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Why Amateurs Make Breakthroughs #BIF10

Point: “Amateurs” have a willingness to try outlandish things, things that experts “know better” than to do.

Story: The word “amateur” has gotten a bad rap. People apply the term dismissively to imply that someone is an RiseCoverunskilled dabbler, but the word originates from the Latin “amator” meaning a lover, a devotee, or person who adores a particular endeavor.  I learned this from Sarah Lewis, whose new book on creativity, The Rise, devotes an entire chapter to “The Disciplined Amateur.”

Lewis chronicles the discoveries by Nobel Prizewinner Andre Geim, among others. Geim credits his willingness to enter a new field as instrumental to his discovery and isolation of graphene, a carbon-based material that is the thinnest, strongest, most conductive material currently known to exist. As Lewis points out, “If we made a car out of graphene, it would be the lightest automobile in existence, but could also drive through walls.”

Geim, a physicist, had never worked with carbon before, but his curiosity and attitude of “it’s better to be wrong than be boring,” made him unafraid to be “entering into someone else’s territory, to be frank, and questioning things people who work in that area never bother to ask.”

Geim keeps that “amateur” freshness by staying in a field no longer than five years, to prevent his perspective from fossilizing such that he can no longer see anything but the “accepted” way.

To keep flexing that amateur muscle, Geim created “Friday Night Experiments” at his lab in Holland.  These experiments encourage physicists to explore and do whatever they want (short of blowing up the entire lab), to try things that will likely fail.  Yet out 24 such experiments, three have been huge hits, including the creation of gecko tape, a levitating frog, and the aforementioned isolation of graphene.

How can you create or join in a Friday Night Experiment yourself? One way I do it is by attending the Business Innovation Factory‘s annual Innovation Summit.  Although I go to other innovation conferences, the BIF series (now its tenth year: BIF10), has a unique, playful, “try it!” energy that encourages experimentation. The summit keeps its freshness by insisting that its storytellers (not “speakers”) share their personal stories, not canned speeches.  BIF banished PowerPoint.  Attendance is strictly limited to 400, and the summit sells out every year. The summit is small enough to facilitate mingling among storytellers and attendees, and large enough to enable “random collisions of unusual suspects,” as organizer Saul Kaplan puts it.

The BIF summits are conducive to being on what Schopenhauer called “the playground of others’ thoughts.”

I’ll be joining the jungle-gym of ideas at #BIF10 this Sept 17-18, my fourth time.  If you have a chance, I encourage you to join in, too!


  • Set aside time for experimentation whether its 10% of work time or special events like Friday Night Experiments and Business Innovation Factory summits.
  • “Jump the fence” to explore new areas where your “amateur” perspective could reveal new opportunities
  • Stay open enough to new ideas to take risks and fail

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Kaplan’s Business Model Innovation Factory

Point: Experiment with new business models in a “connected adjacency” before committing to them.

Story:  Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF), just wrote a new book, The Business Model Innovation Factory.  Kaplan shares 15 business model innovation principles, weaving in his personal experience (from Eli Lilly to Accenture to BIF) as well as experiences from numerous presenters at BIF’s Collaborative Innovation Summits. My favorite chapter in the book was “R&D for New Business Models.”

In the chapter, Kaplan describes how to deal the challenges of testing a new business model.  Organizations can’t easily jump from an entrenched business model to a new one.  There’s too much support for the old model and too many unknowns about the new one.  The solution is to test the new business model in what Kaplan calls “connected adjacencies.” A connected adjacency is like a real-world sandbox or living lab. For example, Kaplan details how Accenture changed its business model from being a systems integrator to being a business integrator.  Accenture (Andersen Consulting at the time) started to rapidly build a strategic capability alongside its existing systems integration business. As Kaplan writes,

“It was a connected adjacency that was given the autonomy and resources necessary to scale a rapidly-growing strategy practice from scratch – right next to the huge systems integration practice.  We were an entrepreneurial business unit within the context of the behemoth. The emergent strategy practice would never have worked if it had to live by the rules of the core business model at the time.  If not protected, it would have been swallowed alive by line partners from within the core business model. The new business model needed to be shielded, at least temporarily, within the relative safety of a connected adjacency.”

