Big Little Breakthroughs


In his speech and conversation with Jill Hellman, Josh Linkner says though we are living in trying times, there is hope it would create unprecedented opportunities if we all further develop our creative skills.

All of us are creative. As human beings, we are hardwired to be creative. We can express creativity in different ways, in the context of our chosen field. It becomes a very powerful weapon if we are willing to harness and develop those skills.

Also, a little bit of creativity layered on top of what others are doing can become an incredibly powerful competitive advantage. Just that little layer can make all the difference in the world in the times we are living in. Even pre-virus, we were living in a world of dizzying speed, exponential complexity, and ruthless competition. Layering the challenges of today, we can no longer rely on the models of the past and expect the same result. So, if we can tap into this gift of our human creativity, individually and throughout our organizations, we uncover the map to sustainable progress.

Maybe 10 years ago it was optional, but today it is a critical mission because today we are living in unprecedented times, not only from the fallout of this pandemic but also from the speed of change that is happening. Business cycles that used to take decades are now occurring in a matter of weeks, there is global competition, geopolitical turmoil, and so many other challenges. Challenging ourselves to use creative problem-solving and inventive thinking on a daily basis is our best path forward.

Most of us have developed a strong skill in our chosen field but imagination is something that all of us have. If we are willing to cultivate it, build it, and bring it to the office with us, amazing things can happen.

Regardless of jobs or roles, everyone should embrace another secondary role- that of an artist. An artist is simply an intersection between skill and imagination, so anyone in any field can be an artist. Most of us have developed a strong skill in our chosen field but imagination is something that all of us have. If we are willing to cultivate it, build it, and bring it to the office with us, amazing things can happen.

Following my passion for harnessing human creativity to drive meaningful results, I have written three books on these topics. For my fourth book, the research was not limited to my own experiences as an entrepreneur and jazz musician but I also interviewed 200 extraordinary leaders from CEOs, billionaires, celebrity entrepreneurs to artists, musicians, and even hackers. Across this wide range of leaders, there are some common patterns, common approaches, and common mindsets of the most innovative people of the planet. From this, five core mindsets of everyday innovators have been drawn, that can be adopted by anyone and put into practice.

Mindset no. 1: Find a way

A simple phrase “find a way” is but an embodiment of everyday innovation. It implies that every challenge can be solved, that if you throw enough imagination at a problem, there has to be a way to crack the code. The second part of the phrase is taking personal responsibility and not passing the buck. So it’s coupling the belief that every barrier can be crossed with enough imagination along with personal responsibility. 

A simple example of “find a way” in action can be seen in the way researchers resolved the issue of flies that plague the cattle industry. Unlike horses, cows cannot swat away the flies, which is not just an annoyance but interferes with sleeping, grazing, and feeding. Researchers got together to solve this problem and they started with the obvious approaches like pesticides, but it was harmful to the land and the cows. They then thought about who doesn’t get fly bites and the answer was zebra, whose black and white stripes interfere with a fly’s depth perception and the flies tend to leave a zebra alone. The researchers adapted these ideas by painting the cows like zebras! Fly bites reduced by over 65%, and if this approach is extrapolated across the cattle industry, a billion dollars a year can be saved. This is a fun, playful example but it is still a billion-dollar idea and it happened because we pushed our creative boundaries, following this core mindset to find a way.

Mindset no. 2: Upgrade it

It’s the constant belief that no matter how good a solution may seem, it is a relentless pursuit of looking for the next version, an ongoing stream of reinvention. When I was building my own business, I kept saying this one thing: Someday a company will come along and put us out of business. It might as well be us. This is the idea of being perennially unsatisfied with the way things are and always trying for a newer version. It does not just apply to our product offering but also our approaches, methodologies, processes, and everything in between.

One of the specific techniques that can be adopted is what I call the Judo flip. When you’re facing a challenge or opportunity, instead of doing things the way you have always done, a good way to reach an upgraded approach is by Judo flipping it- asking yourself what is the polar opposite. Make a list of your traditional approaches and on the other side of it, a list of what the Judo flip approaches would look like. By doing the polar opposite, we uncover incredible creative opportunities, and it gives us a chance to upgrade it.

