Saul Kaplan on Passion and Failure
Quite a few years ago, I had the chance to sit down with Saul Kaplan from the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul is an accomplished optimist and one of the leading thinkers around business and social innovation. Our interview changed a lot of how I think about motivation and life planning but until now I didn't have an appropriate place to publish our talk.
Be sure to check out Saul's new book: The Business Model Innovation Factory.
Or a chance to meet Saul in person and a host of other amazing folks at BIF-8 (the collaborative innovation summit) this September 19th and 20th.
Sean: From planning BIF-8, to all your labs and your personal projects, you lead an interesting and busy life. How do you pick the things that you pursue and keep doing?
Saul: For me, it’s all about the learning curve. If you look at all the different career moves that I’ve made and the different situations I’ve put myself in, the common thread that goes through all of it is putting myself on a steep learning curve.
I never made decisions based on how much money I could make. It was always about whether I could leverage what I’ve done so far, and whether I could learn something new. And if I managed to that learning curve then everything else happened, including the money.
So I’m just very focused on that. When that learning curve starts to flatten out, I know that I’ve got to redesign the environment, the network and the people that I’m working with, in order to stay on that learning curve.
That’s why I dove into consulting after industry. Most people did it the other way. And that’s why after coming out of consulting I went into government, and everyone thought I was nuts, but what a learning curve to put yourself in!
Sean: Where does this learning lead to for you?
Saul: I’m a huge believer in there being equity to gain in every activity you choose to do. If you go into every activity with this mindset, you're always thinking, “Okay, where’s the equity in this? How can I continue to build my skill set, build my experience?”
And it helps you manage risk better too because then you’re not afraid to try something different. It’s truly okay to fail because if you don’t fail frequently then you’re not on a steep learning curve.
Sean: So you plan and manage your life pretty carefully to always be learning...
Saul: I’m a strategist by training so I don’t know how to live in a world where you just do stuff hoping that some of it’s going to stick. I don’t believe in starting strategy one tactic at a time and hoping that it’s all going to come together and we’re going to tie a ribbon around it and land somewhere meaningful. I believe in beginning at the end. What are we trying to do? What’s the vision and now how do we work towards that? The vision can change, as environments and circumstances change, but you have to be planful. And I’m a very planful person.
I can tell you the things that I’m intending to do. They’re usually big-stretch, bold things that I want to do -- networks that I want to participate in, projects that I want to work on. And then every day I can wake up and say, “Okay, what am I going to work on today?” And I can ask myself, “Is it aligned to where I’m trying to go?” And if it isn’t, I don’t do it yet. And if it is, I do it and then I’m building equity in what I’m doing.
I find most of the world doesn’t work that way. Most of the world sets their strategy one tactic at a time. They wake up in the morning and respond to random things that happen and then at the end of the day they say, “Oh geez, I got a lot done. I did a lot of stuff.”
I go home at the end of the day and say, “What did I accomplish today that’s aligned with where I’m trying to go? Did I make progress? Am I still behind that vision? Do I need to tweak it or change it based on circumstances?”
Sean: Do you have a tool that you use to define this strategy and help you stay on track?
Saul: Yeah, I usually have some pretty broad goals, but it’s not fancy, it’s not some book. It’s more like on the back of a napkin kind of stuff. I remember when I was first starting out -- and I was getting married and we were starting to have kids -- I had it written on the back of an actual napkin. This is where I think directionally we want to go in terms of family, financially, and the kinds of things that I hoped to be able to do with some high-level milestones along the way.
And every once in awhile you pull out that napkin and you say, “Is your life headed in that direction? Is it still the right direction to head in?” You don’t ruminate over it. You don’t revisit it every day. But every once in awhile, you pull that napkin out and say, “Okay, are you getting there? Are you starting to make progress?”
Or if you had a really tough day, you ask yourself if today was a part of your plan. If it was, that's great. If it wasn't, you resolve to not waste any more energy on whatever was causing you stress.
I think being planful like this is a very important thing to be. People that I know that are more planful than others tend to be more successful. They know where they’re going. They have a plan to get there and are flexible enough to make the changes they need to make along the way.
A lot of people are missing this compass; to be able to know whether things are on or off strategy, whether it’s a personal strategy or an organizational strategy.
Sean: Change can be scary. Learning new things can be scary. You've sort of thrown these out the window and built your life around them. So what scares Saul Kaplan?
Saul: That’s a great question. You’re right. I’m not scared of failing. I’m not scared of making mistakes because I do and will make them. <laughs> So that doesn’t scare me. Two things come to mind.
As I get older I get scared by some of the things that are out of my control. I think we did everything we could to create a positive environment for our three children, but it’s scary to think about your children and the mistakes that they’re going to make, and how to feel good about encouraging them to make those mistakes.
And, personally, I get scared as I begin to wonder how many more acts I have left. I try to stay very young and continue to learn and expose myself to new platforms and skills. But as you age, you can't help but start to think about what happens when you’ve run out of time.
So time scares me a lot. So I think The Nursing Home of the Future project is really a selfish, vested interest -- to make sure that there are environments that can deliver a better experience, on behalf of all the baby boomers out there.
One of the most important takeaways from the Nursing Home project -- as we really dove deep into understanding the current elder experience -- is that we’ve done a terrible job at creating environments for our elders that recognize that our elder population wants to stay incredibly active. They want to be connected. They want opportunities to engage. We need to re-envision how we create environments and platforms for them to do just that.
Sean: Your passion economy article was an amazing piece and how we first came into contact with one another. How is this idea different from this trend towards open platforms or is it enabled by such?
Saul: I just came off of a six year period where I was a broken record about the innovation and knowledge economy. And I’m completely convinced that this is still the economy we need -- an innovation economy.
I tried to lay out a clear point of view on why this was, what it is, and how you could relate to it. If I’m honest about it, I don’t think it worked because I don’t think people get emotional about the idea of a knowledge economy. To me, it’s a necessity, but its just not sufficient.
The passion economy idea was about how we need to mobilize knowledge and that we need networks that can help us connect to it. But for me, the aha moment was, instead of talking about the tools -- that we’re going to use open innovation or open platform approaches -- we should rather focus on the ends. Such as, “We’re going to deliver better healthcare to the patient.”
We had it backwards. We thought the tools were the ends and they’re not. I think they’re the means. And we have to get passionate about the ends and build really purposeful networks around those passions if we’re going to change. And if we do that I think we can make progress solving some of those big systems challenges we're facing and it will be very, very good for the global economy.
So it’s about trying to get to the ends. And, to me, a passion economy means using all the knowledge-based tools that we have, and that we’ve worked so hard to develop over this last period of time, but to do so in a much more purposeful way.
It’s clear that we need to do this. Everybody will agree that the current systems, however well-intentioned they are, are not able adapt to deliver value in the way we want and need them to. They don’t know how to absorb all of these new technology platforms that we’ve created. So we sit on the outside scratching our heads, saying, “You know, we have these great tools. We have this great technology. Why aren’t we making more progress?”
Ultimately we have to get into the real world and begin to carve out environments where we can explore new systems solutions. And that's what BIF is trying to do. The whole idea behind BIF is to create a real-world laboratory that can enable the experimentation needed and bring a community of innovators together that are passionate about healthcare, education and energy independence. And then to provide a platform for experimentation -- so that we can activate this concept of a real-world laboratory to move forward on these areas.
We think that these solutions are going to come from collisions of unusual suspects, horizontally. And we’ve had a lot of success in doing that. Our Nursing Home of the Future project is a great example of tangible progress in bringing a community of innovators together to envision a completely different system approach to delivering better care and a better experience to our elder population.