Ep. 96: Josh Linkner on Top Tactics For EFFECTIVE Brainstorming
In this episode, we revisit a previous episode where David sat down with Josh Linkner, New York Times Bestselling Author, Global Innovation and Creativity Expert, Founding Partner of Detroit Venture Partners, and Chairman and Co-Founder of Platypus Labs, to discuss top tactics for effective brainstorming.
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Josh Linkner is a Creative Troublemaker. He has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, which sold for a combined value of over $200 million. He’s a New York Times Bestselling author and a globally recognized expert on innovation and creativity. He’s the founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners and has been involved in the launch of over 100 startups. Today, Josh serves as Chairman and co-founder of Platypus Labs, an innovation research, training, and consulting firm. He has twice been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and is a recipient of the United States Presidential Champion of Change Award. Josh is also a passionate Detroiter, the father of four, a professional-level jazz guitarist, and has a slightly odd obsession for greasy pizza.
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1. “There absolutely is a process and methodology by which all of us can become more creative.”
2. “Everyday innovators don’t wait.”
3. “You really show your character when things are tough, not when they’re good.”
4. “Fear is the biggest blocker.”
5. “The only thing that supersedes accountability is trust.”
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Welcome to the trusted leader show. I’m Kent Svenson producer of the trusted leader show. And for this week’s episode, we thought we’d take a look back at a previous episode where David sat down with Josh Linkner New York times bestselling author, global innovation and creativity expert, founding partner of Detroit venture partners and chairman and co-founder of Platypus labs to discuss top tactics for effective brainstorming. So sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
So how do, how do you encourage your team? Like, I, I, we want our team to be more innovative. We certainly create it in, in one of our business units, a massive pivot this year. And I was so proud of him and it was a part of, you know, partly brought on by the pandemic, but how do we create that? How do the, the micro, like, give us an example, maybe run us through what would be a micro innovation today.
Yeah. So I’ll give you an example. Again, I call these big little breakthroughs, which is the title of my next book, big little breakthroughs, how small everyday innovations drive oversized results. And let’s take a trip together. Let’s hop over to London. So imagine you’re walking through the streets of London, you’re, marvelling at the architecture and there’s bustling crowds and all this history. And then you look down and what do you see? You see cigarette butts all over the ground. It turns out that cigarette butts are the biggest litter problem in central London. And in fact, many, many cities around the world and all the things they’ve tried to do to stop this problem, really fail, like finding people or shaming them into compliance. And, and you might think it’s just unsightly, but it it’s harmful for the the environment and, you know, small kids or animals can adjust them and it’s pollutants all these bad things.
So here’s an example of a big little breakthrough. There’s a guy that I interviewed for the book named Tren rustic and Tren is an average everyday dude, he’s just like, he’s not Elon Musk. He, he, he went to college and barely got through. He took an ordinary job. He is trying to pay the bills, just like all of us, but, but Tren had this, this kind of passion for the environment. So he saw this little problem and he decided to solve it with a big little breakthrough. He invented something called the ballot bin, which is a bright yellow metal container mounted at eyesight. And the, the front of it is glass. And it’s, there’s a divider down the middle at the top. It’s a two part question such as which do you prefer hamburgers or pizza, and there’s a little receptacle or smokers can vote with their butts.
So you put your cigarette butt in whichever slot like you, which food you like better. And, and you can see an instant based on how many butts have stacked up underneath it. And of course you can customize this to any two part question. It could be, which is your favorite sport, or, or, you know, do you prefer blondes or brunettes? Whatever, two questions you wanna ask. Here’s the thing when these ballot bins have been installed, they reduce cigarette litter by 80%. And they’re now in 27 countries. And the thing I love about this story is like, it didn’t take six PhDs and a billion dollars of capital and material engineering degrees and resources and equipment. This is an average person like you and I could have easily thought of that idea. And here’s somebody who is not famous. He’s a normal person. That’s using creativity to make a difference in the world. And when I hear stories like that, it’s so much more inspiring to me than watching ELAU Musk or, or Jeff Bezos making an extra billion dollars, cuz that feels inaccessible. Whereas Tren is totally within our grasp.
