As reinventors, we care about what’s next or what’s the future? There is that common misconception though that to be innovators, we have to be wearing a lab coat doing some deep research. That isn’t always how it is. On today’s show, Jesse Cole brings on reinvention guru Josh Linkner to talk about how we can become every day innovators. An innovation keynote speaker, Josh delivers inspiring and actionable keynotes on innovation, creativity, reinvention, and hyper-growth leadership. Sharing some concepts from his book called Big Little Breakthroughs, he says we can cultivate little acts of daily creativity that can bring meaning to our lives. Tune in to this episode to learn more about how innovation can be done differently.
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Everyday Innovation With Josh Linkner
Our guest is Josh Linkner. The re-invention guru and creative troublemaker who went from jazz musician to CEO of five multimillion-dollar tech startups to founding Detroit Venture Partners to becoming a New York Times best-selling author and international speaker. His books The Road to Reinvention, Disciplined Dreaming, and Hacking Innovation have been game-changers for our business and companies all over the world. I’ve become a huge fan and pumped to connect with my friend. Josh, welcome to the show.
Jesse, it’s great to be with you. Thanks.
We connected about over a month ago and speaking the same language and you’ve been proving it with many companies. As reinventors, we care about what’s next, what’s the future? What are we doing now? I know your past work, we want to get into it, but you have a book that you’re very excited about, Big Little Breakthroughs. I’d love to know what you found in this as the next step into reinvention and innovation.
I’m super excited about the new work, which will be out called Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results. My mission is to help everyday people become everyday innovators and it demystifies the creative process. It says you don’t have to be wearing a lab coat or a hoodie to be innovative. This is an innovation for the rest of us. Instead of helping people aim for giant wins like a billion-dollar idea or transforming a new drug therapy, it’s how do you cultivate the little acts of daily creativity that individually can be meaningful in your life. If you do want the big ones, the best way to get to the big ones is to build the skills through the little ones. It democratizes creativity and innovation, giving people the tools and the mindsets to tap into this dormant, creative capacity that most of us have. I’ve invested over 1,000 hours personally into the book, tons of research, fun, fresh stories. It’s not like, “Look what Elon Musk did.” It’s like, “Look where this weird guy in Berlin did. How cool is that?” In your spirit of Business Done Differently, this is innovation done differently.
You say you’re a collector of stories and I think I love that. Every company might have a mission statement, vision, but do they have stories that back up what they’re doing? If there is a weird guy in Berlin who did something or if there are some small companies that are doing things that we don’t know about that you’ve found that you’d love to share some of the insights.
That’s what I focused on. I loved underdogs. It’s one thing if a giant corporation can do something interesting, but I love people like you that have done more with less and been scrappy. There is a weird guy from Berlin. Imagine that you’re at this outdoor concert, this festival and fans are cheering along to the music. The bass player stumping along and the dramas rocking and all of a sudden there’s a flute solo that rips across the crowd. The weird thing is this. They aren’t even real human beings. It’s a robot band. The band is called the One Love Machine Band, and it’s all made up of robots. That’s interesting, to begin with, but here’s the best part.
They aren’t from NASA. There’s this weird guy named Kolja Kugler in Berlin. He makes each of these robots using junk. It’s scrap metal parts that he found in some junkyard. He found the bass player’s leg was a gasket cover that he found discarded in an alley. Every single part of this live music band that he controls through pneumatics, which is pumping air through different parts of these weird musicians. It’s a live band that he’s controlling with a rusted-out, half-broken keyboard and they’re playing music together and it’s all with junk parts. He didn’t pay a cent for any of the parts. They tour the world. He’s got a bigger fan club than most live musicians. He’s his wildly successful artist who creates moving musical art from junk.
What did you learn from him? You hear the story you’re like, “This is innovative.” What did you take away from this guy from Berlin?
We often think that when we want to be creative, we want to do something that leaves our mark. The first thing in our mind, we go to, “What am I lacking? I don’t have enough money. I don’t have enough training. I don’t have this. I don’t have that.” Here’s the thing, Jesse. If resources equated to your ability to be innovative, the federal government would be the most innovative organization on the planet and startups would be the least innovative organization. We know that that’s flip-flopped. Here’s this guy who was living in a van or something, but he saw beauty and art in what other people saw as worthless.
The fact that he had this vision, that he created it out of nothing, that he figured stuff out along the way. He didn’t know anything about pneumatics, which is the engineering process of pumping air into things to get fingers to move on a robotic bass player. He took his time. He figured it out and he let his creativity lead the way. In turn, he’s been able to accomplish remarkable success doing more with less. His creativity was the most powerful resource at his disposal.
You talk about finding the empty closets like Regis Hotel did. That inspired us. Everyone has these things that people don’t look much at. They don’t pay attention to. Even in our stadium, Josh, 1926 ballpark, the bathrooms are old. We used to have trust in there. It was nasty, disaster, but we said, “We don’t have the money to make it the Ritz-Carlton bathroom.” We picked on our rival, the Macon Bacon and we put Macon Bacon urinal cakes in every single men’s urinal. Our fans are peeing on our rival and we said, “That cost us.” I think all the urinal cakes for two years cost us $1,000, but fans go in there and laugh. We said, “Let’s take it to the next level.” We purchased Macon Bacon toilet paper so our fans will be wiping with our rival. A small cost, but it’s looking at that type of bathroom or experience. That’s not the main stage of our stadium. Finding the beauty in other things and maybe a good segue to the empty closets because every single company has these, but they don’t look at it.
What you’re referring to for the people reading is that St. Regis Hotel in Washington, DC, like all of us, they’re trying to reinvent their business. They’re trying to look at new ways of doing things and better serving their customers. They start looking around the hotel and they found the empty closet, which is in every hotel room exactly the same around the world. They said, “Maybe we could do something different here.” Here’s what they did. They partnered up with Neiman Marcus, a luxury retailer. As a guest, before you arrive, you’re sent an email asking about your size and your fashion preferences. You walk into that room. You open up the closet and it’s not empty. It’s filled with hand-selected goods just for you. The way it works is you try them on in your room, if you like it, walk off with it.
