Innovation Junkies

Photo by Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

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It’s about 30 minutes and counting before the nearly 500 innovation junkies get set to head to their seats in Providence’s Trinity Rep Theater for the BIF2015 Summit. The iconic venue, a historic community theater in Rhode Island, is home to one of the country’s last remaining acting companies. But for the next two days, it will serve as the stunning backdrop for Saul Kaplan and his renowned band of storytellers. The eclectic mix of personalities have traveled from all over the world to share their curious and crazy, sometimes musical, and always inspirational tales of how they rose above and beyond seemingly daunting odds to create transformation that matters.

They are the kind of people and stories that inspire Kaplan. The BIF Summit is one of his paramount achievements. BIF exists as a means to enable a purposeful collection of innovation junkies, as Kaplan calls them, to design, prototype and test new business models and social systems in the real world.

And Kaplan is their purposeful leader. As the founder and chief catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF), which hosts the Summit, Kaplan has made it his calling to build a community where leaders from across the public and private sectors can unite.

Saul Kaplan | Photo by Stephanie Alvarez Ewens
Saul Kaplan | Photo by Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

It’s not hard to get Kaplan talking about how the power of thoughts and ideas and words can stir up so much energy among a group of people who are connected, in most cases, by the mere fact that they didn’t know a single thing about each other before they made the trek to Providence. Watching Kaplan work a room is an art form. He embraces each person as if he or she were the center of a big party being held in their honor.

To every person he meets, Kaplan’s message is immediately clear – every story matters. Health care. Education. Energy. Entrepreneurship. Public policy. The BIF experience, for the ones lucky enough to reserve their spots, is everything you would expect 32 speakers of varying ages, cultural, educational and political backgrounds to be – and more. For two days, Kaplan strategically herds the willful contingent into what he calls “random collisions of unusual suspects.”

I never know what collisions, patterns or stories are going to move and inspire people.

People laugh. They cry. They learn. And they end up musing about how ordinary people just like themselves are capable of doing extraordinary things. “I never know what collisions, patterns or stories are going to move and inspire people,” Kaplan admits. “I just knew that after years of attending so many industry-related functions where I watched people [mindlessly] participate, and never seem to learn anything from one another, that there had to be a better way.”

In another life, Kaplan held various positions in the corporate and government worlds, including serving as the executive counselor to the Governor of Rhode Island on Economic Growth and Community Development. He created Rhode Island’s unique innovation scale of economic development strategy aimed at increasing the state’s capacity to grow and support an innovation economy, including an effort to turn the state’s compact geography and close-knit public and private sector networks into a competitive advantage.

There were other stops along the way, too. He was a senior strategy partner in Accenture’s Health & Life-Science practice, working broadly throughout the pharmaceutical, medical products and biotechnology industry. Kaplan also spent eight years working for the pharmaceutical division of Eli Lilly and Company and, as a marketing plans manager, assisted in developing the launch strategy and successful introduction of Prozac into the U.S. market.

Photo by Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

All roads led to the formation of BIF, which he started in 2005 as a place where innovators could explore and test new business models and system-level solutions. Today, the non-profit organization remains committed to redesigning how value is delivered through R&D and experimentation – steps that put the focus on the end users (those innovation junkies).

“These are people who always think there is a better way, who are always trying to fix things,” Kaplan says. “And that can be a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing, because they’re always working hard to improve people’s lives, and it’s a curse, because the job is never done. As soon as you fix something, you try to fix it again – the process is always trying to make it better. BIF became the process of how we could create a real world laboratory for all these different ideas and demonstrate how they could work in the real world.”

Meet me out on the street

Twelve years into the process, BIF continues to work with leaders from around the country. It is here that Kaplan likes to inject his qualifier about underscoring the difference between creating new ideas and creating new value. It is here that he reminds everyone who stands before him and the BIF team that it’s not an innovation until it delivers value.

And, as Kaplan preaches, you cannot create value without finding new and better ways to do things. Kaplan believes that while the spreading of ideas is critical, the end goal must be about solving a problem or creating a new opportunity. Can the idea translate into action and can it scale?

BIF became the process of how we could create a real world laboratory for all these different ideas and demonstrate how they could work in the real world.

One of the stories Kaplan likes to cite is that of Blockbuster, whose executives clearly saw Netflix coming, but failed to mobilize. Holding tightly to its brick-and-mortar business model, the video retailer squandered billions in shareholder value and faded helplessly into history. The truth, as Kaplan wants everybody to know, is that business models don’t last as long as they used to. The open innovation platform afforded by BIF enables ideas worth scaling to deliver value to the people who need it most.