So I love that. Is there a process? And once again, the book is called big little breakthroughs, how small everyday innovations drive oversized results. We will link exactly where you can get it along with all the information about Josh Linkner and his companies at the show notes, trusted leader, show.com. But is there a process to, to just think a little more creatively, a, a process to think a little more innovatively to kind of, you know, I think part of it almost is like believing I can, but what is there any process you could give us?
There is in, in fact really that’s the whole source of my body of work over the years. And, and of course this book, I tried to demystify it. You know, we think of innovation as like wizardry. Like you have to be imbued by the God’s with some magical powers. It’s actually much more like a magic trick. When you see even the best magicians, they, they don’t actually possess magical powers. They’ve learned a skill and, and the truth is that all of us can learn to develop that skill. And so the book goes into, we sort of dissect, like how does an idea happen? What are the individual components? What happens when you put under the microscope? What does the research say? And then I really walk people through the eight core mindsets of everyday innovators, which are sort of easy to digest, easy to get, get your arms around mindsets that people can put into action.
And furthermore, we go into, into depth on tactics. You know, most of us use brainstorming as the, as the preferred tactic, by the way, brainstorming is invented in 1958. I’m guessing we need an upgrade. Like a lot of things had changed since 1968. So I, I actually have this whole thing called idea jamming. I have this whole like idea toolkit where we PR provide much more fun, modern exercises for like idea extraction, which but, but long story short, there absolutely is a process and methodology by which all of us. And I mean, all of us can become more creative.
So, you know, the give us this, we gotta have a little secret sauce here. We can’t go through all eight today, but you know, everybody’s gonna hear it and it’ll be called as, as my friend JLB says the sauce, because we’re gonna tell people, but you, you, you know, the, the full secret sauce is in the book, but what is maybe one or two mindsets first and then maybe one tactic like, oh, I can see how this would be helpful. I can see some, so can you give us a couple mindset shifts first?
Yeah, absolutely. Again, I, nothing secret here. I’m happy to share the secret sauce cuz I actually really feel like I’m on a mission to help people become more creative and I’m, I I’m happy to share. So a couple of the mindsets and these are studied through over a thousand hours of research and interviews with CEOs and celebrity entrepreneurs. And we dove into, you know, how, how does Linman well, Miranda and lady Gaga and Banksy do their art. So, so is well, well founded in, in, in substance. But a couple of mindsets I’ll share. Some of ’em are more intuitive. There’s one called start before you’re ready, which is essentially the notion that everyday innovators don’t wait, they don’t wait for permission. They don’t wait for direction. They don’t wait for a perfect game plan. They get going. And then they course correct and adapt along the way.
but there’s some actually more, more strange, funny ones, one ISS called don’t forget the dinner mint, which is the notion that before you ship a piece of work product, it could be an email. It could be a keynote speech. It could be a financial report. What could you do to plus it up? Like what’s an extra, teeny little, extra dose of surprise and delight of creative surprise and delight that that makes your work transcended. And that the return on investment is gigantic. That’s a high leverage activity because a 5% extra dose of creativity could yield a hundred percent or more results. Another fun, one real quick in terms of mindsets is I call it use every drop of toothpaste, use every drop of toothpaste. And the notion here is around being scrappy. It’s sort of you doing more with less figuring out how to be resourceful and using ingenuity rather than relying on external resources.
You know, when I talk to people about being innovative, most people say, I love to, I want to, but I don’t have fill the blank. I don’t have enough money. I don’t have enough time. I don’t have enough raw materials. I don’t enough degrees, et cetera. And so what this does actually turns that on its head to say, okay, what can we do when we are resource constrained? And by the way, I’ve thought about this many times, think about this. If the amount of external resources you had equaled your level of creativity, the federal government would be the most creative organization on the planet. And startups would be the least. And of course we know the exact opposite is true. So those are the couple of mindsets. There’s eight of ’em, but those, those are a couple ones to get started.
I love it. So, so if I take one of those, is there a tactic like we can start to use tomorrow? Like, is there a tactic, like let’s start at that first, first phase even, or, or maybe the brainstorming tactic. I’m thinking about thinking through a problem. How can I think about this problem more creatively?