It’s auto built to your hotel invoice. Here’s what they did. If you think about it, like you, they did it with no extra costs because they partnered up with Neiman Marcus. They created a completely different experience for their customers, a competitive differentiator. They created a new revenue stream because now they’ve activated their closet, which is a dead space into it like a closet commerce activity. On and on, it was a total win. It didn’t require huge resources quite the opposite. It required creativity.[bctt tweet=”The best way to get to the big ones is to build the skills through the little ones.” username=””]
It started if I remember correctly with a small bet, which I’m sure if you’re talking about some of the insights from Big Little Breakthroughs, small bets is probably a big aspect of that. If I remember correctly, they did one floor, one room and they tested it a bit, saw that it worked and moved on.
I’m glad you brought that up because when we think of trying something new or crazy, the first thing we go to after, “I don’t have enough resources.” The next thing we go to is, “What if it doesn’t work?” We do this risk-reward calculation and we say, “It’s probably safe to do nothing.” If I try something, I have to roll it out universally. It seems big and risky. My suggestion for anyone reading is, we should all be running constant sets of little experiments. fixed time, fixed money. St. Regis didn’t do that across every hotel around the globe. They did it with one guest on one floor and see if it works.
Once it did, they didn’t do it like, “Let’s roll it out.” Company-wide, they did it with two guests on two floors. If you break your ideas down into small, teeny manageable experiments that you’re always running, knowing full well that 80% of them will not work, fine discard it. The ones that do work, then you expand the size of that experiment. If that works, expand the size of that experiment. By the time you’re rolling something out system or companywide or you make it a big deal in your life for business, you’ve already tested it out. You already know you’ve de-risked the process.
I want to get into maybe some companies that are doing this, maybe not from the top down. Josh, everyone thinks, you’ve got Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings, but maybe bringing ideas from the bottom up because we are driven and trying to focus by that. I heard in the book, No Rules Rules by Reed Hasting. He says, “They talk about everyone picturing they have poker chips, and they have to start using those chips.” I bought a bunch of Bananas poker chips, and everyone’s going to have them. Every quarter they have to put them out and use them to get these small bets. We use every game as a small bet opportunity. “What are we trying new for food and bev? What are we trying to do for promotions?” I want to get, how can a company or maybe some companies that are doing this from the bottom up, whether it’s someone in this department, not the CEO. Do any stories come through big little breakthroughs that stood out?
The whole idea here is essentially having a culture or a mindset of constant experimentation. when we think about change, it is scary because “What’s the downside? Am I giving up success?” I would encourage people, don’t even think about wide-sweeping change. Think about lots and lots of experimentation. Whether you’re a big company or a little one, we should always be testing little things. One thing I admire about you is that you’re testing something every game. Some of them work great and you keep it and some of them you discard. That to me is such a beautiful thing. The whole point here is that you’re de-risking the process of innovation. One story, I was excited to share with you, Jesse as I was thinking about you, a guy who loves Bananas.
Think about this. You go into the grocery store and you want to buy some bananas, but you’re stuck with this problem. Do you buy the yellow bananas or the green ones? If you buy the yellow bananas, they’re good now, four days later, the rest of the bunch is all mushy. If you buy the green bananas, you have to wait a week and a half to have a decent banana. Imagine that instead of you being in the Banana business as it relates to baseball, you’re in the actual banana business. What do you possibly do? That’s how bananas are. Most people would instantly say, “Nothing I can do. That’s how bananas are.” There’s one company in Korea that took a different approach. What they did is they package their bananas in a small little package organized by ripeness.
You get this package of seven bananas, it’s the banana a day package. One’s perfectly ripe now, the next one is almost right the next day it would be great. It’s like a color wheel. It goes over all the way to green. By day seven, that green one is perfectly right for you. Keep in mind, Jesse same bananas. They didn’t reinvent the banana, they marketed it differently. Here’s what ended up happening. First of all, they’re crushing their competition in terms of sales volume. Second of all, they’re charging three times per ounce of a banana compared to the competitive set. It’s a massive, gigantic economic win for this banana company who again is the same bananas, but they added a little bit of creativity to it. You think about fans first, they thought about customers first. They solved a different problem in a creative way and enjoying a landslide victory.
I think you talked about this from Road to Reinvention. They go from the customer’s mindset. They ask these twenty questions that you can ask the customer. How do they buy? When did they buy? They go through that process. Is that one of the ways to innovation? Looked at, “Here’s a friction point, which is a starting point on all innovation,” but then every part of the customer process, they question. Is that how they and how you teach this to any company?
What I would recommend people do is a saying that I talk about in the new book, which is, “Fall in love with the problem.” Too often we have a solution in mind and we’re so focused on the solution, but that solution may or may not be the best one and we can become blinded by it. We get tunnel vision. What I think the best innovators of all sizes and shapes do is they fall in love with the problem. Back to the banana company, what’s the problem? The real problem is that customers have an issue. They don’t know which bananas to buy. If they buy too many and they go ripe too quickly, they waste bananas. Instead of looking at the problem like, “I have to get bananas to stay ripe longer.” They said, “The real problem that we’re falling in love with is the customer problem.” By immersing themselves in the customer problem, by bathing in the problem, be willing to be open-minded and explore lots of different solutions, even the less traditional ones in order to solve it. I think we as innovators too often, we leap to a conclusion we’re sticking to it no matter what, as opposed to falling in love with the problem and being committed most importantly to solving that regardless of how you managed to do so.
