engaging, we’d see more repetitive-strain injuries.

Gathering dreamers

If the name Business Innovative Factory conjures the image of a belching manufacturing plant or a sterile corporate consulting firm, it’s neither. It’s really a band of dreamers. Reeves is one of them. He was one of 30 entrepreneurs and artists tell stories who gathered to tell 15-minute stories about ways they use innovation and social technologies to help solve problems. Storytelling has become the ritual for BIF and its band of followers.

Lest there be any doubt about the creativity in the room at BIF-7, check out this method of doodling/notetaking by entrepreneur and education reform advocate Angus Davis. Or the “mind-maps” by designer Amanda Fenton.

At the BIF conference, bestselling author Dan Pink said innovators are in the business of giving people something they didn’t know they were missing (in contrast to the “give the people what they want” mantra spouted famously by the Kinks and imitated by scores of marketers). To me, said Pink, giving people what they didn’t know they were missing is what painters and sculptors do. Or physicists like Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the material called graphene that is one-atom thick but stronger than steel.

Pink then told of  Teresa Amabile, who pulled together commissioned and non-commissioned art work and asked art experts to rate the pieces. Both types of work were judged well-executed, but the non-commissioned work was seen as more creative. Yet in most workplaces, Pink noted, everything is commissioned. In response, some workplaces are adopting “Fedex” day or “hack” week when workers can do whatever they like on company time. Companies are not signing away licenses on these innovations. Indeed, Pink said it is during these non-commissioned hours that Google employees developed gmail.

Fourteen-year-old mountain climber Matthew Moniz of Boulder, Colo., told of setting a goal to climb to the highest peaks on seven continents and a record speed ascent of the high points in all 50 U.S. states. He told of devoting his climbing to his best friend who has Primary Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension. Moniz noted that when climbing Cerro Aconcagua in South America, he realized that the effects of a low-oxygen, high-altitude environment mimicked the symptoms his best friend struggled with on a daily basis. Moniz then conceived of of the “14 Fourteeners in 14 Days” to climb 14 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in 14 days to raise funds and awareness of the disorder.

Big Picture Learning founder Dennis Littky began with his usual bluntness. “High schools suck, colleges suck,” he said. “And who loses? the kids, and who loses the most? The disenfranchised kids.” Littky said he asked Moniz how he managed to spend so much time out of school doing the climbing and fundraising. Turns out only his Spanish teacher marked him down, because he spent a month in South America!

Littky introduced Elicia, a student from the Met Center that Littky founded in Rhode Island in 1995. She talked of her experience, first looking at pediatrics and marine science, “but I love hair,” she said waving a hand through her mane. Michelangelo said in every every piece of granite he saw what it was going to be when worked on, and I saw this in Elicia, said Littky. “Elicia changed so much when she went to Africa and India,” he added, referring to her opportunities to travel abroad.

Elicia’s story gave Littky a segue to tell of his own life. He taught in New York City, then went off the grid in New Hampshire (before people used that expression), became a state legislator, joined the PTA, and then went to Brown, where he worked with education pioneer Ted Sizer. Littky was invited to start a school, and he said only if I can do it how I want. He did, and in the end, 100% of graduates went on to college, and there was a 2% dropout rate compared with 46% citywide. Bill Gates came back with millions of dollars to build more schools just like ours, said Littky.

Then Littky got mad about college. Nearly nine of 10 first-generation college students drop out. Littky started College Unbound, using the same model as Big Picture Learning: Let students find their passions and pursue what they’re interested in. Elicia is now in the first graduating class from College Unbound. Littky noted that Big Picture is interested in integrating learning into the lives of America’s 30 million adult learners, such as having ex-cons study recidivism.

Mari  Kuraishi began her story by recalling what she had observed as a student visiting the Berlin Wall. The people on the Eastern side ignored her and her rowdy friends standing on observation towers on the Western side. She went on to study Russian in college. When in 1991, the Soviet Union fell apart, Kuraishi figured her Russian would be useless. She got hired by the World Bank (though she knew nothing about international development) and became country officer working on Russian. There, she got a tiny piece of the World Bank budget for using innovation. In a form of crowdsourcing, the bank started inviting people to meet in the auditorium with ideas to rid the world of poverty, but the bank’s attention to the issue was obviously low. So Kuraishi left and founded GlobalGiving. She knew nothing about philanthropy (as she had known nothing about international development), but, among other things, she wanted to figure out how a social system could create behavior that was so counter to biological drive as she had seen among the Germans on the Eastern side of  the Berlin Wall. She cited eudaimonia, which she described as the deliberate practice for integration of new options that make sense to you over time.

Chris Mayer began by noting that “capitalism evolves.” Mayer’s figures showed how competition led to antitrust laws and labor exploitation led to labor laws. But the next changes, he said, will come in China and India, where the new species of entrepreneurs are being developed. Mayer told of GE started making a $500 EKG machine that can be used in places like India over dusty roads, but with the same operating system as $5,000 equipment used in the west.

