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Leading off at BIF’s storytelling festival

I’m in Providence, Rhode Island today speaking at BIF-5 – the Business Innovation Factory’s fifth annual storytelling conference. I’ll be doing my best to blog when not on stage.

Saul Kaplan, chief catalyst of the Business Information Factory, explains his role – to get the reaction started and get out of the way. BIF began under the wing of the state of RI’s economic development agency – it’s now an independent organization, finding its own way as a catalyst for business innovation in the state. Rhode Island’s a unique place to do this work – a million people in a thousand square miles. “You can see the whole movie that is Rhode Island,” Saul tells us.

Referencing Clay Shirky’s new book, Saul tells us that this is the year of the tweet, the year of finding platforms that allow you to communicate and share what you think. He sees the platforms as a way to share new, underformed ideas and get rapid feedback on whether they’re any good or not. (To hell with Twitter – I’m going to throw out my underdeveloped ideas on stage in front of a couple hundred people… :-)

Kaplan outlines his vision for the sort of innovation he wants to see coming out of the BIF summit – Innovation that delivers value by solving problems; innovation as a team sport, focused on collaboration; innovation as experimentation, “off the whiteboard and onto the ground”.

Saul admits that he started BIF, thinking as a consultant. Meeting with Richard Saul Werman, the founder of the TED conference, he presented a matrix – the consultant’s favorite tool – with a thorough outline of what problems need to be solved and how a convening solves it. Werman dismissed him quickly, saying, “You have a lot to learn about building an event.” You build these events like dinner parties, Werman argues – you invite the people you’re excited about, and you bring people who want to hear them tell stories, and you let them talk. And that’s what the next two days are about.

Michael Samuelson, the President & CEO for The Health & Wellness Institute, tells us that he wasn’t able to join the speakers dinner last night because he was addressing 200 breast cancer survivors. “This is the great thing about Rhode Island – you can wake up late, not know where you’re going and still get there early.”

Samuelson tells us a story from his past – he ran into an old friend who was looking very ill. Asking about how the friend was doing, he discovered the friend was through a second round of chemotherapy, and had just had a radical mastectomy. Despite years in the medical field, Samuelson tells us, he’d never met a man with breast cancer.

“For the first time in my life, I did a self breast exam on the streets of Ann Arbor – turns out you can do anything on the streets of Ann Arbor and no one will say anything.” He found something in his breast, something hard, like a BB. He spoke to doctors he worked with in the past, and all dismissed his concerns – “I’m sure it’s just a cyst”. One doctor finally offered him a choice – a mamogram, or removing the cyst. He chose the latter… and decided to have the cyst removed without anesthesia or sedation. As the surgeon cut into it, the room got very quiet. At the end of a long procedure, the surgeon said, “I don’t know what this is, but I don’t think it’s cancer.”

It was. A grade three tumor. Samuelson had a radical mastectomy and went through intense treatment to survive cancer. He tells us, “Men die of embarrasment, not of pathology.” But the cancer transformed his life, not ended it – it turned him into a mountain climber, someone who’s summited Everest while taking tamoxophin, a drug that induces symptoms of menopause… even in men. (He says his wife recommends that all men take the drug for at least six months so they can share the experience of hot flashes.) Innovation is a journey, a risky one… but journeys are transformative, and the stories we tell about them shape not just our lives, but can influence those around us.