You got to also understand the long game. I’m sitting here thinking I’ve been in love with the problem that baseball is too long. It’s still too long. The problem I see every game is people leave in the 6th or 7th inning every single game. Finally, we started testing a two-hour time limit and realize what happened, but there are still other ways to do that. That obsession is what will get you to that next step. Probably they say, “It’s a problem. We’ll focus on something else. We can’t fix that right now.” I want to continue going here and I want to do the opposite. You talk about the judo flip. Whatever’s normal, do the exact opposite. I’m going to do that here on this show. Typically, we keep having questions. We are going to go into a game. We’ll call this the second inning stretch instead of the seventh-inning stretch. We do with the Richard Simmons impersonator at our games doing some weird hip thrusts and crowds. Here’s the second inning stretch for you. It’s a game, truth and dare. Which one would you like first?
Truth, and then dare.
I want to know something that you learned from running companies or even working with companies that you were trying to innovate but it didn’t work. You tried to follow one of your rules that you’ve learned about reinvention and you’re like, “That didn’t work.” What did you learn from it? Does anything stand out?
I thought I was following a rule and it turned out that I stumbled on it. We had this idea once. In terms of backdrop, I started a company in 1999 called ePrize where we designed, built and ran digital promotions for large brand advertisers. It’s a half software company and a half ad agency. We had a good run. We grew up, 500 plus people, opposites throughout the US, work with 70 of the top 100 brands. We had this idea which was, “Let’s democratize this type of technique, and let’s make a self-serve version for small advertisers so they could compete head-to-head with Coca-Cola.” That was a judo flip like, “Instead of doing it for the big guys, let’s do it for the small guys.”
There were some elements that we did follow our mantra of being innovative. What I failed to do was we kept it in the lab. We thought of ourselves as our customers as opposed to trying it out in the real world. We kept in stealth mode. We invested all this money and we released it to the world hoping for magical results and it launched to a fizzle. We miss the customer in the whole thing. We didn’t take our time to get close to the customer’s need. We didn’t take the time to understand distribution. Frankly, we launched a beautifully cool technology that nobody wanted. We learned a lot from it. We ended up salvaging a lot of that technology, but it was a painful lesson. We didn’t experiment with it. We didn’t test it out with the market. We thought we were smarter than we were, and that backfired for us.
That’s proven over and over again with Qwikster and Netflix. They didn’t test it all. They said, “We’re doing this big split,” and it hit. You have to test it with your customers. Even if it sounds like, “Test it, our tap in the morning beer festival only 100 people showed up. It didn’t work, but you tested it. We could have set talked about it for a year and not done it.” Did this big launch and put resources and time. You’re moving much faster than you used to.
That taught us to do something different. We then launched something called Mock 10 Innovation, where instead of inventing something in the backroom and spending a ton of money and time, we started marketing ideas. We would bring to the market ten different ideas a month to clients. It was a one-sheet. It was a prototype. We will let clients vote with their wallets. If they bought number three, we then scramble around in the backroom and build it in a sloppy manner. We’d overinvested it and would probably lose some money on it, but at least we knew it was validated by an actual paying customer. Another example Jesse, I read about is Quibi. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, they invested $1.7 billion and they got all excited about this idea and it wasn’t a hit with the market. They’re shutting it down.
A good way to think about it because I’ve reflected on this for many years is, I think that ideas come to life as the intersection between religion and science. I’ll tell you what I mean by that. Religion, that’s your vision, that’s your bullet. “I see the world differently and it isn’t proven, but I believe it in my heart.” I believed in my heart that small advertisers wanted the same thing as Coca-Cola, but where I failed is look at the science part of it, which is, “Are you testing? Are you measuring? Are you making sure that things are validated, that things are actually working?” One without the other is a problem. If you’re all science and no religion, you’re a stifling bureaucracy that does nothing cool. If you’re all religion and no science, this is where these big flameouts Pets.com are now Quibi. They had this vision, but they didn’t take the time to test it out with the scientific approach. The intersection of religion and science, that’s the way to go into thinking about innovation.
Don’t think you’re going away from the dare. We got a great tangent, but the dare is still there. The dare on is another promotion we do with the field. It’s called the Sing-Off. It’s usually 2,000 fans in the main grandstand versus 2,000 fans on the bleachers. We play a song, when it stops, you have to finish that song lyric. There’s only one contestant, Josh and that’s you. I know you’d rather be playing the guitar, but when the song stops, you have to finish that song lyric. I’m going to your roots here a little bit.
I’m so embarrassed to say. I don’t know it. I know it’s Eminem. Is that right, Eminem?
You nailed that one. “Lose yourself in the moment. You own it.”
It’s too bad, if you had a jazz litter from the 1940s, I would remember it. This one I’m sorry.
I feel you’re in the moment. Everyone’s jamming out. I didn’t know. I went to Detroit with Eminem. You got 70% of the answer correct.
You’re talking about jazz. I’m a passionate jazz musician. I’ve been playing for over 40 years. That was my business school training. I think you play jazz, even though you maybe don’t know all the intricacies of it. Jazz is a creative conversation. You’re riffing off ideas with one another. You’re trying stuff. It’s messy at times. You go out on a limb and you have to course-correct. You’re building your creative confidence one step at a time. Business and the work that you’re doing certainly is an example of jazz. You’re not playing with a saxophone or a guitar. You’re playing with a yellow suit.
When it works, it is the most magical moment. Everything stops and you can feel it. When you’re playing, you can feel it with the musicians I’m sure. You can also feel with the audience and the energy level coming together.
The cool thing about jazz is only about 1% of the notes that you play are on the written page. There are some chord structures and such, but most of it is made-up as you go. If you and I were in a jazz group, we could play the same song for five years in a row every night and it would never be the same song. You’re always shifting it around and that’s what you do every night with the Savannah Bananas.
