Early this March we bought our plane tickets to Portugal and mapped out an itinerary which would begin in Lisbon and take us north via train to Aveiro where we’d deliver another innovation workshop with our partner Sandro Pinto of Outglocal. And then the world screeched to a halt. The flight and workshop got canceled. Borders closed. But strangely, or perhaps naturally, our collaboration with Sandro 9,000 kilometers away picked up speed.
For us the crisis, and our shared work, has been a catalyst for change, consistent with the vision of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the bestseller The Black Swan:
Taleb’s admonition is brilliant: Adapt. Go with it. Turn the crisis into a powerful force to innovate yourself. Entrepreneurship – especially but not exclusively in Silicon Valley – is all about pivoting, remaking your product, service, company, or even yourself, in the face of adversity. Today, engaging in entrepreneurial thinking is a must – even for those who thought startups were for other people.
We’ve been writing about entrepreneurship for years. We teach it at the University of San Francisco, and lead groups of executives and students who come from around the world on pilgrimages to California to immerse themselves in our entrepreneurial culture. But here was a true test of our collective entrepreneurial mettle. In an instant, so much has vanished: experiences foundational to our professional lives – the office, in-person meetings, business travel, and most especially our focus on live events. How could we step into that void?
At the moment of impact we happened to be in Lake Tahoe. On March 14, the first of a series of major snowstorms brought seven feet of powder. Surrounded by the stunning peaks of the Sierra Nevada, we hunkered down and sheltered in the snow. Daily vigorous cross-country skiing out in the wild made it easy to just “go with it.” We were collaborating with a CEO on a series of thought pieces, and quickly pivoted to writing articles focused on how habits and behaviors will change dramatically in the months ahead. We were also finishing our final edits on The Entrepreneur’s Faces. Inspired by the journeys of hundreds of entrepreneurs around the world, we’d boiled down our learnings into ten unique stories that trace the classic arc of entrepreneurship, a multi-step model that begins with an Awakening, a profound realization that you have to change, and then a second stage we call the Shift, where you commit and take your first tangible steps.
Making our Shift was easy with Sandro. The shock of the crisis led many businesses and entrepreneurs throughout the world to freeze. Yet Sandro didn’t miss a beat. He was quickly adapting to the new landscape, helping Portuguese startups and corporations apply for and win generous government grants for e-commerce, internationalization efforts and innovation.
Pulled along by his momentum we didn’t bemoan the shelving of our in-person workshop in Portugal. Instead, we committed to weekly Zoom calls with Sandro and his enterprising marketing lead Maria Francisca Pires. As they say, “When one door closes, another opens.” The impossibility of delivering a traditional workshop anywhere made it natural to begin developing what we should have created years before – an awesome, online workshop. And there was another revelation. Distance was no longer a factor. A new kind of globalization beckoned. Sheltering in place made it now seem perfectly normal to collaborate with a company in Portugal.
The Total Reset
Sandro and Maria Francisca inspired us with their “yes we can” action and vision, quickly throwing together a site to market the proposed offering. But how would we do it? Many of the human, intangible factors that make a physical workshop fly are tricky online. How would we convey energy and enthusiasm on the screen? In-person workshops are about engaging with teams and individuals. Online, how would we “coach” people through brainstorming and prototyping? How to tackle design thinking, ideation sprints, customer journey mapping, and product development? Could we infuse the experience with spontaneity and a sense of discovery?
The first step was mastering the tech. Getting up to speed on a stable, robust video conferencing platform and a shared online whiteboard. For the latter, we passed up Miro for Mural, with its cleaner, simpler interface. We applied for, and then became, Mural consultants, which opened new resources to improve our skills on the platform.
An online workshop would have to “move” faster. So we halved our typical keynote. Broke it into two parts. Sought fresh content suited to the crisis. Then we ran a few primitive online prototypes with Sandro and Maria Francisca. They were the perfect experimentation partners, modeling new behaviors themselves by beginning each morning in Aveiro with a daily “Secret Tips of the Day” quarantine podcast to get their juices flowing.
We were all just trying to get a feel for what would make a successful online workshop. By doing. By trying and learning. Our first efforts were too complicated. Disjointed. The exercises and activities didn’t fully build upon each other, and the group hadn’t bonded the way they usually do in our real-world workshops. But we were lucky. We invited some talented people, and they gave us great feedback.
Fail forward, they say. We tossed out two exercises and expanded one into the heart of the workshop. We added gamification with a self-exploration exercise related to Jon’s book with IDEO, The Ten Faces of Innovation. And ultimately we came to understand that this workshop we’ve led for many years for people from nearly twenty countries just got a heck of a lot better.
There’s plenty of work left to do before we launch with Sandro and Maria Francisca on June 17, at 15:00 (GMT+1). But we know this. The next time we’re fortunate enough to be in the same physical room, delivering a workshop to inspire others to create and innovate, the experience will be enriched by this online experiment.
Find out more about our upcoming workshop. Hope to see you there!