Like many of you, I attend a fair number of workshops and conferences throughout the year. We hope to take away some new thinking, or a gem to help us with our own business challenges, but quite often, industry executives play it close to the chest. Very few share the recipe to the secret sauce that they’ve bottled—it’s just too proprietary and a competitive advantage. Why give it away?
Sometimes, however, you are pleasantly surprised. Earlier this year at the Annual Executive Conference of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, I was fortunate enough to attend an event with Mick Ebeling and learn about his work at Not Impossible Labs. This unique device and communications company is focused on making “the impossible, possible by creating accessible technology based solutions primarily in the areas of health, mobility, and communication.” I would label Ebeling as an accidental entrepreneur. He wasn’t seeking to start an enterprise, but seems to have answered a noble calling. He asked himself, “Why not me?”
Among their many initiatives is the EyeWriter. As Tony “Tempt” Quan, a legendary LA graffiti artist, social activist, and publisher grew increasingly paralyzed due to ALS, Mick organized a crew of hackers and artists to invent a low-cost, open source DIY device that would let Quan create art with his eyes. Through trial and error, the EyeWriter was born and Tempt was back to using his creativity.
According to Tempt, “Art is a tool of empowerment and social change, and I consider myself blessed to be able to create and use my work to promote health reform, bring awareness about ALS and help others.”
Not only is Tempt “back in business” as an artist, but because the Not Impossible team gave away all of the design information for the project, various other teams around the world have used EyeWriter technology to help ALS patients.
Inspired by his success with the EyeWriter, Ebeling and his team have gone on to develop several other projects, including Project Daniel, which involved teaching a village in Sudan how to design and print 3D prosthetics, which, tragically, are in high demand after a long and bloody civil war. In this case, the initial idea came when Ebeling read a story about a Sudanese boy named Daniel Omar whose lost his arms when a bomb exploded near his house.
“I didn’t have to read the story about Daniel a second time,” recalls Ebeling. “I have a process, and the process is you commit, and then you figure out how the heck you’re going to do it.”
Can everyone in healthcare work on such cool and “impossible” projects? Maybe not. Nonetheless, I believe there are many points of inspiration we can take from Not Impossible Labs to infuse our work with higher levels of creativity, speed and meaning. Below, are three strategies that Not Impossible follows which are great starting points to help transform your small corner of the world:
1). Commit and Figure it Out
When first meeting with Tempt’s brother, Ebeling was surprised to learn that, at the time, he had no device for communicating with people. So he committed on the spot to finding a solution. “I left the meeting invigorated and excited”, recalls Ebeling. “I was also scared to death, because I had no idea of how I was going to make good on what I had just committed to. I mean, I had no medical experience, not much computer experience, and less than zero experience dealing with the medical community and insurance community.”
Ultimately, he was able to not only create a device, but he was also able to create a tool for Tempt to begin drawing again. Whenever Ebeling is faced with a new challenge, he asks himself two key questions: “If not now, then when?” and “If not me, then who?”
2). There Are Only Monkeys
People are very quick to categorize problems (or other people) on a scale from easy, to challenging, to impossible. However, Ebeling is quick to point out some wisdom he learned while traveling in Portugal. Riding on a train, he tried to make conversation with a small boy who was playing with red and blue plastic monkeys. “Which are the good monkeys and which are the bad monkeys?” asked Ebeling. “There are no good monkeys or bad monkeys,” the boy answered very sternly. “There are only monkeys.” This non-judgmental approach provides a powerful framework for Ebeling to tackle any new project with a completely open mind, not putting things into arbitrary buckets of “easy” or “impossible.”
3). The Three Rules of How
Rather than dwelling too much on the “why,” Ebeling focuses his energy on how to get the project done. First, Singularity of Focus allows him to focus on simply helping one person. He doesn’t set out to create the next big thing. Second, he makes sure to Give it Away. By embracing the open-source movement, he is able to create a powerful network of supporters and talent. Finally, he makes sure to possess Limitless Naivety. “Our naivety was the key to us tackling the EyeWriter with brave abandon. We didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to be able to do it.” These three approaches to figuring out how to do a challenging project can unlock powerful energy and momentum – regardless of the size of the challenge.
Within healthcare companies of all sizes, there are enormous organizational and financial pressures to stay with tried and true approaches—even in the face of rapid change and complexity. However, as Mick Ebeling and Not Impossible Labs have demonstrated, we also live in an era of unprecedented opportunity and transformation. While large companies cannot be transformed overnight, each of us as individuals can begin to embrace Ebeling’s core commitment of tackling the “impossible”. Whenever faced with a new challenge, he asks himself two key questions: “If not now, then when?” and “If not me, then who?” Ebeling also recommends never getting hung up on the “how”. If you do, you may never get started. Lastly, it can pay to Give it Away!