I know this isn’t jazz, but on a quick riff here, one of my favorite bands and the reason why they sell more tickets than anybody. Every year, it’s sell-out to everyone. It is Dave Matthews’ Band. You think about them and the improvisational, they do have a saxophonist, they have a trumpet. They have some of those elements, but it’s constant improv. You go every night, and they may play the same songs, but it’s a completely different experience. My challenge at our ballpark every night is to not have the same experience and probably the same thing for every business. New is a way of life. That’s what makes you interesting and relevant.[bctt tweet=”We should all be running constant sets of little experiments. ” username=””]
Think about this too. I would argue that there’s been a shift in the business world for companies big and small. In the past, doing business was a classical symphony conductor. That person was no longer even playing an instrument. Let’s say that’s the CEO. It’s all about alignment, precision and getting people to play the notes exactly as they’re written on the page. The problem is now we’re living in a world that is too complex and fast-moving to play classical music. I think the world we’re living in now is jazz, where it’s small teams that are bouncing. They’re passing the baton of leadership back and forth. It’s messy. They’re trying stuff. They’re making decisions in the face of ambiguity. The notes that we have to play aren’t written on the page but we still have to perform. If we can channel our inner jazz musicians, I think that’s how entrepreneurs win. That’s ultimately how we all are able to achieve our full potential.
We’re playing some jazz now. This is dangerous because we could go on an improv session for a couple of hours but in the same jazz analogy. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in jazz, everyone does have their own little moments where they come into the spotlight and they jam out a little bit, then it gets back to the group. Whereas a leader, it’s not that top-down. It’s, “It’s your turn. It’s your turn.” We’re feeding off each other. A song can go 30 minutes.
If you’re the leader and you think the spotlight only needs to be on you all the time, that’s not what jazz is all about. You’re going to have a difficult company. You’re right. In jazz, let’s say I will play a solo and your job now is to support me and make me shine. Not to the detriment of you, if people are focusing on you and you’re not doing your job, but then we switch roles. All of a sudden, my job is to make you look spectacular. This leadership baton gets passed back and forth where you’re oscillating between being this spotlight person and the support person. There’s another neat thing that happens in jazz.
That’s how solos go. You almost go in a circle, but then there’s something called trading force. This is much more how you think about a comedy improv group. I play four measures of an idea, it’s your job to pick it up and build on it in your own way. I might play an idea in my head and there’s a rhythmic component, you on a different instrument, pick it up and take it to the next level. The drummer takes it to a different direction and the piano player thereafter. You’re bouncing back and forth in real-time. It’s this co-creation process. Everybody’s contributing to the final outcome. That’s how successful teams work as well.
It’s on a complete tangent. This is exactly where I wanted to go, Josh. I love this because I want to talk about how we get these sessions to happen. As you were talking, I started thinking about the best ideapaloozas. The best brainstorming sessions started with one thing went a whole different direction. Are you familiar with the show Impractical Jokers? It’s a funny show. They’re all jazz too. They come up with ideas, they bounce back and forth with each other. It’s crazy. It’s wrong on so many levels and right on so many levels. We came up with the idea of doing Impractical Bananas, where our players would tell the player on the field with a mic what to do during the game. We had a session where we started talking and all of a sudden, Kara, our marketing jumps and she’s like, “They could literally do this.”
Then someone else walks and like, “They could do this.” The whole staff jumped in and we started talking about all these crazy ideas we can have the players do during a game. All of a sudden, when we did it, everyone was watching because we were all into it because we built it. It wasn’t set. This is how the structure of the meeting happened. It was because of a jazz type session. My question for you is that you mentioned one before this. How do you get groups to come together and build these jazz type brainstorming ideapaloozas that we have to be even stronger and build new ideas that actually happen? Not, “We talked about something for a while.”
I want to say something that’s important. You are a good example where everybody’s voice in your organization is heard and everybody’s ideas count and matter. When you do that, too often in an organization, there are a thousand people and three of them are creative and the rest of them follow what they’re told to do. That’s such a shame because not only are they missing out on ideas, but they’re not engaging the rest of the team. When teams all get to contribute, when everybody’s voice matters, when everybody is a creator, not only do you get better ideas, but you perform better. Look at you, your business is outperforming other similar teams because everybody’s voice is contributing. Even your players, you are winning championships. Your team plays better because everybody’s voice is heard and everyone gets to have some fun to be part of the process.
My only point is sometimes we think, “If I let everybody contribute, performance is going to go down.” It’s totally the opposite. When everybody contributes, performance accelerates. Back to your question. I’ve spent 30 years developing what I call an Innovation Toolkit, where we’ve got specific techniques that extract ideas from people. If you think about it, often people have all these crazy cool ideas and they’re locked under in the vault inside of us. How do we release those? How do we unlock the dormant creative capacity? I’d be happy to share a couple of ideas if that’s helpful.
The more ideas that we can walk away, I want a company to walk away and say, “I’m going to try this tomorrow.”
Most of the time when we want ideas, we do a brainstorm. Brainstorming is a perfectly designed exercise to yield mediocre ideas. The reason is because fear creeps in. If you’re sharing an idea, all of a sudden, you’re responsible for it. What if you look foolish and what if your boss doesn’t like it? What if you have to execute it? What if you’re wrong? We share our safe puny ideas and we hold our cool ones back. What we need is an extraction technique that sends fear off our coffee and allows our creativity to soar. I’ll give you a few fun ones. First of all, one of my favorites is called role storming. Role storming is brainstorming in character. You’re brainstorming as if you are somebody else.
Let’s say you’re taking on a real problem at the Bananas like, “How can we drive fan engagement to keep people engaged past the seventh inning?” Everybody on your team, they’re not like Jim, Nancy and the normal people, they have to pick a character. Maybe one person is Steve Jobs. No one’s going to laugh at Steve for coming up with a cool idea. They might laugh at Steve for coming up with a puny one. Nancy a.k.a. Steve is totally liberated. She can say anything she wants with no fear whatsoever. Maybe somebody else has Winston Churchill, a supermodel, a famous author or a villain. Each person picks their own character. You can also write characters on deck and pass them out and peek underneath them.
