On brainstorming, playing around, and goofing off

Have you ever had a concussion? I got one right after I attended ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest 2012. The concussion healed but I never got around to writing up a post about my impressions of the Fest and my third year of participation. Here it is, almost two months after the fact.

I really love attending Big Ideas Fest. It’s not a conference, it’s not workshops, but it is is intense. It connects you to a very intentional community of people who are truly passionate about education in the U.S. (and elsewhere) and want to ACT to continually improve educational opportunities for learners everywhere.

This year I knew generally what to expect. I’d been before. Keynote speakers, rapid fire speakers, action collabs, and evenings of discussion, fun and yummy food. There were folks at this year’s Fest who I knew from previous collabs and it was like reconnecting with old friends. I know this happens at other conferences but unlike others–if I met these people in my action collabs we actually worked together. We dug into an idea together, tried to see how it could come to life, questioned and added to each other’s ideas, and generally collaborated more deeply than most committees ever get around to doing.

This experience of deep collaboration, of making something, a prototype, a model, not just an idea, is what keeps me engaged in Big Ideas Fest. Yes, it was a little hard to be so motivated again this year when I knew what hard work was ahead of me. Yes, it was a little distracting to have been part of the Big Ideas in Beta teams (if you want to be inspired by go-getters, these are your people).

Eepybirds slideBut what wasn’t hard this year, was to sit through the generally powerful and inspiring speakers ISKME brings in to illustrate the design thinking process with real world examples and their own experiences. This year’s line up was truly enjoyable and fun. Steven Ritz, with his 1,000 slides of blurry (some) photos of kids with smiles on their faces and vegetables in their hands, Matt Harding with what turned out to be a very poignant and personal story (how does he do that over and over?), and the Smarthistory folks (geeked about art? listen to them and you’ll be in good company) were all fun to listen to and energizing. But this is true of last year’s event and the year before.

What was really unique and powerful about this year’s BIF were a few people (@noiseprofessor and @timothyfcook) and a lot of focus on the hard work of creativity. It’s inspiring to hear other people’s stories about how they succeeded but often you hear the success part and even if you hear the “yeah we went through six months of planning, prototyping, and failure to get here” you don’t usually see it.

Play at BIF2012

One group, in particular, focused on just this part of their success: the attempts, the plans, the mistakes, and the let downs. When the EepyBird guys came on the stage for the after-dinner show I started to tune out. I thought it was going to be just that–a show. It wasn’t. It was a lesson in the 1-10-100 rule that is more common in innovation design and STEM than it probably is in higher education in general and especially libraries (that’s starting to change).

Here it is, in somone else’s words (Peter Tu writing for GE Global Education):

Their method follows the 1-10-100 principle. It takes one experiment to spark a concept. By experiment 10 one should have fleshed things out and have defined a direction. By experiment 100 one hopes to have found something that is sublime…

Here are the rules:

  1. Seek variation
  2. Be obsessive
  3. Be stubborn
  4. Set limits and work within them

It also helped to be sitting next to two guys during most of the meals who like to tinker, question, play around and goof off. They’re super smart people and effective in their pursuits but it doesn’t mean that a little play is beneath them. Instead they embrace it and I really enjoyed being in their company, creating cars/abstract art with them at the table (surround yourself with fun, energetic and inquisitive people who like to say yes before they say no. It will do you a world of good).

I’m going to try to take the 1-10-100 rule with me as I move into my new position, supporting projects across Operations, Teaching and Learning and Research at the University of Michigan Library. I think its easy, especially at this level, to “brainstorm” for an hour and call it a day. Or to skip that part altogether and move into an approach that will probably solve the problem but might not be the best solution in the long run. I doubt I’ll be Eepybirding my way through every project I do, but I want to keep this close to my brain as I move though supporting MLibrary as a leader and innovator.

Final words: keep a sense of humor and employ that sense of humor at least once in your day. I’ll do my best.