Mallika Chopra and Gotham Chopra told of growing up with father Depak Chopra talking about mind and body, so seen as an East Asian doctor selling snake oil. They wondered why celebrities like Lady Gaga were so impressed with the modest guy they just thought of as father. Mallika founded, a website to connect people from around the world to improve their own lives, their communities and the planet. Mallika and Gotham also created Liquid Comics, designed to showcase Indian artists. In early 2001, long before terrorism fears swept the U.S., Gotham did a story for Channel One about madrassas in Pakistan, where a child told him, we don’t have superheroes here … look around. Gotham wondered what a world would be like without superheroes.

Jim Mellado, president of The Willow Creek Association, helped local churches maximize their capacity to change lives. Mellado told of getting Bono to come to the biggest church in the world in South Korea. At the beginning, the priest worried whether Bono was a man of faith. But after Bono spoke, the priest wondered: Am I man of faith?

Angela Blanchard, CEO of Houston-based Neighborhood Centers Inc., explained why here approach to community development contrasts with the old way of studying everything that’s broken in poor neighborhoods. After Katrina, 125,000 people from New Orleans arrived in Houston with one or two items of clothing each. Blanchard said her organization had to change the way we asked questions. They began asking the evacuees about their strengths and relationships, rather than what they’d lost. Blanchard says the evacuees immediately straightened up with new hope.

Alexander Osterwalder described his book, Business Model Generation, and the stiff challenges of marketing a business book. Initially, the idea was rejected by big publishing houses because the authors were relative no-names. Osterwalder decided to self-publish, and hired a designer to developed a very visual book with white space and ways to engage readers. Osterwalder and his partners  charged a fee for participation in the book and raised it several times. The value, he said, was to be part of something bigger. The co-created work of 470 people around the world, eventually attracted one of those big publishers, Wiley. Osterwalder described his philosophy: He’s likes to break the rules and make stuff. And he would be very proud if his kids learned to break the right rules.

Among other storytellers …


Alex Jadad, founder of the Centre for Global Ehealth Innovation in Toronto, noted that so much effort and funding goes into adding years to our lives, he but it’s time to put more life into our years. After years of of trying to find cures for diseases, he has come around to the importance of helping improve healing and wellness—of consoling sick people.

Yahoo social scientist Duncan Watts noted that he the hates the term: It’s not rocket science. Because actually we’re better at rocket science than using social sciences to solve problems. The reason is that history never really repeats itself.

Sebastian Ruth of Community Music Works began by playing an Armenian mournful song and asked how the music made people feel. Music is one way to open doors to world of possibility, he said. He echoed Brown University President Ruth Simmons said assertion that it doesn’t matter what kind of environment you’re from, you should have access to the world of ideas.

Dale J. Stephens described UnCollege, a social movement he founded at age 19 that applies the self-directed brand of homeschooling with which he was raised to the realm of higher education. Complaining that colleges too often teach conformity, Stephens noted: “We’re paying too much for college and learning too little.” He received a $100,000 fellowship, sponsored by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook, for promising young people who forgo a traditional college education to work on innovative projects.

Fred Mandell, a sculptor and painter, said he had a creative mantra: create, integrate, make a difference. He read books, letter about great artists to see what made them creative. Yet some didn’t make it in art. Certain core skills beyond pure talent that allow them to sustain creative output over time.

Andy van Dam, who received the second computer science degree ever granted described the challenge of looking at large-scale art pieces such as Garibaldi panorama scrolls, including technology allowing viewers to click on a small part of the work and get more detailed descriptions of that part of the scroll.

Andrew Losowsky, books editor with The Huffington Post, noted that breaking the bounds of “likely space” brings more dopamine. As he explained, the first time he saw a cellphone with a GPS, he was blown away. The second time, he was impressed. The fourth time he doesn’t remember. Everything is a story when you reshape the space and the likely space.

Jon Cropper, co-founder of FuturLogic, a for-profit online entrepreneurship institute, explained his theory of marketing developed during a career spanning posts with Nissan North America to the companies of Sean “Diddy” Combs. Cropper noted that if you’re selling something, aim to out-teach, not to out-sell. Also aim for simplexity: a simple exterior with understated quality. Cropper showed that Playboy magazine was simple and elegant in design when it began.

Whitney Johnson described “disruptive innovation” in which low-end innovation upends an industry (like Netflix currently doing and proponents of distance learning contend it will do). Companies disrupt companies, said Johnson, but people can also disrupt their careers and their lives. Johnson was a music major, who went to New York City as a secretary, then analyst and ended up co-founding a hedge fund with disruptive innovation guru Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School.

Valdis Krebs showed the BIF genome he developed based on a survey of attendees’ interests and urged them to connect on similarities and benefit from differences—even after the BIF-7 mutation.

For a fuller look at BIF-7, visit


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