Disciplined Dreaming: Driving Breakthrough Creativity

Linkner - book

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we are going to interview Josh Linkner. He has a new book, Disciplined Dreaming. It’s a proven system to drive breakthrough creativity. Josh is a creative individual. He is a four-time entrepreneur, a jazz musician, a venture capitalist, a speaker and an author.

Josh is the founder and chairman of ePrize. It’s the largest interactive promotion agency in the world. ePrize has produced over five thousand industry leading interactive promotions across 36 countries for 74 of the top 100 brands, including Cocoa Cola, ATT&T, The Gap, Proctor & Gamble, Dell, Disney and many more.

His firm has won dozens of awards including the Red Herring’s Top 100 Technology firms in North America, and the #1 fastest growing on Promo 100, Fast Company’s Fast 50 Readers Choice, and 101 Best Places to work in Michigan.

Josh was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and Crain’s 40 Under 40, plus a series of other awards. He was the Detroit Executive of the Year. He is a highly sought after keynote speaker and frequent source for comment among top businesses. He has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, The Entrepreneur, and Inc. Magazine.

He has two books, the first one is Leaning Forward, but today we are going to be talking about Disciplined Dreaming. He lives in Detroit, Michigan and continues to improvise in both the business world and in the smoky jazz clubs, so this will be fun to hear about how he is bringing this together. His website is www.joshlinkner.com. Josh, welcome!

Josh Linkner: Thanks so much. It’s great to be here. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Where are you now? In Michigan?

Josh Linkner: I am, downtown Detroit.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Great. We are really interested in hearing about your book. Your website, www.JoshLinkner.com is a place where we can get your book, but we always like to start off with getting to know a little bit more about your background and maybe who have been some of the key influences that have led you to who you are today.

Josh Linkner: Sure. I originally started my career as a jazz musician. I played around the world. Actually, that was a wonderful teacher for me in the business world. That became sort of like my MBA. I had the privilege over the last 20 years of founding four technology companies, all of which grew to be fairly successful. Recently, I launched a venture capital firm. It’s been a wonderful career so far.

I’ve also had the privilege of writing two books; the latest one; Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity. Last week I found out it is a New York Times Best-Seller, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, so getting a lot of critical acclaim which is terrific.

In terms of influences, I couldn’t agree more with your premise on happiness. I think that I had the privilege of getting zapped with positivity, if you will, from a number of key mentors.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: This is so important because as we know, those of us that are fortunate enough to become successful optimists, don’t do it alone. We really do, as Relly said earlier, need to have those people around us who create a positive thermostat. So tell us a little bit about how you work with organizations and how you get them to talk about their promotion and what they are doing with creativity and innovation.

Josh Linkner: What I like to do, and again, I had the opportunity to keynote and work with many companies of all different sizes. Really what I help reinforce is that creativity and innovation have truly become the currency of success today, not only in the business world but in life. The world has so dramatically shifted after the recession and today a whole new set of skills has emerged in order to win.

We now live in a world if dizzying speed and ruthless competition, and exponential complexity. We have to approach our jobs and our lives in a very different way in order to succeed.

It turns out that creativity, in fact, is the one thing that can’t be outsourced. It’s really the one source of sustainable, competitive advantage. I help individuals and companies really connect with that skill. The interesting thing about it, real quickly, is just that we all as human beings are incredibly creative.

All the research points to creativity being a learned behavior, instead of you are either born with it or you are not. The problem in our society is we grow up with rigid, educational institutions and then take jobs in bureaucratic swamps and that tends to beat the creativity out of us.

What I like to do is help people connect with their own inherent creativity capacity.

Dr. Relly Nadler: You remind me of something I learned a while back around creativity. Do you have kids Josh?

Josh Linkner: I do, I have a wonderful 13-year old son and a beautiful 11-year-old daughter.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Okay. I have kids, and Cathy has her family also. Two-year-olds are like 95% highly creative. Then I remember reading that when they get to be around 7 or 8, kind of exactly what you are saying, that number drops to about 5 to 10%, so they learn how to fit into the box.

Tell us a little bit about your findings on creativity and how you get organizations first interested in that, and it’s what you are going to be focusing on, and that’s what they need to do more of?

Josh Linkner: Well, real quickly, I get your point about declining education and how kids grow out of creativity instead of growing into it.

