A Conversation with Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory
Mention the word Prozac and you’re bound to get a smile from Saul Kaplan.
It has nothing to do with the medicinal effects of the popular drug, but rather Saul’s eight-year tenure with Eli Lily and Company – the makers of Prozac. As a Marketing Plans Manager, Kaplan helped guide the launch strategy and successful introduction of Prozac into the U.S. market in 1987.
These days, Kaplan is marketing a much different product– collaborative innovation. As Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory in Providence, Rhode Island, his new mission is to create a non-profit, real-world laboratory for innovators to explore and test new business models and system level solutions in such critical areas health care, education, energy independence and quality of life.
I met Saul last year at BIF, the Business Innovation Factory’s annual Collaborative Innovation Summit. The summit has become the innovation party of the year with a growing national reputation for being more conversation than conference.
In his book “Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration,” Warren Bennis writes a prescient thought “Despite the rhetoric of collaboration, we continue to advocate it in a culture in which people strive to distinguish themselves as individuals.”
One of Kaplan’s favorite terms is “The Unusual Suspects,” an homage to the movie Casablanca. It’s bringing diverse people together to co-mingle ideas and collaborate on ideas. Last week, we talked with Saul about the art of collaboration, innovation, the group versus individuals, and tinkering with business models.
“An active BIF member once suggested that BIF’s t-shirts should proclaim “BIF: The Anti-Silo,” says Kaplan. “I think one of most enduring lessons I learned at Lily in the late 80’s was their “anti-silo” mind set. They encouraged collaboration and executives would change responsibilities to get a more 3600 view of the organization.”
“My new passion is about R&D for new business models,” adds Kaplan. “Just exploring your own industry for best practices is limiting.New sources of competitive advantage are far more likely to come from observing and adopting best practices in completely unrelated industries.I believe that leaders should spend more discretionary time outside of their industry, discipline, and sector.”
“Most CEOs today have only had to lead their organizations based on a single business model throughout their careers. The half-life of a company’s business model is getting shorter. Look at business model of Blockbuster, Netflix and newer industry players like Hulu.”
“Many of the companies we have worked with have recognized the value of looking outside of their industry for practices that might provide a source of competitive advantage. Going beyond the limits of your current business model requires a network-enabled capability to do R&D for new business models.
Kaplan adds, “As Clay Christensen famously said, ‘companies don’t disrupt themselves’,” and I think that’s the toughest challenge facing executives. “It is easy to sketch out business model innovation scenarios on the white board. It is far more difficult to take the idea off the white board for a spin in the real world.We need safe and manageable platforms for real world experimentation of new business models and systems. That’s really the heart and focus of our organization.
“Through BIF, organizations have access to a ‘safe haven’ for experimenting with new business models – particularly networked models that cut across organizations, industries, and public and private sector.”
The kudos for BIF keep on coming. Recently, Mashable (one of top ten blogs in the world) named the BIF conference among the nation's best places to connect with great minds
Over the past few years, Kaplan and BIF have walked the talk, collaborating across silos and the public and private sectors to explore new solutions for health care. Partnering with Tockwotton Home, Quality Partners of Rhode Island and MIT AgeLab, the Nursing Home of the Future Project is a real-world laboratory for developing and testing new solutions, products and models for improving elderly care.
And now this year, BIF and a wide range of collaborators are taking on the two other big elephants in the room– energy and education.
“You really have to have very thick skin to span silos and foster collaboration.” Kaplan continues “Everyone loves the idea of innovation until it impacts them. I used to think that we could create more innovators by teaching but that doesn’t get past the buzzwords and what passes for innovation in many companies.”
“I now believe in exploring the world to identify the innovators across every imaginable discipline, then finding ways to connect them in purposeful ways.”
I asked Saul about “innovation fatigue – the proliferation of innovation articles over the past few years. “I’ve spent a lot of my career proselytizing about innovation and value of collaboration, but I think that many companies internalize it to mean that everyone has to be innovative, says Kaplan.
“Like virtually everything in business, some people are better at it than others. I believe there are some individuals that are simply hot-wired for innovation. The models that appear to work best are a mix of a core team focused on innovation with open collaboration with both internal and external resources.”
I asked Saul a parting question. What about the transformation of his own business model? “We all know the story about the cobbler's shoes. If BIF is about business model and system innovation we must commit ourselves to ongoing experimentation and change. Our model is changing in two visible ways right now:
1) The "DO" part of our operating model is taking shape. BIF's experience labs are where the action is. Our Elder and Student Experience labs are up and running and bringing our innovation network together in purposeful ways.
2) The "Connect" part of BIF's operating model is also coming together. We are taking an open innovation approach to both capability building and experiments in BIF's Experience Labs.
If none of us is as smart as all of us, Saul Kaplan has rounded up the unusual suspects to evolve a new model for collaboration.