Mindset No. 3: Defy traditions

Traditions in our professional lives can be deadly. The minute we blindly salute the flag of the past, that is the beginning of the end for far too many companies and careers. Instead, it is suggested to put those traditions under a microscope and look for ways to do something different. To quote General Eric K. Shinseki, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” The game of Monopoly, which is over 100 years old, is an admirable example of defying traditions. When Monopoly was facing the challenge of competing with video games, it started interviewing customers. From these interviews, they learned that 60% of the Monopoly players cheat. Instead of finding that behaviour horrible, they decided to run with it and spent the next two years studying how Monopoly players cheat. Adding some of their own cheating ideas, they recently launched the Monopoly Cheaters Edition. A couple of months back, they also realised that they always have a male character on the cover and so they defied that tradition and launched a Ms Monopoly version that centers around inclusion and diversity.

Mindset No. 4: Seek the unexpected

There is an expected approach in the way we take on work but the expected way is generally not the way that makes history. When we challenge ourselves and go out on a limb to look for those weird, bizarre, oddball, unexpected approach, then the magic happens. A Korean company decided to seek the unexpected by changing the way they sold bananas. They packaged the bananas organized in order of ripeness, which saved customers the trouble of deciding how ripe should the banana be when buying, a dilemma that we often feel. The result was they crushed the competition in terms of sales volume. Secondly, they charge three times per ounce of bananas compared to the competitive set, but this non-traditional, unexpected approach made all the difference.

When we are making a decision or taking on a challenge, the human mind works to quickly narrow our options to A, B, and C. These are the obvious and easy options, but instead of settling with the three most obvious options, we should ask ourselves if there is an option D, or E, or an option X. Option X is that bold, provocative, unexpected idea that makes all the difference in the world. 

Mindset No. 5: Bounce back

This is all-round resilience in the face of adversity and right now, we are facing incredibly difficult challenges. However, it is the notion of not allowing yourself to quit and getting back into the fight, but not blindly. It is an intersection of creativity and persistence, grit and imagination, it is bouncing back into the fight with more imagination to carry the day. Creative confidence, however, does not mean it is exempt from making mistakes. Creative confidence comes from knowing you are going to make mistakes but having the wherewithal to dust yourself off and bounce back with more creative abilities.

Traditions in our professional lives can be deadly. The minute we blindly salute the flag of the past, that is the beginning of the end for far too many companies and careers.

Conclusion

We are living in trying times, but there is also hope that it would create unprecedented opportunities if we all use this time to further develop our creative skills.

Jill Hellman in Conversation with Josh Linkner

Jill Hellman: You gave an example of what we can do every day, but given the time we are living in, how do you recommend that we have our organizations do this? 

Josh Linkner: There are many challenging negative things about these times, but there are also positive things. The positive thing is that we have time that we weren’t expecting. Most of us are working from home, and the lack of commute is saving some time, so my suggestion would be, in this downtime, schedule just a little bit of time as a ‘heads-up time’. When we have our heads down like we have most of our work lives, we are doing transactional work, we are getting our to-do list done. When you are heads-down, you don’t notice the world around you. Schedule a couple of hours of heads-up time, which might seem frivolous at first, but it’s a time that can be scheduled like an important meeting where you explore the possibilities, examine your daily work and say, “What would it look like if I tried an option X or a judo flip instead of doing the ordinary approach?”. 

People may feel very awkward and feel like they are wasting time, but at the end of the 30 days, two things happen. Productivity doesn’t go down at all and one can manage to squish the rest of their work into another time. Later they realise that those two hours a week have become the most productive of their career. When we allow ourselves the creative freedom and give ourselves permission to allow our imagination to wander a little bit and not be so focused on immediate near-term work output, amazing things happen, and this is a wonderful time for all of us to go deep and do some creative work and reflection.

Hellman: Since you are also a jazz musician, what can leaders learn from jazz or music in general?

Linkner: We are all creative. Just because someone is in accounting or law doesn’t mean they cannot use creative problem-solving. You don’t have to be in the art department or wearing a lab coat to be creative. Going back to jazz, it is a fascinating art form for me, not only because I love it but it involves making stuff up as you go. You have to course-correct; you make mistakes, you bounce back and it is this wonderful, beautiful improvisational art form. Jazz music is the ultimate metaphor for leadership. Maybe in the past, it was classical music where there is one person in the centre of the room, the conductor no longer playing an instrument, and it is all about getting the musicians to play their notes exactly as written on the page. It is about precision, accuracy, and alignment, but today, in a world that is so dynamic and so fast-moving, there is no such thing as an operating manual.