I like it better when people pick their own character. You brainstorm as if you are that person. I did this with a group of executives one time at Sony Japan. I met this guy who was the stiffest human being I’ve ever met. We got him role storming as Yoda. I’ve never seen a personal transformation like this. This person’s jackets off, his ties undone. He’s leaping around the room and the ideas were flowing. When you put yourself in a different character role storm, your creativity is liberating.
That’s why you can do it. You mentioned also the enemy before this. I wish I love.
The idea here is you invent your arch evil enemy. As I was building my own business, we were in a business of digital promotions and we were grateful. We got to become the dominant player in our field, but I was worried that complacency would set in or that we would rest on our old previous success. We made up a fake competitor, which we called the Slither Corporation. Slither wasn’t a competitor to make us feel better. They were always one step ahead of us. They were better funded, more innovative, better resource, deeper-pocketed clients, on and on. We would often say to ourselves, “How do you think Slither solve this problem? What’s your counterpart that Slither doing differently than you?” Slither became a real part of our culture that we talked about all the time.
It started benchmarking ourselves against the company that never missed their numbers and never had a down quarter. I know most of us on have real competitors, not trying to be glib about it. If you say to yourself, “What would the ideal competitor do? What if Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates each put $500 million in a pot, started a new company, opened up down the street from you and their whole goal is to take you down?” What would they do differently? How would they approach the work? It’s a fun technique if you imagine. You work at your own version of Slither, how would they do things differently?
You’ll dig this. It’s called the Bad Idea Brainstorm. Most often when we get together and have a brainstorm, it’s like, “How do you come up with good ideas?” The problem is fear, etc. You come up with these puny ideas because the gravitational force of execution may alter you’re thinking. Here’s the way it works. It’s a two-part brainstorm. Part number one, everybody does a sprint on the worst ideas they can think about. What’s a terrible idea? What’s an illegal, immoral or unethical idea? What’s a God-awful idea? You fill the boards with all these terrible ideas. Everyone’s laughing, the energy goes through the roof. Part two, you then examine the bad ideas for little nuggets of something good. You say, “Is there a way that I could do a legit flip? Could I take the bad idea? Is there a kernel of something in there that I may need to ratchet down to reality, to be clear, but I can make that bad idea something good?” Maybe it’s a direction that you would have never thought of in the first place. Toilet paper with your competitor’s logo on it, that could have easily come from a bad idea brainstorm.
We were thinking about how we’re going to promote some of our t-shirts. We came up with, “Shirt so good, you don’t need pants.” We started doing commercials with no pants on. The one that didn’t get approval. One of our new guys’ nipples were hard and we said, “Shirts so soft. They’ll make your nipples hard.” We didn’t use that one. These were terrible ideas, but it made us all laugh and it actually brought us together. That bad idea could even be a culture mover if anything. It goes back to falling in love with the problem. What we’ve learned is when we have an ideapalooza, and we’re saying, “Let’s think of some new promotional ideas.” They’re not that great. When we say, “What’s our problem? What can we do to get fans to stay longer during the game? What can we do to get fans to be more engaged during the game, doing something altogether?” We asked that question, then solve ideas for that. We get much further along. You can’t say, “Let’s brainstorm about new things we should sell. It’s more to go around a problem.”
Back to the jazz analogy for a second. We often think about it as an idea session. You throw an idea out. Does that work? Yes or no. If yes, go. If not, kill it. I would encourage people to even an idea that isn’t ideal. Is that an idea that could lead to the idea? It’s more about this notion we do in jazz. I play a solo on guitar, you pick it up on bass, the drummer picks it up a bit. The saxophone plays his ripping solo with a standing ovation. Who invented that solo? It was not the saxophone player. It was this cool creation process where one idea led to the other. When we do a brainstorm session, let’s not judge each idea in a vacuum, good or bad. Yes or no. It’s like, “Let’s give it some breathing room.” Maybe that’s an idea that’s not good on its own but that idea leads to the next idea, which then leads to the killer idea that you’re waiting for.
Talk to me about the Mouse Trap Team.
The Mouse Trap Team. I was partners for many years with a guy named Dan Gilbert. Dan famously owns the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team. He’s the founder of Quicken Loans, which is now called Rocket Mortgage. He’s one of the billionaires out there. Dan is an interesting guy, a nontraditional leader. Here’s what he developed. He had an interesting thought where he said, “I’ve got all these people working in the business, who’s working on the business? Can you be charged with rebuilding the plane while you’re flying it?” We created a team called The Mouse Trap Team, which is essentially their whole job in life was not to actually do the daily work, but to build a better mousetrap. This was essentially a process improvement team. What they’d do is they’d go around, and they were a multidisciplinary team.
There were art people and technical people, and they would go around the company examining the way they did their work. They have no responsibility for delivering a particular result other than figuring out better ways to do the job. This Mouse Trap Team was constantly on the lookout for improving techniques, approaches, processes, etc. Dan told me one time, he said, “If I was to start a brand-new company today, I would start with a CEO and a mouse trap team.” He thinks that that’s one of the most vital approaches to have a dedicated force that’s not responsible for line duty, but rather is looking at the manner in which they do the work and finding a better way.
The whole principle of the Mouse Trap Team is to how do you find a better way? I know most of us can’t afford a whole standalone team with our office equipment and such, but why can’t we do a mouse trap team that’s carve-out? What if it was like a task force? You rotated people in your company and their job was to spend one hour a week for a month and examining one process like, “How do we distribute tickets?” You could have a rotating team, which is actually probably even better because when those teams people rotate back into the regular job, they now have a better worldview altogether.
