“Ok, if we meet in my neighborhood? I suggest the Swim cafe on Chicago Avenue, say 2pm?” This was my response to a surprising network request, a pair of vicarious introductions, and a much valued but fleeting partnership.
At the time I was fond of an ancient folktale–The princes of Serendip ( Persian for Sri Lanka, aka Ceylon), in which the princes’ power of observation spare their lives and also bring them later fame and fortune. I had recently become adjunct faculty at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Technical Institute (ID@IIT), and where I believe a fellow faculty member had shared the story as a way of introducing me to the concept of Design Thinking. That was in 2010, mind you when storytelling in business was limited to the creative community, and design thinking’s star in ascent.
If you don’t know the story Wikipedia has a lovely short synopsis. My interest in the story far exceeds the events the tale recounts. I was intrigued by the mystery of its origins and the many adaptations and the shift in cultural markers that appear in later re-tellings by authors from diverse cultures. Curiously European rewrites chose translations did not bother with adaptations to make it their own. Today I encountered this statement and believe it sums up nicely the hold the story had on my attention.
Hasht Bihisht uses a legend about Bahram V Gur as its frame story and, in the style of One Thousand and One Nights, introduces folktales told by seven princesses. Most famously, Khusro appears to be the first writer to have added The Three Princes of Serendip as characters and the story of the alleged camel theft and recovery.
At the time, my own thoughts about consulting were in flux. I wanted to hang out my shingle as Strategy, Learning and Leadership SL2 but found it a hard sell as a solo practitioner.
Back to the coffee house, that fateful meeting in which I met two not just the one person I expected. Through social media, I learned what I could about David P. The meeting after all was a favor. A valued relationship with an Executive Recruiter previously instrumental in my former banking and analytics career had begun a new venture in wider community online community building. Recently she asked that I meet and share my thoughts on one David P. With the spirit of collaboration for the community venture, David had brought along a new acquaintance of his– an English chap who was a Designer.
David P had also done his homework about me, and thought my new position at the ID might benefit from meeting his new associate. I recall Jonathan D as wonderfully polite, wearing a golf sweater vest with an understated plaid that reminded me of my Grandfather. Clear this man had style, character and to my delight valued curiosity as much as I do. That meeting marked the beginning of a very intensive but short-lived collaboration we later called E3–or ECubed.
Jon, David and I were drawn to storytelling and how creative experiences could foster greater innovation. We each brought different skills honed in different industries and collectively were interesting in comparing and collaborating that would leverage our combined experiences.
Jon, now “in transition.” His recent departure from a senior executive role responsible for introducing design thinking for one of the largest food brands in the world allowed him the freedom to explore options while spending time with his 1st-grade twins. My interests in learning especially the tools of metacognition pushed forward the idea of using story telling to demonstrate to clients the power of creative thinking. David was interested in being more directly involved in facilitating innovation, ad leaving the sales side. His motive may have been more about finding his own comfort zone than I realized at the time.
That’s it though, the more caught up in the excitement of possibility and exploration the less able we were to define and focus our own joint purpose. I felt we were a team of equals and but our personal dedication, focus and time commitments were not well aligned.
Jon’s celebrity status in the Design and Packaging world opened opportunities for presenting and occasionally I tagged along to learn and understand his world. David’s close association with a nationally known and respected innovation leader’s business granted us the opportunity to participate for free in his workshop and learn to use his tools. Likewise, my association with the Institute of Design offered us an opportunity to create and run a workshop preceding the annual Research and Strategy conference. We needed a title and I pressed the concept of Framestretching. Our meetings now had a purpose. Our working sessions raised and mixed different ideas and materials as we developed tools for the business and workshop offerings.
We had a few prospects that needed a pitch. The division of labor reverted to our respective experiences. David’s presence receded to the background as Jon and I volleyed back and forth different inspirations. A new opportunity emerged as Jon had been invited to write a paper for the Journal of Product Innovation and Management. I offered to help and together the idea for Framestretching came to life.
The idea was to frame the necessary mix of ingredients that fostered innovative cultures while placing within another larger story framework that demonstrated subtle differences between knowledge and know how. The back and forth in writing Culture is King, How culture contributes to innovation brought Jon and me closer to conceptualizing what Framestretching was really about. Each of us learned to be better storytellers too. Jon’s decades of experience facilitating design thinking workshops intersected with my development of playful experiences as a means to focus learners’ attention. Once the article was sent off to the editors, we picked up the workshop’s development that anticipated our shared facilitation and improvisation.
The day before we were to present the workshop, Jon called to say he couldn’t join us. Honestly, I was more nervous and hurt than angry. The entire burden of the workshop fell on me to deliver with David, my less active collaborator. Jon had done us the favor of creating some support slides before heading to the airport for his big corporate interview. David came through as a wonderful ally, and the workshop a modest success.
Ecubed didn’t endure, and my once the journal article was finally published my days teaching at the Institute of Design were also coming to a close. My experiences bringing this exciting set of ideas to life along with my prospect of a new identity as a successful consultant were dashed. Though I’ve tried to keep them alive, the ideas intrigue people but they are left lost on how to use them.
In spite of good will, David disappeared back to his worlds as did Jon. In the ten years that have passed, the few times Jon and I get a chance to visit the energy is still quite vivid. My continuous associations with other peers offer indirect encouragement and have made me both value the initial associations but also gain the confidence slowly to own the concept and the ability to change it.
Leveling up I’m discovering is less about past associations and promises but agency and commitment too. Curiously it’s about the power of careful observation and incorporating critical thinking collaboratively…the lessons from the princes of Serendip story.