We have to be like jazz musicians and improvise and try taking responsible risks and make mistakes as we go. In jazz, if you play it safe, if you do what you have always done, you get laughed off the stage. On the other hand, if you go out and make mistakes, like playing a terrible note, just play it twice more and call it art. There’s a tolerance among fellow musicians and audiences; they want you to go out on a limb and take responsible risk and goof up from time to time because that’s where the magic happens. This is the lesson for the modern leaders of today, not to be so constrained like a classical musician who only plays what is written but to allow yourself to try new things in a responsible way.

Hellman: We all agree that innovation can come from anywhere, but how can people who are typically focusing on innovation intentionally or professionally, come together with the business side to impact innovation? How do you bridge the gap and get them to link together?

Linkner: The myth is that innovation happens like some giant idea in the shower and then you walk out and you are whisked away to fame and fortune because afterwards it’s mindless execution. That is not the way the world works. People that come up with big transformative ideas encounter a lot of flaws, and ideas only come to life through lots and lots of little tweaks, adaptations, pivots, and micro-innovations. Thus, the notion that there is one person in a lab coat who comes up with the idea and other people just mindlessly execute doesn’t work. The way it works is if everybody in an organization is an innovator, an artist in their own way. Your way might be the way you assemble factory equipment or the way that you are serving the land, so in the traditional sense we don’t think that that is innovative, but there is a role for human creativity, inventive thinking, and creative problem-solving in every single role. It not only unlocks an incredibly powerful competitive advantage but is also a wonderful gift for the people because there are very few things in life that are as intrinsically rewarding as the expression of creativity.

Hellman: In this world of social distancing, Zoom interactions too have their limitations, so what can we do to get different people together in this new world?

Linkner: I tend to be optimistic. I don’t think we’ll be in the Zoom world forever; there will be long-term changes made after the virus subsides. I think corporate meets and events are going to roar back and this is teaching us the importance of being present in those moments of serendipity when you are bumping into somebody at the Starbucks. This is just an unusual period right now and I wouldn’t look at it as the new norm but as an exception. That being said, around the question of creative collaboration, there are two models. One is the isolated genius, like Hemingway, who goes off and hides in a cabin as he writes beautiful prose, which is not necessarily a wrong model. That has worked for many people. The other one is that of a jazz group. Jazz is much more of a conversation or co-creation, in the sense that a guitarist might play something thing which is then picked up by the bass player, who adds something more to it, and then the drummer picks that up and tweaks it as his own, and so on. So, the idea is not invented by any one person but was a co-creative process where everyone was riffing and playing off of each other. This is where the best creative output comes from, and the more diversity, the better. By diversity, I mean diversity of every kind- gender, age, race, religion, or geography. For example, if a band only consisted of guitar players, it would be awful.

Hellman: Many authors talk to only top thinkers, or maybe they do talk to other thinkers as well but it’s just the bigger names that get mentioned because people can see that story and relate to it, but we know that great ideas come from all thinkers and not just the ones with the big names. Do you have any comments on this question of how do we have authors talking to everyone, not just the big names?

Linkner: I listen to a lot of speakers, and I find it a little bit lazy when someone gets up and says “look at Apple, look at Google, look at Tesla” because we know that. It’s not that Elon Musk is not innovative; of course, he is, but there are so many amazing stories. I like talking about cows being painted like zebras and people in Korea using bananas that are organised by ripeness. There are so many incredible stories from around the world. You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley or work for Amazon to be creative. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Human creativity has always been and will always be the great equaliser. That’s how small people can end up fighting the giants, that’s why start-ups can win against massive competitors, and so, let’s use it as a call to arms really, that we can all embrace this and benefit from it. We don’t need to have the last name of Zuckerberg to be creative.

Hellman: I’ll turn it over to you for your closing remarks.

Linkner: I just want to end it with something tactical as we could use some tactics in these times. When I was building my own company, we were in a very fortunate position because it was an old school industry and we had the technology, so we became the dominant leader in our small industry. I was worried that we would become lazy and complacent, and less creative because greatness is often achieved in the face of adversity. At that time, we didn’t have an arch competitor, so I made one up. I introduced my whole company to our nemesis called the Slither Corporation. Everyone knew Slither was fake but the notion was that they were better funded, smarter, faster-moving, more creative, with better clients, etc. and that drove our culture. It drove urgency, but we’d always benchmark against them instead of the real world. 

This idea of an ideal nemesis, one that never had a down quarter, really freed up our thinking. So, in these times, one tactical thing to do while we are all sitting around is to imagine the ideal competitor and think about what would they do differently, how would they hire, how would they go to market, what would their product look like, etc. This is a fun technique to free up your creativity.

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