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My new best friend, Scott

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I spent most of today at Scott Berkun's O'Reilly workshop / talk / Master Class How to Lead Breakthrough Projects. I've been following his blog for a while now, happily reading various posts, articles and such, but had never heard him speak. Given the Carnegie Mellon connection, I was curious to hear him speak, and figured, eh, discount, semi-interesting topic, sure, let's go.

The workshop (gah! I have no idea what to call it since it wasn't exactly a class, and wasn't exactly a workshop, and certainly wasn't a talk-at-you talk, so let's just call it a workshop and be happy with it, eh?) started off with the 18 of us trying to define "innovation." After much hemming and hawing, Scott suggested we never use the word again. It's an overloaded, overused word that is so vague it's applicable anything new (because, giving the correct, relative perspective, ANYTHING is innovative).

I can handle that.

Throughout the class, Scott had us go through various exercises. In order to do this effectively, we were divided up into groups of four or five, which worked well because of the room layout and seating configuration. One team was Team Shazam. My team was Team Mischief, which freaked Scott out briefly as teams rarely name themselves (clearly I named our team).

The first exercise we did was to design a product using three words from a list of forty words we threw out. My first word was "frisbee," which I used as a defense when Scott called on me and asked me for an adjective.

You know that deer in the headlights look people get when they're put on the spot? Yeah, that's what I had. My only defense when he said, "Yes, I'm looking at you in the front row. An adjective please," was "But I gave you frisbee!"

So, Team Mischief came up with the Spin Master 3000, an exclusive micro chainsaw frisbee which trimmed hedges with a flick of the wrist. As my fellow teammates commented, "it's a good thing he didn't ask for realistic product pitches." I wanted to go with the slenderizing, musical underwear which sent out subsonic vibrations which made the wearer nauseous and therefore thinner by not interested in eating. The chainsaw won.

What amazed me in the group as we were both innovating our produce and developing our pitch, was just how easily pitch development was for the other people. I don't consider myself clueless in the area, but I did feel 12 years old when my suggestions were immediately discounted by a teammate who clearly had more training in the pitch development area.

Which sorta led to other suggestions by Scott, which included having an enviroment where people are comfortable to experiment, knowing they're protected in some way, with people willing to be laughed at, but continue on anyway.

Following rules from improv comedy also helps to spur innovation. Instead of shutting down an idea, the rules suggest finding a part that works and building upon it using the conjunction "Yes, and..." Don't use "no," or "yes, but..."

Apparently, in addition to a comfortable group, you also need well defined roles (or people will continue with power positioning) and a direction (so you're all going the same way). Recognizing fears, so that they can be addressed, and stopping idea killers, so that they don't stop the ideas, are also quite important in creating a breakthrough idea. Having a visible output is also important: handing ideas over a wall to die will stop suggestions and new ideas might quick.

Scott is writing a new book on public speaking and wanted some input on why people sit in the front row. Since I was sitting in the front row, he came up to talk to me during lunch. Why, oh, why did I sit in the front row? I had intended on sitting in the second row, but the first row was empty, so why not? I let Scott know I sat in the front row for several reasons:

I expected him to be an engaging speaker and wanted to be able to interact with him (my deer in the headlines reaction, not withstanding).

It's easier to go to the bathroom when you're in the front row, if the front row is close to the door.

The second reason led into a discussion about the easiest escape routes from a talk. He commented that the front row at many conferences is empty, to which I responded, sure, because the conference attendees don't KNOW that it's empty and that there are seats available. People often crowd by the door in the back and leave the front row open simply because they don't know about the seats.

The front row usually means being put on the spot (Deer. Headlights.), which many people dislike. I don't particularly like that everyone behind me can read my screen when I'm in the front row, though I usually keep my monitor dimmed enough that viewing is difficult. Then there's the whole embarrassment factor in a nutshell: having people stare at my near bald head for an entire presentation doesn't exactly fill me with longing.

Oh, what? My head isn't near bald anymore? Yay, double whorl!

As for the random thoughts during the class/workshop/presentation...

1. Scott Berkun's hands are big.

2. The guy behind me in class had not one, not two, not three but SIX moleskines with him. The first three he had out on the desk I asked about. One was a sketch book, one was an idea book and one was a scratch book. And I thought my two books and my index cards were overkill. I've been trying to reduce that load. Perhaps I should increase it.

3. Scott has been out of school long enough to be unable to draw an exponentially or even geometrically decaying graph. If you have 18 ideas before you start (read: the zeroth step), and 12 die at the first step, and 3 die at the fourth step, you won't have a linear -1 slope. I suspect I'm the only one who cared.

4. You know how you can be "in the moment" at a movie, how the story line and characters are engaging, the music subtle enough to be unnoticable and the actors are good enough that you forget they're actors. Then, at some point, something absurd happens and you're pulled out of the moment, and you're aware that you're sitting in a dark room with a bunch of other people, slackjawed staring at a big white screen that has pictures projected onto it at the rate of 24 frames a second (or 30 if you're watching television). For me, the call to "Intubate!" on every freaking medical show or movie is what does it for me. I cringe at the near 100% intubation rate, and often worry that I may be intubated for a migraine if I stumble into a hospital looking for a bathroom.

Scott is an engaging enough speaker that I frequently found myself lost in the moment of his presentaion, happily following everything he said, thinking, "Hey, yeah! That's right!" or "Yeah! Me, too!" Oddly enough, I found missing capitalization on some of his slides pulling me out of the moment and back into local awareness. Usually grammar mistakes or speaking mannerisms will pull me out ("Um" and "Uh" and loud smacking of lips will both drive me insane and ruin a presenation), but this is the first time incorrect capitalization has done it for me.
I find this very odd, as I enjoyed the whole workshop.

5. I am Scott Berkun's best friend.

Yeah, just google for "Scott Berkun's best friend" now and see whose name shows up. I even have documentation to prove it.

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Of course, Scott's comment, "Hey, you paid for the book. I'll put whatever you want in it. People don't seem to believe me when I say that," might put a small damper on that statement, but let's go with it.