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10 Questions with Saul Kaplan

Saul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Business Innovation Factory & the author of The Business Model Innovation Factory: How to Stay Relevant When The World is Changing. He’s an innovation junkie who believes in the power of continual experimentation, random collisions and breaking silos. We sat down with him to chat about the upcoming BIF Summit, “innovation at scale” and the role of innovation in RI.

Q: How would you describe the spirit of the BIF summit?

A: We always talk here at BIF about enabling random collisions of unusual suspects. We believe that any kind of change requires working across silos, disciplines and sectors. We believe that in order to truly collaborate, you have to learn in the gray areas between our silos.

change requires working across silos, disciplines and sectors.

The summit creates those conditions. It’s not about any one industry or any one part of society. We bring everybody together. The only thing we all have in common is that we want to do better. We’re all innovation junkies that want to make the world a better place. We all know that the way that’s going to happen is if we truly listen and collaborate across our silos, combine and recombine, and change the outcomes.

The summit is a beautiful demonstration of that type of behavior. We’ll typically have about 500 people from around the world that already believe that innovation is key to our future. They already know we have to reinvent ourselves, our organizations and our communities. We don’t have to convince them. All we have to do is catalyze a reaction amongst all the participants and get out the way. Because that’s where the magic happens.

Q: You’ve been running the BIF summit for over a decade now. What keeps you fired up about it?

A: I still get that “first day of school,” “butterflies in the stomach” excitement for all the possibilities. It’s my favorite two days of the year. It doesn’t get old because I never know how it’s going to go. We don’t prescribe the themes. We create the conditions. It’s the participants who figure out what patterns are relevant to them, what ideas resonate, and what types of collaborations and connections emerge. Every year, it never ceases to amaze me how the themes of the summit emerge. Because we didn’t predict them or design them. The participants did.

I can’t wait for that. I feel renewed every year, I get stimulated by the new ways of thinking, and I always come away with an incredible number of new connections that I take into the next year.

Q: How has the summit changed since it started in 2005? What has remained?

A: What hasn’t changed is the caliber of the storytellers on stage. Every year people will say to me “this was the best year ever.” But they say that every year. The storytellers are always great. These people make themselves vulnerable. They’re telling genuine stories, not the canned presentations they usually give. We don’t select storytellers because they’re famous. We select storytellers because they’re genuine and generous. We don’t want to just get big name people there to sell tickets. We want to get people that that want to make themselves vulnerable and share their stories.

What’s changed is the participants have gotten better. Over the years, people have become more and more engaged, more and more committed. They’ve come from further and further away. Last night I exchanged a message with someone from Australia who’s coming to Providence to attend the summit. And you don’t do that unless you’re really engaged.

Our participants are excited to take two days to immerse themselves in this environment. They come away with new connections and ways of thinking that they can take back with them to their own organizations and communities.

Q: What makes Providence the best place to host the BIF summit?

A: I’m proud to do this in my hometown. It’s a great place to live. I’m thrilled to have my kids grow up here. I think this is a quirky, interesting place, and I’m committed to making this place even better. So I’m proud to have the summit here every year. It shows this community in an incredibly positive way. People who come from all over the country and the world get to see Providence through lens of innovation. Which I’ve always believed is the way we should positioning the state.

Rhode Island is a unique place for innovation at scale. We should be taking advantage of our small size to position us as the place where innovation happens. I know that this is a positioning that works, because for twelve years we’ve been bringing people here from all over the world who get immersed in these innovation conversations, who feel that it’s natural to be here in RI, having these conversations. That’s a good thing for the city and for the state.

Q: Why is innovation so important in Rhode Island?

A: When I worked for state government, our whole approach to transforming our economy and transforming our positioning was to make an argument that innovation and entrepreneurship needs to be central to the way we think about economic development. Not just as a built-on idea to our economic development plan; the central idea. The only way to improve the economy in a small state with a flat population is to add value to it. And the only way to add value to it is to create new products, services and business models that are exported outside of the state. We have to be the innovators. We have to be the creators. Because our economy isn’t going to get better by selling stuff to each other. Our economy is going to get better by creating new approaches and new things that we can sell outside RI and around the world. Innovation and entrepreneurship should be our core strength.

We should be taking advantage of our size. It’s an incredible positioning to say that this is the place you can come to get ideas off the whiteboard and onto the ground. And once you demonstrate that they can work, you can start taking them national and global. That’s what I mean by innovation at scale.

this is the place you can come to get ideas off the whiteboard and onto the ground. And once you demonstrate that they can work, you can start taking them national and global.

BIF was founded when I was in economic development, for that purpose. To actually take the idea as a concept and to make it real. And since I left the state government, we’ve been doing that work all over the country. We know it works because we’re still here. We’re getting bigger, we just took another floor in the building, we’re hiring more people. We know the idea is a good one and it works everywhere. But Rhode Island has these unique attributes. So I’m a pretty vocal proponent of making innovation and entrepreneurship more central to the way we think of ourselves and the way we behave.