It’s smart bringing people out from outside, too. If you’re stuck in your own way, you’ve seen this. This is how we do tickets. I challenged our team, “If we did tickets that way last year, what are we doing new this year?” It’s so useful. If that works, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work in the future. One thing you talk about with that, you talked about the jumbotron in Road to Reinvention about the metrics and how you kept track of it. I’m trying to think of a jumbotron that we can set up in our office but that covers experimentation and innovation. Have you had anything set up like that?
What I wrote about in the book is that if you think about a basketball team, for example, there are hundreds or thousands of metrics that you could be tracking. How many steps did the person take on average per layup? They’re not all displayed on the jumbotron. On the jumbotron is your most important metric. How much time you got left and what’s the score? Everybody sees it. It’s in total view at all times. That helps people guide decisions. They’re going to make different behaviors based on those core metrics that are widely shared for everybody. The notion in the book that I wrote about was, shouldn’t we all have a jumbotron of our own? If you’re working in a small team or a big one, what are those 5 or 6 most important metrics that you’re trying to encourage behavior around?
Obviously, you have a scoreboard at the games, but for your internal team, what about this? What if it’s not the only number of experiments tried, but the number of failed experiments? If you’re not having failed experiments, then maybe you’re not pushing the boundaries enough. Maybe you should set a threshold that we want a 50% ratio of failed experiments to successful ones because if not, then we’re not getting funky. We need to be more funky. I think it’s fun to reverse engineer what’s the desired behavior that you want. You design metrics accordingly.
Do we want failed experiments? That’s a weird thing. There’s a company you talked about. The failure awards or something, it was a huge. We want to reward not necessarily failure, we want to reward the ability to try.[bctt tweet=”Fall in love with the problem and be committed most importantly to solving that regardless of how you manage to do so. ” username=””]
If you have a conflict, if you say something like, “We want a bunch of ideas.” Then when one person shows up with a bad idea, they’re sent to corporate timeout. You’ve trained everybody to never have another good idea again. One of the things that we got to be careful of is, is there a ritual and reward conflict with what we say? If we say to someone, “Go on and create a bunch of cool ideas.” Someone shows up with a bad idea and they’re sent to corporate time out. You’ve trained your team to never share ideas again. I’m a big fan of rituals and rewards that support the creative process. There’s a company that I work with that every year issues a failure of the year award. They have this big banquet, and they celebrate other stuff like the team member of the year, but the failure of the year goes for the team or individual that had a great idea. Their numbers made sense. They went for it and it totally failed.
Instead of getting fired, they get a standing ovation. People are clapping, cheering and slapping high five, “Way to fail.” I’m not encouraging us to aim for failure. Think about the message that sends deep into the DNA of that company about taking responsible risks and making creativity a part of the daily process. There’s another different company, they issue every team member two corporate get out of jail free cards every year. Here’s what they say, “Go out on a limb, try crazy stuff. If you screw something up, hand us a card, you’re off the hook, no questions asked.” On the annual reviews, a leader will be disappointed with a team member if they haven’t used both of them. The message isn’t so much that, you might think that’s risky, but my sense would be, what’s the risk of not doing something like that? Relevance or mediocrity? The best companies don’t eradicate failure, they learn from it. If you were thinking about a barometer of how many failed experiments, if you have 100% successful experiments, I think that is a terrible failure because that means you’re not pushing the boundaries enough. I think if you’re not failing at least 20% or maybe closer to 50% of the time, then you’re not tapping into that creative verve that you need to meet the challenges of the day.
I know we get asked that question, I’m sure you do. “What are your biggest failures?” A lot of times as innovators, it’s tough for us because we move on to our next experiment. We forget about it. A lot of people ask me, “We failed. I don’t pay attention to it.” That’s okay because part of your ethos that you continue to try. Josh, I saw a post or you tweet you said, “Reach for weird.” Is that in this big, small breakthrough? What is reach for weird? I got inspired by that.
In the book, Big Little Breakthroughs, we cover the eight-core obsessions of every day innovators. These are his mantras that people live by and I live by frankly and have been for a long time. There are some commonalities. I’ve studied celebrity entrepreneurs, billionaires and regular normal people like you and me. Some of them are fun. One of them is called use every drop of toothpaste, which is around being scrappy. Another one is called don’t forget the dinner mint, which is around plussing up stuff with extra unexpected creativity.
Explain the dinner mint.
The notion is called don’t forget the dinner mint. If you’ve ever been to a nice dinner with your wife and all of a sudden someone brings out, “This is chocolate compliments.” It was an unexpected thing that you weren’t planning on. If you ordered it, it would be one thing, but because it showed up now it’s heavenly. Dinner mint is a small creative flourish that is unexpected. You’re adding to what’s what the normal expectation is to create this magical experience for your customers or your team members. It can be a physical thing like a t-shirt or whatever. A lot of times the dinner mint is an unexpected experience or an unexpected idea. It’s essentially plussing up. Before you’re about to ship a work product, you say, “What can I do to add extra creativity which can go a long way?”
When people leave our games, the band’s playing, but we also have a free smore station. That’s maybe the dinner mint. What’s that extra piece when people are leaving? Steve Jobs is great at that. Whenever he gave a presentation, he always said, “One more thing.” That was the big add-on at the end. Toothpaste and get weird.
Let’s talk about get weird. Getting weird is challenging ourselves to not only gravitate toward the expected solutions, the safe ones but pushing the boundaries to say, “What’s a bizarre one? What’s an unexpected or even unorthodox approach?” Weird wins, weird matters, weird drives the world forward. Savannah Banana team where the ringleader is wearing a yellow tux. That’s weird, but that works, that cuts through the noise. The way I would frame this in people’s minds is when we make decisions big or small, we generally narrow the field of choice. You got to solve a problem. You go from unlimited possibilities to a shortlist, which is generally A, B and C. All of a sudden it becomes a short multiple choice decision and your A, B and C ideas are the obvious ones. The things you’ve always done before. My suggestion is, ask yourself before choosing A, B and C. Is there a D? Is there an E? What I like to say, “Is there an option X?” That’s the weird oddball strange idea that makes all the difference in the world. A guy who wears a yellow tuxedo to a baseball game, that’s the option X approach and that is what works.
