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Saul Kaplan: The Human Side of Innovation

Monday, September 28, 2015


Photo courtesy of Saul Kaplan

Many smart people I know are going all in on an Internet Of Things. I’m going all in on the human side of innovation. It’s the only way to accomplish the kind of innovation that the people I respect and hang out with want. I suspect it’s the kind of innovation that most of you want too. I’m not talking about the tweaky kind of innovation that makes what we currently do incrementally a little better. I’m talking about the transformational kind of innovation that will rock our world and our lives, creating the new business models and social systems that we all want and need. You know, the kind of innovation that the 21st century screams for. The kind of innovation that rises to the level of the social challenges we face. The only way to realize the full potential of the 21st century is with transformational change that starts with the human side of innovation.

Last week I had the great honor of hosting over 500 innovation junkies from around the world at #BIF2015, the Business Innovation Factory’s 11th annual Collaborative Innovation Summit. I glimpsed the future at #BIF2015 and I can confidently report that the future is about unleashing the human side of innovation. Every year we ask 32 storytellers, not speakers, to take the stage, share a personal story of transformation and to catalyze a reaction among all summit participants. And what a reaction we started. I’m still shaking from the experience. Storyteller after storyteller shared a personal story leaving their normal conference talks at home. They all shared genuine experiences and reflections. It was inspirational beyond words. What each storyteller shared wasn’t about a fancy new idea, although they had plenty of those, but about how they connect their hearts to good ideas in order to catalyze real transformational change. It was raw human emotion, it was genuine and it was moving.

Here’s a sample of #BIF2015 quotes you wouldn’t expect to hear at an innovation conference! (All of the #BIF2015 storyteller videos will be available publicly in about 4 weeks)

“We figured out the science of life, but we haven’t figured out the art of living” Michael Samuelson

“Go deep to reflect on your inner vision and then apply it to reality in the key of life” Chris Emdin

“Who you are and where you come from is your competitive advantage.” Jaime Casap

“Push yourself to the edge of your own thinking”. Rick Benjamin

“What would it be like if you were only known for the worst thing you’d ever done?” Catherine Hoke

“You can’t read your Book of Life on LinkedIn. Your Book of Life is not your resume.” Dennis Whittle

“How we are is what we become.” Barry Svigals

“Who in your life wrapped their arms around you and said, ‘Everything is going to be okay’?” Carlos Moreno

Participants kept coming up to me at the breaks in between storyteller sessions communicating different versions of the same idea,

“I expect intellectual stimulation when I attend an innovation conference but I don’t expect to cry.”

There were no shortage of tears throughout #BIF2015. Yes, you read it right, tears at an innovation conference! If we want to transform anything we had better learn how to connect our hearts to our ideas. We had better learn to lead with the human side of innovation before we get too excited about any new technology. We had better learn how to activate hearts before minds. Transformation of any of our important social systems including education, health care and government is about enabling a movement, a human-centered movement. Transforming the things that really matter is about hearts before it’s about minds.

The same is true for transforming any business that’s increasingly vulnerable to being Netflixed or obliterated by an unsuspected disruptive business model. Today’s leaders aren’t acting paranoid without reason; disruptors really are around every corner! Tweaking your current business model or leaning against disruptive change won’t cut it. Only creating the conditions and emotional space to explore and test transformational new business models will prevent disruption. Business models don’t last as long as they used to. R&D for new business models is the new strategic imperative for all leaders. You can get away with innovation stage gates to manage incremental innovation but without tapping the human side of innovation business model transformation is impossible.

No person, organization or community will transform anything without first embracing the human side of innovation. The prerequisite for transformation is creating an emotional connection to any change. Not after a “change management” plan has been developed but while change is being considered and designed. No one signs up for change they didn’t help design. Transformational change starts with humans feeling like a part of the story. Transformation is impossible until we can see ourselves in the story and until we can actively participate in the story. I think it may be as simple as:

No Heart No Innovation

We have more technology available to us than we can absorb as humans. It’s not a lack of shiny new inventions or technologies that is getting in our way. It’s us humans, the organizations and industrial era social systems that we live and work in that are stubbornly resistant to change. Transformation is only possible if we start with transforming ourselves. Transforming anything starts with the heart, it starts with the human side of innovation.

We have been thinking about innovation all wrong. It isn’t about what new solutions and tools we can invent, but about how we can activate human potential. How can we catalyze students, patients, citizens and consumers to unleash their best selves and to be the champions of their own future? What if innovation isn’t about inventing anything new at all? What if it is about creating the conditions for all of us to more freely combine and recombine the technology we already have to make the world a better place? What if we changed our approach to start by better connecting our best ideas with our hearts?

So the next time you go to an innovation conference or discuss innovation in your company start by asking, where’s the heart? Who’s with me? Let’s go all in together on the human side of innovation.

Saul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.


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