Q: How do you select speakers and participants?

A: This is one of the most fun processes we have here. We don’t just curate the storytellers, but we curate the group that’s coming. Because we don’t want just anyone to come. We’re not in the business of creating a conference. We’re in the business of creating an innovation community. We’re in the business of helping leaders explore and test new business models. That’s what we do. So the summit is just a way for us to model those behaviors. The behaviors necessary to do innovative work, and to create an engaged community which we now have built over the last twelve years.

We’re not in the business of creating a conference. We’re in the business of creating an innovation community.

Curating the storytellers is also a great joy. We now have built quite a reputation for having a unique event. We get a ton of suggestions from our community, way more than we could ever put on stage. And we’ve also gotten to know a lot of people who are doing transformational things that are human-centered the way we are.

So our challenge is how to whittle it down to the 32 that we want, that represent the broadest possible range of storytellers. Remember, we don’t want everybody in one silo. We want to reinforce this idea that you gotta get into the gray space between our silos. So we take the most eclectic groupings of storytellers. We will stand up in a session the founder of Fast Company magazine, right next to the author of a book about how we disrupt ourselves, next to a scientist creating a synthetic genome and synthetic life, next to a rabbi. And so you’d say, “what the heck is that about?” And that’s the point! The point is that these people are all trying to enable reinvention and transformation in different parts of society. This juxtaposition encourages us to think about how we can learn from these different storytellers, and to reflect on what we need to do for ourselves, for our companies and for our communities.

Q: What speakers are you most excited about this year?

A: People always ask me that. I imagine they expect me to mention one of the biggest names in the line-up. But every year, the speakers that always blow you away are the ones you don’t know. They’re the ones that share incredibly personal, emotional stories about transformation that resonate with you.

the speakers that always blow you away are the ones you don’t know. They’re the ones that share incredibly personal, emotional stories

I’ve talked with everyone of our storytellers and I helped recruit them. But I don’t prescribe to them what their story should be. I help them understand what we’re trying to do, but I give them the freedom to create their story. So I haven’t heard them until they show up on the stage. So for me, that’s the excitement just like it is for all the other participants there.

Q: How have you changed during your time at BIF?

A: At BIF, I’ve had to reinvent myself. I’m a classic scientist-MBA. I studied pharmacy, then got an MBA in strategic management technology. I have this Corporate America, analytic-based, fact-based, “show me the spreadsheet,” “where are the committees I need to go to get approval” background. That’s how I grew up.

But we now live in a world where we can be more generative. Where we can take new ideas and try them without having to study them for twelve years to see whether they work. BIF has helped me unlearn and relearn some of the tools that I think are really necessary to do the kind of transformation work that we want to do. Whether it’s the summit or the work we do through the year, it’s all been a personal platform for me. Everything we can give back to help others starts with ourselves.

Everything we can give back to help others starts with ourselves.

Q: What would you say to people who are on the fence about whether they should go to the summit?

A: We want people who identify with what we’re trying to do there. It’s not for everyone. Some people want to go to conferences that are about a single topic, and are going to put them in workshops to learn a particular skill. Our summit is very unstructured. So it really rests on this notion that you don’t know what you don’t know. You really do have to collide with unusual suspects.

you don’t know what you don’t know

I get bored to death with predictable conferences, with speakers saying the same things that I could watch online. Why do I need to take time away to go there? I want to spend time where I can learn something new. Where I can get exposed to something surprising. So we created the BIF summit because that’s how we learn, and we welcomed other people to participate.

Q: How can people get the most out of their BIF summit experience?

A: You get the most out of your experience when you come with an open mind and the notion that you can learn from people in the most surprising spaces and the most surprising ways. You have to be receptive to that. You also have to be willing to do the work. In a lot of conferences you go to, the organizers do the work. The structure determines what you’re supposed to know, who you’re supposed to meet with, what room you’re supposed to go to for what topic. We don’t do any of that. We’re at Trinity Rep Theater with 500 people in a pretty intimate setting. It’s up to participants to figure out what’s important to them, and to make the effort to collide with more unusual suspects. You have to make the effort. When you do, it’s incredibly inspiring and valuable.

It’s always rewarding to me to hear those stories. People will come up to me and they’ll tell me about how they met their current business partner at one of our summits. Or they’ll tell me that a connection they made BIF was the catalyst for launching a new project or writing a new book. It’s amazing how those collisions have resulted in so much positive energy.

Literally every day, someone will come up to me and tell me about a collision that they had. But it’s up to you to collide with who you want to.

Want to learn more about BIF or the summit? Check out their website here.

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