A quick story: when I was a kid I played with Legos a lot and if you look at a Lego box from the 70’s, they were a set of modular pieces and you could make anything you want with it. So the act of Legos is that you build something with your imagination, you break it apart and build something again. Today my kids play with Legos but they are very different. The box cover is a specific model, it’s filled with single use pieces, and the goal is to simply follow instructions. You build this thing once and stick it on a shelf. This is the exact opposite trend of what we need in the world to survive today. I couldn’t agree more; we tend to become less creative over time than more so.

From the prioritization, companies in the recession—everyone does the same thing. The game plan is that you cut costs. Well you can only do that for so long, and while that does boost short-term profits, you can’t cut your way to long term success. The only way to ultimately get there is to innovate and create. We live in a world today where nearly every industry is in the midst of massive upheaval. So people are tending to recognize that they can’t cut their way to success and at the same time they can’t just do what they did before. They know that they need to do something different.

The question is what? The question is how do I reinvent my company? How do I reinvent my career in order to reach the goals in today’s highly competitive environment?

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: We were talking about creativity and play. We were talking a little bit about what the US needs to continue to compete successfully in the global economy. Do you think in all the experience that you have had at these top companies, these great Fortune 500 companies like Cocoa Cola, ATT&T, The Gap, Proctor & Gamble and Disney, that there is something about education that needs to be different or help us do something to radically compete in this market?

Josh Linkner: You know I do. Education is sort of an interesting thing. If you look at education overseas, specifically China and India, it’s starting to mirror more of what the US had done previously, fostering innovation and creativity. However, we have the exact opposite trend here in the US. We are focusing more on rigidity, numerization, and rote technical abilities.

I think this is a deep problem and we have a creativity gap in the world right now, in the US, specifically where the need for creativity is clearly on the increase and our career supply is sort of decreasing. Not because we are less creative as human beings, but we haven’t developed those skills.

So a lot of times when I work with companies I help them really reconnect with making this a priority and then offering up a specific tool set so that they can build those, if you will, creativity muscles.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Talk a little bit more about that because I just did an ABC segment on the fact that kids in the United States are suffering from a lack of competition because their competing with the children of Tiger Moms. Tiger Moms are very much about the Asian culture of repetition, respect, and recall. There’s some things here that I’d like to hear a little bit more about.

Josh Linkner: Sure, well, I mean being in the business world and I have been for many years, I don’t know that most people are sitting around and saying, gee, I don’t think I have that much competition. You are sort of seeing the opposite of that at a career level.

The old world used to be able to get a degree, get a job, work hard, follow the operating manual, do what you are told, and 30 years later you retired with a gold watch. Well that world, as we all know, doesn’t exist anymore. So today, people might get hired based on their resume, but they are going to get promoted and excel in their career really based on their ability to improvise and to adapt to situations that come at them. The world is too complex to follow an operating manual.

Again both individuals, teams, and companies really need to develop the skills much like a jazz musician; the skills to improvise and deal with situations coming at them in real time.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So let me ask you this, and we are going to weed these into the specific things in your book, to say a little bit about being a jazz musician. What do you play? My son is an electric guitar player and his band, he’s only 17, has turned into a jam band. Just listening and watching them, I’m sure you’ve got hours and hours and hours, just that kind of moment to moment changing, being sensitive to what is going on with somebody else that we would say in the business world, is kind of insight, empathy, that kind of combination. Say a little bit about how that has informed you and what you play, and how did it lead to where you are now.

Josh Linkner: Well I play real traditional jazz guitar, very old school stuff, although I have played many styles of music. Jazz is kind of neat. The way it works is that 99% of the notes are made up as you go, it’s spontaneous creativity, it’s improvisation. However, there is this 1%, funny, this sort of sheet music that gives them guideposts like what the key signature is and the tempo, etc.

Funny though, that 1% is really important. Because without it, it sounds like a train wreck. So this 1% enables the rest of the group and the rest of the music to happen.

What happened with the book is that I realized that there really isn’t that 1% in the business world. We have systems and process for everything. There’s something for quality control, how do you set the alarm, how do you deal with a customer complaint, yet creativity and innovation, arguably the thing that matters the most, is often left to happen by chance. There is no systematic approach. So what I tried to do in the book is really take the essence of jazz which is a framework rather than a rigid do-what-you-are-told manual and apply that to the business world and allow people inside companies to jam and improvise in the same way that we jazz musicians do.

Learn more about how to have breakthrough creativity. Listen to the complete interview above.


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