Part of the success of experimenting in a connected adjacency is letting employees self-select to participate.  In Accenture’s case, the company went so far as to hire partners directly from outside the company – something the company had never done before in its “promote from within” philosophy of the past.  The connection between the existing business and the innovation sandbox is vital, however, because it lets ideas and experiences be transferred between the two spheres.

In another example, Kaplan describes Babson College’s creation of Babson Global, an entity separate from Babson’s core business model that serves as an R&D platform for creating, prototyping and testing new approaches for teaching entrepreneurship and creating entrepreneurial ecosystems in communities worldwide.  The entity is separate from the college but adjacent to it – faculty and staff from the college self-select to participate.


  • Nurture the new business model in a “connected adjacency” — a sandbox, living lab, or side unit of the main business.
  • Protect the developing new business model effort from the old model’s metrics and pressures.
  • Allow staff to self-select or volunteer for the new model, or hire outsiders so that you have open-minded enthusiasts for the new model rather than adherents to the old.

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Innovation in 3D: Ice Dream #DSCC11

Point: Test large-scale innovations for 1/20th the cost by using 3D simulations to prove viability and performance.

Story: Forty years ago, Georges Mougin got an idea: solve water shortages in drought-ridden countries by towing an iceberg over the sea to them. Floating icebergs are pure drinking water, but they slowly melt into seawater.  Why not harvest them before all that drinking water is lost?

The idea of towing an iceberg, however, seemed crazy.  When Mougin talked with scientists about the idea, objections abounded.  “Once you get north of the equator, you’ll have nothing but a rope at the end of your tow,” said Wilford Weeks of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory at a conference in 1977 when hearing of the idea.  Other questions were: how much power would it take to tow 100-million ton iceberg? What would be the environmental impact of it melting in equatorial waters once it was anchored at a coastal city?

Although Mougin was confident of the idea’s viability, he had no way to prove it. Despite securing the backing of a Saudi prince, Prince Mohammed al Faisal, the projected costs and unanswered questions proved insurmountable.  But Mougin continued working on the idea, doggedly amassing data on issues like ocean currents and learning how technologies from other industries, like those developed for off-shore oil drilling, could be tapped.

Mougin’s lucky break came in 2009, when he heard of Dassault Systemes‘ “Passion for Innovation” program.  Dassault Systemes sponsors the Passion for Innovation program as a philanthropic venture to give individuals or nonprofits free access to Dassault Systemes’ suite of products (CATIA, DELMIA, SIMULIA, ENOVIA, 3DVIA. SoildWorks, Exalead) as well as a team of Dassault Systemes engineers.

“We’ll help you and provide you with the modeling and simulation technologies that should demonstrate that your project is feasible,” said Cedric Simard, IceDream Project Director, Dassault Systemes.

Dassault Systemes worked with Mougin: “We used virtual and digital simulation technology to recreate a virtual world around the iceberg, taking into account real oceanographic and weather data to simulate the sea currents at several depth levels, as well as the wind, waves, and even the impact of the sun’s rays,” Simard said.

After using CATIA software to create an exact model of the iceberg, the team used Dymola for the complex simulation, factoring in issues like ocean temperatures that would affect melting en route as well as meteorological phenomena like wind. The team also used SIMULIA software to consider risks such as fracturing of the iceberg. Running these simulations enabled the team to test the concept for a fraction of the cost of building a prototype: $500,000 instead of $10 million.

The simulations proved that it’d be possible to tow a 7-million-ton berg with one tugboat, primarily relying on ocean currents and consuming only 4000 tons of fuel over the 140-day journey, Simard said. The berg would experience some melting (38%) but still provide enough drinking water for 20,000 people for one year.

“Mougin is a very passionate guy,” Simard said. “He’s 87 years old, and he’s been working on his project for forty years. Now thanks to the power of simulation and the digital world, he can see how his idea would work in reality.”


  • Create mathematical models of large-scale innovations
  • Ground the model in real-world conditions and environments with empirical data
  • Estimate performance, costs, potential failure modes using advanced software
  • Present a compelling graphical story of the innovation with 3D visualization.

Sources and Additional Information:

My video interview with Cedric Simard on

Ice Dream Project

Dassault Puts Inventor’s ‘Ice Dream’ to 3D Simulation Test” by Beth Stackpole

Iceberg Transport” by Lauren K. Wolf

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