A Boulder Circle Story

I vividly remember walking along Boulder’s chill yet vibrant pedestrian mall, mesmerized by the nearby foothills. It was the summer of 1995, and I was six-months pregnant with my second daughter. The Sterling Rice Group (SRG), a creative agency based in Boulder, was convening a client meeting to develop concepts for a new line of healthy snacks. They hired me to contribute health and wellness expertise.

Although I felt self-conscious about my baby belly—and light-headed from supplying oxygen for two people in the thin mountain air—I was confident in my ability to fulfill my role.

However, once the meeting started, I struggled to keep pace with the discussion. Ideas flew around the room like popcorn popping. And their acronyms threw me. But they developed several viable product ideas.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but that day I witnessed a key aspect of innovation: generating ideas and turning them into viable concepts.

Fast forward to 1999, I ran into Rick Sterling, co-founder of SRG, walking the hallways of General Mills, where I had taken a position in nutrition communications. (General Mills was an SRG client.) We occasionally landed in the same meetings and developed rapport. During my tenure at General Mills, I participated in many ideation and innovation sessions led by skilled and talented facilitators. SRG led some of the best sessions—they employed creative tools that produced novel solutions … with less swirl.

When General Mills laid me off in 2012, I faced a decision about the next chapter of my career. During my severance, I happened to be in Boulder and reached out to Rick. I asked his input about two paths I was exploring: 1) health/wellness innovation, or 2) storytelling. He said, “Why can’t you do both?” My journey into the intersection between storytelling and innovation began and culminated in my book, Once Upon an Innovation.

Boulder came back into my innovation storytelling journey in 2016 when my son started college at the University of Denver. In one of my trips to visit him, I drove out to Boulder for a meeting and filled my spare time at the Boulder Library to work on my book manuscript. Something clicked that day. My creative juices flowed—I effortlessly produced workable drafts for two chapters. It dawned on me that periodically escaping from my office to quiet, inspiring spaces helped me turn data and ideas into prose. I checked out several libraries during the next four years it took to write Once Upon an Innovation. But my writing retreats in the Boulder Library were the most productive.

During these writing retreats, I kept in touch with my former General Mills colleague, Adam Max, who had joined SRG. Over coffee or lunch, he provided input on my book’s development and celebrated its publication.

This summer, SRG hired me to conduct a series of innovation storytelling training workshops for their staff. (Fittingly, the concluding session was held at the Boulder Library.) Quick learners and creative thinkers—rigorous, yet playful—they experimented with story-based tools and techniques to enhance their work.

The opportunity to re-engage with an organization that inspired my journey into innovation storytelling brings my story full circle. In 1995, Boulder became a place I associate with innovation. But I didn’t know then that the city and the people in it would play a role in my innovation work for the next three decades. Sometimes, places are more than the stage for your story.

When Does a Place Play a Central Role in a Story?

In Chapter 1 of Once Upon an Innovation, Mimi Sherlock and I present a framework for finding and developing stories. Step 1, Mining for Story Gems, involves examining facets of your work and life for “raw story ideas” that have the potential to be used in relevant communications. We offer four pathways to explore: people, places, events, and objects. As the settings where characters and plots unfold, places sometimes take on deeper meaning and symbolism. They become more than a stage for your story.

My sojourns to Boulder symbolize important lessons in my innovation storytelling journey:

  • Power of professional relationships and networking
  • How to tap into creative flow (times when you’re completely absorbed in a challenging but doable task—in the “zone”)
  • Keep plugging away at your dreams—and have fun while at it
  • Life experiences sometimes come full circle

Think about places in your life/work that you hold dear? What happened there? How do you relate to that place and what did you learn from your experiences there?

Leave a Comment