Photo by Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

And it all comes down to innovation. “Innovation matters because we all know we can do better,” Kaplan says. “We know that the models and systems we inherited from the Industrial Era are not meeting customer needs. The government is not meeting its citizens’ needs. Health care is not meeting patient needs. Education is not meeting student needs. The problem that is that we are so locked and loaded that we don’t have the space needed to explore new models and social systems.”

Interestingly, Kaplan says we live in a time where technology has afforded us more opportunities than we could possibly need to thrive and survive. “It is not the lack of technology that is getting in our way. We have the technology and platforms to scale new systems that can deliver customized solutions. We know how to use what we have. The problem is finding the safe space to do it.”

The solution, Kaplan says, rests in the need for more experimentation – a speech he doesn’t mind giving over and over again. At BIF Summits, the phrasing is used often to rally the troops. “Real world experimentation,” he says, “is imperative to solve our major social issues today. We need the R&D platforms that enable systems-level experimentation. We need the space where disruptive ideas can be tested in real-world conditions, while managing the risk associated with scaling new system approaches. Only by creating safe and manageable real world test environments can we combine and recombine capabilities across sectors, industries and disciplines un-constrained by current systems.”

Hallmarks of innovation

Ask Saul Kaplan about what truly defines a true innovator today, and he will have many opinions. Having the chance to hang around the water cooler, so to speak, of innovation for many years, he has seen the best of the best at work.

The best definition he can offer is that every innovator must know that there is more out there. “I have a point of view, but I know I am missing something.”

The quote is one of his favorites. Roger Martin, the Institute Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management, delivered it. Martin, a BIF Research Advisor, has long been recognized as one of the world’s premiere business minds.

Photo by Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

“You have to take both parts of his quote,” Kaplan says. “The true innovator has a strong point of view and they put it out there. They do it in a way that makes themselves vulnerable. They want people to react to their point of view. That’s how they learn, and that’s how they get better. But the second part of that quote – ‘I know I am missing something’ – is so important. The innovators that I know, the successful ones, don’t have all the answers. They know they have to be out there exploring, and they don’t know where they are going to find or stumble into the answers. They’re constantly on a quest to find that missing piece.”

Another attribute that defines great innovators, in Kaplan’s mind, is that innovators never want to talk about what they are good at doing. “They want to talk about the thing they are playing with now. They are interested in the broadest array of topics.”

The innovators that I know, the successful ones, don’t have all the answers. They know they have to be out there exploring.

And that takes us back to the BIFSummit – the place that where for the last 10 years Kaplan has built a community around the thinkers and doers that continue to inspire him. Since that first Summit, BIF has played host to more than 350 storytellers from across every sector and discipline, and more than 5,000 innovation junkies from around the world.

As the attendees huddle en masse to begin their rush to their seats, the veteran attendees try to catch up on the days gone by, while newcomers collide their way into new friendships. As the signal burns through the kinetic energy in the hallways, Kaplan slowly makes his way toward the stage. Like a rock star waiting for the cue from his roadies, he takes a final peek at his notes, and then makes his way to the stage amid a raucous roar of approval.

Photo by Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

Another year, another slate of stories. The poet. The humanitarian. The food connoisseur. The ski mountaineer. The educator. The business model innovator. The list is as impactful as it is diverse. Each one brings a random collision of thoughts and purpose that unites the room. And as each takes his or her place in the spotlight, Kaplan stands in the wings and admires how the stories unfold in perfect rhythm each and every time.

In the aftermath of tears, laughter and learning, the innovation junkies shake hands, exchange cards and stories, and retreat to their own worlds trying to capture a little of the tailwind their new innovative friends have created.

“We believe BIF is on to something with its passion for system level innovation,” Kaplan says. “Our hope is that everybody in attendance will share our philosophy and catalyze something bigger than themselves. Innovation is about solving somebody else’s problem, not your problem. As long as I am successful at being a catalyst and creating the environment and conditions for others to be their best selves, that will be my story. That’s what I see my role as. That is what BIF is all about. If I am remembered for anything, I hope people say that I helped catalyze a pretty important reaction.”

Where the innovators are

For information and to register for BIF2016, visit

Follow BIF and Saul Kaplan on Twitter: @TheBIF and @skap5

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