made real

Statler and Waldorf at #BIF2016

A Bevy of Unsolicited Commentary from the Peanut Gallery

September 25, 2016
by Ken Gordon

Dear Diary: Just returned from the big #BIF2016 Summit. BIF is, for the three of you who don’t know, a lively Rhode Island-based innovation extravaganza! BIF has stories! BIF has ideas! BIF has emotion! BIF has empathy! While embedded at BIF, I hung out with my buddy, Adam Hansen, who is the co-author of the forthcoming Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward and a long-standing member of #innochat. BIF Summits create superb networking opportunities—and Adam and I networked the heck out of this year’s event. We set up shop in the Summit’s Media Section, devices at the ready, exchanging insights, jokes, and various pieces of snarky, sometimes unpublishable commentary on Summit Happenings. When the time came to blog about #BIF2016, we realized that we could best relate the experience by producing a co-authored dialog. So we opened up a Google Doc and started typing. The edited results are below.

Ken Gordon: Let’s start with a straightforward question: What’s the most enduring insight you took away from the #BIF2016 shindig? Or, if you don’t have one of those ready at hand: What do you remember best from the event?

Adam Hansen: Ah, Gordon and Hansen reprising their Statler and Waldorf routine. I don’t have a “special” relationship with the verb to remember anymore, so I'll do my best. I feel the haziness of memory, the impressionistic texture it brings, can sometimes make for a more interesting experience. And superlatives take some time. I'll throw out some of the things that made an impression on me. Back to my Twitter feed to jostle some impressions loose.

First up, mainly because I was so stoked to see him and hear his message before the conference, was Dave Gray and ideas from his book, Liminal Thinking. I love the word “liminal,” which means “occupying a position at a boundary.” Think “threshold.” Think of the limits, often self-imposed, that we unnecessarily accept as impossible to overcome. I like the quotation (author...hmm?): “Things are impossible up to the point that someone does them.” And we're seeing that, I believe, more frequently. The default skeptical position might become that someone is going to crack it, not that a given thing is impossible.

Dave’s book is brilliant. Principles and practices walk those uncomfortable (note: not I) with the ambiguity around this type of thinking so that all can do it. I'll elaborate on one key idea.

Dave lays out that this moment is the only opportunity for change, as the past is gone and the future isn't here yet. Duh, right? But profound. Take action now. We are largely on autopilot, so change can start with the simplest interruption of this automaticity. This was a theme that kept coming up for me at the conference. I met Paul Stillman of, The Emotional Intelligence Network. They highlight that six seconds can be a sufficient gap between stimulus and response to break the autopilot emotional response—what others have referred to as the “amygdala hijack”—and choose the more skillful response. Not to use our higher-order cognitive functions gives us no advantage over life forms that don't have those abilities. We have to become better managers of our unique capabilities.

KG: Haven’t read the book yet, but I like this “liminal” stuff. (Do you think we should start #liminalchat on Twitter? Would that draw a big honking crowd?) It reminds me of a line from Proust: “Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it; it does not constitute it.” For me, it’s all about needing to push beyond passivity. To head over the damned border, or wall, or whatever.

I recently migrated from the literary world to innovation town, but I love innovation’s unflagging focus on making things real. We’re both deeply buried in books and ideas and thus understand the temptation to remain there, and not venture into the wide world and test our sure-to-be-rough first-draft ideas. So, I’m with you and DG: let’s think to edge and then jump over it! And speaking of sure-to-be-rough first-draft ideas… here’s some stuff I drafted about #BIF2016 before our conversation started. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I submit Exhibit No. 1, “Live Learning”:

Live Learning
By Ken Gordon

To be honest, I didn’t know who Kare Anderson was.


When she took the #BIF2016 stage, on the afternoon of September 14, 2016, I expected exactly, well, nothing. Initial thought: Wasn’t her first name missing a last letter? Her real name had to be Karen Anderson, I thought... unless she wanted to put the emphasis on “care”—that might explain the missing “n.”

At that moment, I was unacquainted with Anderson’s famed TED talk—“Be an opportunity maker,” which has racked up almost two million views!—though as she began her talk, my friend Adam started to explain to me about her ideas on “mutuality.” The mutuality thing sounded a bit like Martin Buber, but I didn’t make the point, or get into a debate, because I wanted to focus on Anderson’s story.

Hers was a good story. The tale of a super-shy introvert whose curiosity and indefatigable question-asking helped her to forge an interesting life in journalism (WSJ), book-authorship, and TED-talking. Anderson was clearly someone whose buoyancy resisted seemingly all attempts to keep her down.

What really interested me was when Anderson started talking about her stuttering. She spoke about how it was problem when she was younger but over time learned to control it—until she started in about her experience at


When she hesitated over the name of that venerable university, #BIF2016 froze. We became an ice sculpture of admiration. This woman was revealing something new to herself, in public, in a way that was much more daring than some of the other supposedly daring speakers.

“That’s interesting,” she said, underlining the moment. And what a bloody amazing moment that was. Here, on the stage, was an utterly unrehearsed second of insight. A moment of real, deep self-discovery. The Stanford Experience contained enormous power. I wanted to jump up and ask, “What happened at Stanford?” but chickened out because, well, that would have been really weird—and while I admire Anderson’s way with a question, I wasn’t enough of an advanced practitioner to leap up and interrupt her excellent talk with a peanut-gallery query.