You got the option X and the weird, it can also be what that bad idea brainstorming session. When we decided to have our fans giving game, our team decided a terrible idea that we’re not going to feed fans for 66 minutes. We’re going to starve our fans because the 66-day journey for the pilgrims over to our country. Literally, it’s a terrible idea not feeding fans, but we did it. That’s probably very weird and option X. I think more companies need to have these conversations and not be afraid. I think one challenge is we’re wasting time. This could be the best time you spent.
On that, because I do want to share another weird example. People say, “I don’t have time to be innovative.” A real quick way to solve that. First of all, do a 30-day sprint with your team and say, “How can I carve out 2% of the time through innovation? Can we figure out a way to be 2% more efficient?” Two percent is nothing. You can figure out, “We’ll move the printer over here. We’ll save .50% here and .10% there.” Figuring out what your team, which I know everybody can figure out how to be 2% more efficient. Then re-invest the time next month, you and I get 2% more time and now reinvest that, then you got the time.
We can use our creativity to solve almost every problem including the time dilemma. Back to reach for weird because I’m staring at your funky yellow outfit. Another quick weird example. It turns out cigarette litter is one of the biggest problems in urban environments. Number one pollutant. It’s not only unsightly, but it’s harmful for birds and small animals, even children. When cigarette butts get dumped in the oceans, they’re actually a bigger problem than plastic straws. How do you solve this problem on a global basis? It’s pretty tough. You can shame people into putting their cigarette butts in the right place, it doesn’t work. You can increase fines, it doesn’t work. All of these traditional approaches that people have tried don’t work. It took this guy named Troan Rowanstock, who’s in the UK, a normal person like you and me. He didn’t have a bunch of resources to invent a weird approach.
He calls it the Ballot Bin. Imagine you’re in a crowded square outside a bar and you’re about to flick your cigarette onto the ground. You notice something in the same bright yellow that you’re off it is, and it’s mounted to a post and it’s a box. It’s this metal box there except the front of the box is glass. There are two little slots to put stuff in. Above those slots, there’s a simple question, “Which is your favorite food pizza or hamburgers.” In this case, people are compelled. They see this yellow thing that grabs their attention they walk over and see this thing. They vote with their butts. In other words, they stick their cigarette butt in the receptacle either pizza or hamburgers. Because it’s a glass front, there’s time tally. You can see how many butts are there and see which people like better pizza or hamburgers.
This guy Troan invents this thing called the Ballot Bin. You can change the questions. It could be any question you want. Do prefer lager or ale? Is Trump’s hair real or fake? Any two-part questions and people vote with their butts. In a world where they’ve tried everything, they’ve thrown money at this, they’ve had PhDs and Nobel Prize winners, nothing works. Here’s what happens. When there’s a Ballot Bin in a town square, cigarette litter is reduced by 80%. This is a reach for a weird approach. The cool thing is it didn’t require advanced training. You and I could have thought of that ballot bin and everyone reading this could think of that. The power is, we have these weird ideas inside of us. We can deploy them one big, little breakthrough at a time, and together we can do great things.
I think more companies should be talking about, how do you gamify things? They make something that seems mundane. They gamified it. They made it fun. Especially now the time we’re living, we need more fun now than ever. You can look at it that way. Fun is a huge part of innovation. We could be playing jazz and doing this for a long time, Josh. I got to be conscious here. We’ll have to do it again. I want to finish with a few questions here, a little rapid-fire question time. I believe questions are important. What questions are you asking that brings the greatest answers? What are some of the best questions you’re asking right now to companies or innovators as far as what’s next and what to do?
Curiosity is the building block of creativity. The more curious you are, the more creative you become. One question I love asking is, what’s missing? When we’re trying to solve a problem, we generally start with, what is? We might add something to it, but we often don’t ask what isn’t. It’s looking for the negative space. What’s not there? When you get in the tube in London, the public transportation, it says, “Mind the gap.” I think we should mind the gap and ask ourselves, “What isn’t there? What’s missing?” That’s a powerful thing to do. Another thing would be if you’re examining something and you’re trying to reinvent it, let’s start to think about how the idea came to be.
What were the circumstances in 1981 when someone invented this process? What was going on politically? What was the mood of the day like? What were the challenges they were facing? You start to say, “Now what’s different?” Obviously, a lot of things might be different than 1981. If you can connect with the genesis of the idea, you can then start to see why maybe it’s not the best solution 40 years later, and maybe there’s a different way we can approach it. I’d like deconstructing an existing situation, examining it under the hospital lights so to speak, rebuilding it in a better way through a series of inquisitions, keep asking, “Why did they do this in the first place? What’s changed since then? How do they behave differently than they did in 1981 when the system was put in place?”
We’re talking about your book, Big Little Breakthroughs. What is something that from the book they could take right now and innovate with their team? We’ve had some good brainstorming sessions, little assessment, little thing they can do right now.
There’s actually a fun assessment on my site, which is BigLittleBreakthroughs.com. It’s free. It takes four minutes and it’s the weight that you have. Creativity is your weight, not your height. You can change your weight. You can’t change your height. I’ll give you a snapshot of how your creativity is doing right now. I’ll give you some pointers on where you might want to improve. It’s fun little assessments. What I would encourage people to do is in the next seven days, whether it, “This is cool stuff. Maybe I could apply this to my own life.” Keep your eye out for one big little breakthrough.
