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Saul Kaplan: Topics Are Overrated!

Friday, July 08, 2016


Saul Kaplan

Ever notice that we seem to learn more from conversations and experiences that careen off-topic? Topics are overrated!

Admit it. In every conversation, it’s always the throwaway or tangential comment that sends whatever neurotransmitter through whatever synapse, goading our brains into action.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a discussion in a corporate conference room, cocktail party chatter, or banter at the family dinner table. It’s always the same. The one comment that sticks out, or the idea worth more thought, was off-topic: It had absolutely nothing to do with the topic being discussed.

If we want to stretch our thinking and get better faster, the more off-topic the better!

Talking points are boring. We already know them. Scripted talks rarely inspire or reveal anything new. We can read or watch them online. Spending too much time at meetings or events where everything is scripted and on-topic could sap the life out of the Energizer Bunny!

We only learn when we move fluidly off topics and across them. In the gray areas between topics we find the gold — the best and most important value-creating opportunities.

Politicians are notorious for sticking to talking points and staying on-topic. They inundate us with the same points over and over again, amplified by 24-hour cable news and social media. Most of us can recite the talking points from both sides of every political argument. What if we were better at mining the middle ground between polar arguments, to find ideas that might actually work in the real world?

And it’s not just politicians. We all stick to our comfortable, go-to narratives. We often treat every conversation as if it will result in a winner and a loser.

It takes effort, personal risk, and vulnerability to challenge our own existing mental models. We can start by allowing ourselves the freedom to celebrate going off-topic.

The new ideas and opportunities are found at the edges. We have to make it safer to collide with new ideas and approaches. We have to make it safer and easier to try more stuff.

At the Business Innovation Factory (BIF), we design experiences purposely to be off-topic. We obsess about enabling random collisions of unusual suspects (RCUS). We believe that the gold is not only in the grey areas between topics, but also in the gray areas between our industries, silos, and disciplines.

We design our annual Collaborative Innovation Summit to intentionally foster off-topic interactions. As we plan the BIF Summit, we curate the most eclectic group of both storytellers and participants — 500 like-minded innovation junkies who convene with the explicit purpose of going off-topic. Our goal is to create the conditions to maximize random collisions of unusual suspects, and then to get out of the way and let the magic happen.

The BIF Summit is more community than conference. We trust the BIF community to figure out which collisions and stories they find the most meaningful. We don’t ever prescribe themes, or corral breakouts for those from the same silo. We encourage participants to collide across silos, to see new patterns, and to explore new forms of collaboration.

This year marks our 12th annual Collaborative Innovation Summit, #BIF2016, which takes place September 14–15 in Providence, Rhode Island. I’m biased, of course, but the two days of the BIF Summit are the most inspiring days of my year. Hosting the BIF Summit is a great personal honor and a blessing, and I’m always amazed by how participants rise to the occasion in lasting and substantive ways.

Every year since we launched BIF and hosted our first summit, people not familiar with it ask me what the theme or topic will be this year. The answer is always the same: There is no theme, other than the ones that emerge as the Summit progresses and participants connect the dots across stories and conversations.

We don’t “work out loud” at the BIF Summit so much as we “convene out loud”. All participants readily share their a-ha moments and insights among themselves, and with all of their networks, real-time, through social media. Even those watching the BIF Summit via our free live stream are encouraged to participate in the conversation on social media.

The BIF Summit inspires such compelling conversations and connections that they continue throughout the year and in some cases, even longer. I’m always blown away when someone shares their random-collision story with me, describing how their BIF Summit experience catalyzed a powerful and lasting new collaboration.

After 12 years of hosting the BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit, my takeaway is clear: Stop trying to organize everything by topic. Catalyze smart, motivated people from across silos to engage, and they will take care of the rest.

Spend more time off-topic.

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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