There was something glorious about Anderson’s vulnerability. We saw a person willing to toss that sage-on-a-stage nonsense out and not merely walk up an extemporize, but to allow that improvisation to take her to some difficult, weird, new places. After that Stanford second, I was starving to see more, much more, live learning. Now the last thing I wanted was professional-level storytelling. I wanted, instead, to see a little enlightenment. I wanted #BIF2016 to turn into a jam session, one in which a personal story only existed to push us to new levels of improvisational surprise.

Which made me think: What if all BIF presenters ditched their regular speeches, their decks, their carefully orchestrated, highly emotional stories, and jumped onstage to show us how they think in real time? Fact is, I’m not looking for personal revelations nearly as much as an inside peek at the process of innovation. Because, to be honest, much of what happens in innovation occurs behind carefully closed doors. Why couldn’t BIF help open it up and give us a glimpse of how some amazing minds work? Why not turn the event into a jam session? We’ve seen more than enough sages pontificating on stages. What we haven’t seen nearly enough is the unrehearsed moment of creativity unfolding before our eyes. Why not create some innovation jazz? Saul’s innovation junkies, once they get a taste, will scream and clap for more. They won’t ever be able to get their fill...

AH: As a fellow jazz lover (and occasional performer-dabbler), this metaphor can't be over-applied to business contexts! It's plain apt. Get real performers in place, get clear on the theme, state the theme/the “head,” let each performer elaborate on it in real time, bring it all back at the end of the performance. Brilliant.

John Hagel, as well, admitted that he ditched his carefully prepared talk to deliver something he felt we needed to hear, and the spontaneity in his talk on trusted advisers was exciting. Maybe we're finally getting back to the understanding that what's best about the most meaningful personal conversations we've had should, in some way, shape presentations. Stilted “presentation-speak”... we all know what that sounds and feels like.

More on John’s talk. The idea that we increasingly share information with apps and sensors opens the opportunity for humans to wield that with integrity. We want to be able to eat the convenience cake of the technology while having the trust that flesh and blood will make sure we won't be exploited. He then went on to pin down a few ways that relationships could rise above the transactional. Shades of Buber, again!

And Kare...what can you say? Her humanity is stunning. So life-affirming. I want to join the cause of mutuality. Her breaking down of violence as not just the most obvious physical and verbal examples, but something as simple as being dismissive. Hey, I'm too often guilty. I want to do and be better. Don't we all? I hang with Thou some more.

Vulnerability is the new superpower! Unfortunately, not everyone gets that yet, or doesn't get that as deeply as they need to. As Townes Van Zandt said, “There ain't no dark until something shines,” and the many examples of vulnerability at #BIF2016 highlight a more-human, richer way of connecting with a group. Bar, raised.

Your thoughts on John’s talk?

KG: Hagel’s thing was my favorite (no offense to all the other excellent talkers). But I am, as you might say, biased here. Hagel confirmed many of the things I already believed in. My attitude toward communication and relationships, online and offline, in both business and elsewhere, is that insisting on the bloody truth is what makes everything work. Sometimes it’s unpleasant, sometimes it’s redemptive, but you strive to be honest and to surround yourself with other such people. Hagel made the business case for trust-through-honesty: Who could resist that? I love that a Deloitte guy could get up there and do so--and remind us that he was winging it.

William Blake says that “Opposition is true friendship,” and while I know this ain’t always the case—a friend who only opposes you is a frenemy (comme on dit)—so many people try to make opposition an utterly adversarial thing, and that’s also wrong. Hagel emboldens us to tell the damned Emperor that he’s not nearly as well-dressed as he supposed…and that doing so will not doom us but will earn us the post of Trusted Adviser. That’s a gig to aspire to!

AH: Coss Marte. Great story. Redemption will always grab me. Guy grows up in drug-dealing culture, learns the rules of that world, plays the game, and ends up in jail. Gets new data quickly. Figures out that that's not the way. Connects the dots—ethics are a systems thing. It wasn't just about him—good people were suffering as a result of that entire system, and he didn't want to contribute to that any more. Again, the importance of vulnerability. Coss talked about turning your greatest vulnerability into your greatest strength. He became a personal trainer, founded @conbodynyc, and now employs ex-cons to train his customers in “yard”-style exercise. He goes right into the darkest part of his past to empower guys who might not get much of a chance from other employers, and creates a positive way forward for himself in doing so.

This is why I love innovation. Innovation can ennoble. Innovation can improve lives in ways bound only by our self-imposed limitations. Innovation creates options, and while that can be merely new flavor extensions for a candy, it can also be a positive path for ex-cons and their customers, creating a platform for trusted advisors for customers, and setting up active change tools for anyone. I love that BIF shows us how folks are making big, unexpected changes to make life amazing for lots of our brothers and sisters. We're all in this thing together.

KG: Together is a huge idea, Adam. Yes! Our rhetoric often says that innovation is all about improving the human race…but much of the time it’s about really—merely—about designing a new category of mouthwash. BIF wants innovators to be on our best behavior, to become a blessed community—bell hooks’ term—and the live storytelling glues us the whole group ethos together. (As Kare Anderson said: “Don’t be the smartest person in the room, be the glue that holds people together to bring the best out of others.”) Dave Gray and John Hagel and Kare Anderson and Coss Marte and you and me and all the other BIFsters: all of us are one here. We listen. We learn. We build. We refine. And then we start all over again. See you at #BIF2017?

Image by Kevin Dooley/CC/by-sa/2.0

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