3 posts categorized "Innovation"

01/21/2014 Morning Improv

Last week I organized an Improv for Marketers event here in Burlington. We had two groups of 15 people led by local comedians Nathan Hartswick and Natalie Miller of Spark Arts VT

Needless to say, it was a very fun morning.

 This event was a bit different than my previous ones. But as I shift my business into a more experience and service design focus, I’m struck by the absolute necessity of improv skills for innovation and creativity. Or perhaps I’m struck by the lack of these collaborative and open-ended skills among most business people (regular people too, for that matter). So part of my desire was to get better at this myself, and part of it was to educate the VT business community.

I was impressed by the comments I heard afterwards, like:

“I need to go back to my work to get us to listen more. I’m realizing how much we only talk about ourselves without listening to the other person.”

“It was really uncomfortable not to be in control all the time. I have to sit on that for a bit.”

“Amazing how much creativity there is in the room when you work together.” 

In my design workshops I usually include one improv exercise but after doing this, I have one or two new ones I’m going to introduce. Getting to “Yes and” is a continual challenge for everyone.

I even brought a few of the exercises home to use with the family at the dinner table. Of course the kids were way better than us parents.

Hopefully there’s more improv training in my future.


11/07/2013 Hold A Workshop

A recent notice about Champlain College’s new branding and positioning caught my attention. More specifically, it brought me back to a brand retreat I attended there in 2011.

The retreat/workshop was primarily for Trustees and other Very Important People. I got a free pass from the then Dean of Communications & Creative Media, the brilliant Jeff Rutenbeck, mostly because I sat on his advisory board.

The main part of the retreat was to go over the initial branding study and to discuss the Champlain culture and positioning. We listened a lot. Then the workshop portion of the event started. We broke into sub-groups at our table for smaller discussions. We were then tasked with coming up with, on our own, some statement that captured the essence of Champlain College and the changes it was going through.

To be honest, what I heard about competing in higher education sounded at odds with the very forward thinking parts of the college I was involved with. New groups like the Emergent Media Center and the Gaming Division were truly groundbreaking in college education. The branding felt at odds with what I was experiencing. So, in small part capture that, and also probably to provoke, I wrote this description of Champlain College:

Radically Pragmatic

I wanted in some way to capture the dynamic tension I was feeling through this process and that the college, in some way, seemed to struggle with. I have to admit, I was going through an “Oxymoron Phase.” At the time, I was trying to get a travel client to embrace the brand concept of “Active Relaxation,” to no avail. But I liked the contradictions inherent in describing a brand this way. It felt real.

So imagine my surprise when I finally went to this page and saw this phrase at the start of the positioning. Who knows, maybe 7 or 8 other people had the same idea and it came out of years of engaged discussion.

What I do know is that the phrase made it up on the wall of the brand workshop. And somehow made it out of the workshop to the positioning.

The real point of this story is this: If you and your brand are struggling with an issue, ask your customers and constituents. Engage them in active participation. Allow them to help. Hold a workshop, or something like it. 

You’ll be surprised at the value that comes out of it.

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10/03/2011 Cusp Conference 2011 – Part 1

Last week I attended the Cusp Conference in Chicago. The title of the event was “The Design of Everything.” For two days I watched, listened and met some of the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve met in years. For a few days, all of us attendees felt our energy and engagement go through the roof.

Now it’s Monday of the following week. I feel like Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain” where he learns how to put Spock’s brain back into Spock’s body, but as time goes by, McCoy feels the knowledge and remembrance slipping away. I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure that the energy from Cusp doesn’t slip away amidst my “normal” work. Because, after Cusp, normal can take a hike.

Day One started off with the blindfolded former priest Mike Ivers talking about “Fear.” If there’s one thing we all know all too well, it’s fear. As Mike stumbled around the stage, he made an amazing point: That almost all of us are afraid of stepping into our own power.

The Fear of Stepping Into Your Own Power. You could almost hear the audience gasp. All of the reasons and excuses we have for not doing things start here. It’s the difference between people with potential and the people who make a difference. If there was a sub-theme to this conference, this was it.

And then things went from the sublime to the surreal. Dr. Richard Satava, U.S. Army senior science advisor, stepped up to talk about technological advances in medicine and robotics. He talked about operating rooms with no people and how we’re moving from instruments to energy. With micro-robots to operate, we’re creating miniaturized surgical cockpits that go far beyond human capacity. Although, Hollywood got there first on this one, back in the 60s with “Fantastic Voyage.” 

Ultimately he posited that medicine was going to move from “fixing” to “replacing.”  Here’s his money quote: “We’ve replaced every part of the body except the brain.” Guess what’s next? The implications for us are profound.

For the first time in history, we’ll have the ability to choose the species that follows Homo sapiens. We will enter the era of Chimeras and Cybrids.

Guess how we’re going to figure some of this out? Gaming. Jerome Waldispuhl of McGill University works in the field of comparative genomics. He’s comparing animal DNA to understand where key differences show up. It turns out that computers are not very good at doing this. People are. His solution? He’s crowdsourcing this by turning it into a puzzle to solve the problems. The game Phylo is available online or through mobile apps. We’ve heard a lot about gamification this year, but Waldispuhl is gamifying science to do something that matters (in a way that Scvngr can’t). Get ready for the age of citizen scientists.

Okay, I’ve got to admit, my head was spinning after just three speakers. It’s not like I’ve lived in and intellectual desert for the last few months. But this was the first non-digital marketing or social media conference I’ve been to in years. More on that later.

The first session ended with some students from Design for America. This college program [started by Burlington native Liz Gerber (Go Vermont!)] at Northwestern University, enables design and engineering students to do something simple: Use design to change the world. 

Mert Iseri and his colleagues solve problems, trying to have social impact through local projects. He told us how they spent time with homeless people and learned that the homeless walk, on average, 36 miles per day! Their feet are their weak link and they suffer from a variety of pedal infirmities that makes their lives more hellish than they already are. So Design for America developed a sustainable shower mat for homeless shelters that reduced foot problems by 50%.

They spent time with a local hospital with the goal of reducing hospital sickness that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. They developed a tool called Swipe Sense that fit right on doctors’ and nurses’ pants and that allowed people to disinfect their hands with a motion they were already doing. Smart, smart, smart.

Boy, those kids were not only incredibly smart, they were some of the most passionate and self-confident speakers I’ve ever seen! I left that first talk with imperatives:

  1. I HAVE to get my kids involved in something like this. I can’t imagine a more exciting, stimulating and worthwhile education.
  2. I have to get this to Vermont. Some of these students had already received seed money for their ideas. This whole educational program struck me as one of the best incubators and business development tools around. We need it here.

You know, I could have left after that first session and the conference would have been worth it. But there was oh so much more left.

To be continued…

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