Imagine It! – Creating Value From Nothing

Could you create value from nothing?  Do you think it takes a creative, entrepreneurial spirit in order to accomplish such a monumental task?

I promised yesterday I would share a case study I worked on recently, the Tata Motors $2500 car to be specific.  But snow blowing the remains of the still-going snowstorm this morning from my driveway sent my creative thoughts whirring around like so many snowflakes and got me thinking about an incredible documentary that was just released on Friday.  It’s called Imagine It! and it focuses on a collaboration that Richard Tavener from Infinite Loop Media did with Stanford University – and ultimately universities across the globe – in challenging students to be innovative with a common everyday object.

As Tina Seelig, Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program explained, “We’re giving people an everyday object and then telling them to create value.”  Which according to the dictionary there are 18 different definitions of the term.  She continues,  “Students can do it by how much money you make, the amount of social value you create, the amount of entertainment value, how creative you are.  There are unlimited categories.

I mention this documentary because it’s an amazing example of encouraging young people to recognize and expose their own internal creative genie.  Creativity on one level is all about solving problems and this is a fantastic approach to help students tackle innovation in a fun and engaging manner.

The challenge: Take a pack of Post-it Notes and create something of value from them.  But as always there are constraints.  Participants have 6 days in which to create their value and then must report on it in 3 minutes either in a video or 3 slide presentation.  There are some great examples of creativity and problem solving that come out of it.

What I really love is all of the experts they interview throughout the movie – which can be watched in 5 minute segments online or downloaded in one single loop.  Some of the great moments included:

Geoffrey Moore (who wrote the seminal Crossing the Chasm business series on growing your tech business and more recently released a brilliant book, Dealing with Darwin, about matching innovation efforts with your organization’s role in its market ecosystem).  I love how Moore jumps right to the problem solving aspect of innovation:
Go to the problem and then imagine a world where that problem has been removed.  And then say well how many steps from this world to that world.

Guy Kawasaki (the original technical evangelist for Apple and now Managing Director of Garage Technology Ventures).  Guy is, well, Guy and he dives right into the analogy of how the constraints this effort puts on the participants is just like real life innovation that those of us who practice it struggle with every day:
It’s sort of a good preparation for later life.  Which is, you never have infinite resources and you’re given this constraint and it is constraining, it’s Post-it pads.  And when you’re out in the real world, you will also have constraints, you will not have infinite capital, you won’t have infinite employees, you won’t have infinite time.  And then doing his best Forrest Gump, Guy continues, Life is like a Post-it pad.

But my two favorite moments in the film are two specific comments that really nail the genius of this effort.

Randy Komisar, Partner Kleiner Perkins, Caufield and Byers:  It wouldn’t be Silicon Valley if there wasn’t a quote from some partner at Kleiner Perkins – the VC firm that birthed so many great internet businesses.  Randy discusses the challenge of getting past the blank slate and a discussion he had with  George Lucas about the creative effort.
It’s hard to look inside to get started.  That’s where people often get stuck.  It’s often easier to find something to rub up against.  It’s very difficult to make that first brush stroke on a white canvas.  But throw some dots up there, and then when you look at the canvas it’s very easy to put that first stroke on.  So find something to oppose, find something to merge with, find something to dance with.  And in the process you have creativity.

To the innovators out there, I would say, find a REAL consumer problem first.  When I was working at InstallShield with Viresh Bhatia, the co-founder of the company, we often discussed the same questions, especially as we looked at the mass of crazy projects we saw sprouting across the web during the dot-com phase.  The projects, the business ventures that succeeded in surviving, were always the ones that had found a single customer or customer group first and then developed a solution for them.  If you’re an entrepreneur, then it’s not good enough to come up with the most amazing technology ever if you can’t find any use for it in the real world.  The VC’s might support you for a while, but eventually you’re either solving problems or you’re out of money.

Debra Dunn, Advisor to Social Ventures.
[This project] taps into in some ways the rawest level of their creativity.  Because what you’re giving them is apparently, nothing.  And so you’re really asking them to create value from virtually nothing.  That’s sort of the essence of entrepreneurship.  No question about it, the thrill of any creative innovation effort is looking up after all the sweat and toil and realizing you have come up with something amazing and perhaps new to the world.  You have given birth to something that never existed before you set out down the path of creating it.  And if done right, it is destined to offer beauty and/or happiness when it is encountered.

The one last reason I absolutely love this idea is because I can see us using it in future solution generation sessions to help spark the group.  We use Post-it’s all of the time to encourage the people we gather for these sessions to help them develop an idea.  They’re wonderfully constraining because they force you to be economical in your description and pare the idea down to its very essence.  And then, you can stick them up on the wall to cluster in groups of similar or very different ideas to find amazing relationships that evolve into a single or even many brilliant solutions to the problem we are exploring.

On a personal note, I have to mention that my wife Julianna, who is often my muse when it comes to developing new ideas and thinking through a problem, came up with a brilliant business idea for Post-it notes that her brother-in-law Roger went on to implement as a full blown cottage business.  This was 12 years ago when she had noticed one day in church how Roger had all kinds of inspirational quotes on scraps of paper or scribbled in the margins of his scriptures.  She looked at them and said, You know Roger, I bet you could put those on Post-it notes and then you wouldn’t have to worry about them falling out of your scriptures.  In fact, I bet you could actually make sets of those and people would be interested in buying them.  Roger went on to make a pretty tidy penny off of that insight.  Talk about creating value from nothing!

Rubber Bands

Finally, the effort is not over with the completion of the documentary.  The challenge is intended to be an annual tournament – the Stanford Innovation Tournament Video Contest – and it kicked off on Friday with reveal of this year’s secret item: rubber bands!  Students are encouraged to participate in groups and submit their entries online.