Don’t worry about executing it. Don’t worry about getting permission or funding. Say, “Is there one little thing that I could see that could be changed in the next week?” When you do that in a small accessible way, then you’re like, “I see one, now, maybe I see four. Now I see four, maybe I see seventeen.” It’s a good way of getting and building a habit of daily creativity. One of the things I would recommend is that little ritual. I do a five-minute ritual, which is also available on my site. One thing that I do is I guzzle inputs. If you think about creativity as a combination of inputs and outputs, what I do is I spend one minute with a timer every day and I guzzle inputs. For me, I’ll watch a jazz performance on YouTube.
I’ll stare at a beautiful piece of art, but I allow myself to take in the creative mastery of somebody else. I spend another one minute. I give myself creative calisthenics like jumping jacks. I’ll give myself a challenge, “I have this coffee cup in my hand. What are seventeen other uses for a coffee cup?” It’s not designed to have a meaningful work product. It’s designed to get your muscles flowing, to build creative muscle mass. Those two things once a day, guzzle inputs for one minute and give yourself some weird creative challenge like, “If you were stuck on a desert island and you had to live for three years. How could you do it with only coconut juice or something?” Challenge yourself in a weird, bizarre way and you start to build creative muscle mass. You start to make this part of who you are as a human being. Frankly, we’re all creative. We need to unlock it.
I wish I met you when I was 23 as the GM of the worst team in the country. If you were to advise someone young starting out, what would be the best advice you would tell them to, “This is how you can stand out in business or in life?”
Back to the phrase that you mentioned earlier, which is called a judo flip. It’s one of my favorite techniques. Instead of trying to blend in, if you’re a nature, you want to flock with everybody else because that’s safe. Birds flock together for example, but in business and human life, that is the riskiest thing you can do. Your job is to stand out. What I would recommend people do is whatever you’re trying to do, let’s say you’re trying to apply for a job, make a list. How would you ordinarily apply for a job? How does everybody else apply for a job? I say, “How could I judo flip that? How could I do the polar opposite of it?” Instead of sending a resume, you send, “Here are the top ten reasons why you shouldn’t hire me.” That’d be a good resume. That’s a judo flip. I would encourage people to explore not what makes them the same, but what makes them different.
A year ago, we posted an ad, “Do not apply for this job.” We’ve got only a few applicants, but we found the right one. I went on your Creative Troublemakers Podcast. You ask me the question, what is Going Bananas mean for me? I’m going to go back to you because I’ve been inspired by that question. What does it mean to you?
I’ve adopted that phrase thanks to you because I loved the notion of Going Bananas. It can mean everything can be different, each person go bananas in their own way. To me, it means to a degree it’s full throttle. I’m not going to restrict myself. I’m going to let it all hang out. It’s a willingness to push the creative boundaries, certainly. It’s a willingness to say, “How do I want to be remembered?” Instead of you playing it safe. I want to be remembered as someone who went bananas. It’s balking conventional wisdom and sticking your eye in the finger of complacency. It’s letting your hair down a bit.
It’s amazing to me. Think about all that. Whether it’s a musical band that you love, a place you like to go or a product that you like to buy, I doubt it’s the boring ones. It’s the compelling ones. It’s those people that went bananas. For some reason, we’ve been taught in school and by loving parents and stuff to not go bananas, yet to me going bananas, that’s the path to the success that we seek. I hope that by tuning in to your show on a regular basis, your readers go bananas.
It’s the most going bananas I’ve heard in one answer ever. You said it eleven times. Thank you for that. Last one here. Josh, what makes someone unforgettable?
Back to your thing, I think it’s willing to be unique, compelling and different. It’s willing to be who you are. Often, I think we’re all trying to conform. We see these messages on social media and we think our job is to be everybody else. When you’re everybody else, you’re totally forgettable. I would say when we were building our company, the worst insult you can have in business is to be confused with a competitor. I would rather get kicked out of somebody’s office than to be confused with somebody else. When you’re unforgettable, there’s something that’s different. When you wear a yellow tuxedo, you can’t forget that. I hope that in my own weird ways that I’m unforgettable as well. Think about the standards that we measure ourselves by, too often it’s measurements of conformity. Back to our jumbotron, we should have an unforgetomitor that shows us, how unforgettable are we and what are the attributes of being unforgettable? Shouldn’t that be something that we strive for? Back to your 23-year-old. I would advise every 23-year-old right now, don’t focus on blending, focus on being unforgettable.
Since I came across your work, you’ve been unforgettable for me, our organization more than you know. As our team goes through your books, we can’t wait for this next one, which will be coming out soon. I want to thank you because as I shared, I’ve listened to every podcast you’ve been on and everyone I leave inspired and I start taking notes. Thank you for being with me. I appreciate the gift that you’re giving to so many people.
It’s my pleasure and right back at you. Thanks for being unforgettable yourself and I appreciate that you’re going bananas.
- The Road to Reinvention
- Disciplined Dreaming
- Hacking Innovation
- Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results
- Kolja Kugler
- No Rules Rules
- Innovation Toolkit
- Rocket Mortgage
- Ballot Bin
About Josh Linkner
-A DAD AND HUSBAND (4 kids; hopelessly in love with my wife)
-AN INNOVATION EXPERT (studying human creativity for 30+ years)
-A TECH STARTUP LEADER (started, built, and sold five companies. Had plenty of failures, too)
-AN AUTHOR (three books on innovation, creativity and reinvention)
-A JAZZ GUITAR PLAYER (obsessed with playing complex and dangerous jazz classics. Been making mistakes for 40 years. Crazy, right?)
-A KEYNOTE SPEAKER (man, do I love inspiring audiences to action)
-AN INTENSE CAFFEINE JUNKIE (make mine a double)
-A VENTURE CAPITAL INVESTOR (invested in over 100 startups)
-A CREATIVE TROUBLEMAKER (sure is fun to break some rules, no?)
-A PIZZA LOVER (all kinds, but Detroit-style is the world’s best)
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