Yeah. So the, the techniques that you use think of them as tools, and let’s say you were, you had an oil well in your backyard and, and you got, you know, the, the, the little plastic shovel from your kids from the beach, like that’s gonna take you an awful long time to get to oil and you’re not gonna fully extract it. Obviously, if you had commercial grade equipment, different story. So brainstorming is the equivalent of that, that plastic shovel. It’s just not that good. So let’s let me share some tools that are much better. Here’s one for you. It’s fun. It’s called the judo flip, the judo flip. And so the judo flip is basically as follows. You take a look at what, whether you’re facing a problem or an opportunity, write down what are, what are the things you’ve always done before? What does conventional wisdom dictate?
What do most people do? Then draw a line down the page and just ask next to each entry. What’s the polar opposite. What would it look like if you judo flipped it and that oppositional thinking, just forcing yourself to consider the polar opposite of what most people do can be very, very liberating. Just a super quick story that I, I just read like two days ago turns out there’s 65,000 Chinese restaurants in north America. So how in the world, if you own one, do you stand out? Well, most people, what they do, the average average thing is people use a lot of puffy. This is the best Chinese chicken in the universe. It’s the world’s best, the New York city’s best egg roll, whatever. And it’s a bunch of puffy and we all have strong BS detectors to your point of trusted leader. And we shut all that down.
So in this particular restaurant in Montreal next to every entry on the menu, there’s a printed something called owner’s comments. And so he did the opposite. He judo flipped it. So one of his comments is I don’t really like this dish. I think you’d prefer the other one. Another one’s like this one’s a little, little too much salt. I keep trying to get him to use less of it. Another one is don’t try taking this thing home. It gets really mushy. Another one is you might think this is authentic, but honestly it’s not authentic at all in this particular dish. And so he gives these brutally honest, completely transparent commentary on his own food. And first of all, it’s hysterically funny. It separates him from the competitive set here. We are talking about this one out of 65,000 Chinese restaurants. Not because he did what everybody else does.
It’s because he judo flipped it. So just a couple of little quick tactics, cuz I wanna make sure people are armed for battle. Another really fun one. So, okay. We get together to brainstorm and what do we do? We share our, our safe ideas, not our crazy wild ones and largely because of fear. Fear is the single most poisonous force that holds our creative thinking back. And, and by far that’s a bigger blocker than natural talent. So actually two really fast ones to break through that. Number one, I call it roll storming, roll storming. So roll storming is brainstorming in character. You’re taking on an actual real world brainstorm challenge, but doing it as if you are somebody else. So David, instead of you being David in the room, and now you’re saying, well, I’m gonna be judged by my ideas or what if I say something that looks foolish, you’re playing the role of Steve jobs or Hemingway or Darth Vader.
And so you could pick any character you want real fictitious, it could be a sports hero or a movie star, whatever you want. And you literally pretend that you are that character because when you’re that person, you’re no longer responsible for the idea. It’s not a reflection on, on, on your, you as a human being. So that’s a really fun one yields, amazing result. The other one I’ll just share real quick. It’s called the bad idea brainstorm. So we get together for a brainstorm. Presumably we wanna have good ideas, but we generally anchor them in the past. And we end up having these kind of puny incremental ideas. Here’s the way it works. Two step process. Step one, everybody in the room sets a timer like eight minutes, whatever and brainstorm bad ideas, not good ones. What’s a terrible way to solve it. What’s the worst possible thing you could think of what’s unethical and immoral and illegal and, and you know, too expensive or whatever.
So you come up with just terrible ideas. It’s hysterically funny. The whole team is energized. Everyone’s laughing and you fill the boards with all these awful ideas. Now importantly, step two, step two is where you then take a minute and look at all the bad ideas and say, wait a minute, is there a little gem in there? Is there a little something, is there a pattern, a nugget that I could flip to, to take it from a bad idea to a good one? So the idea here is you take your creativity weight in the edges and then yes, you’re ratcheting it back to reality later on, but it’s much more effective than fighting the gravitational force of going bottoms up.
Fantastic. I love I am enticed, trusted leaders are enticed. I mean, this is, this is really, really, really, really great usable stuff. What I love about Josh is grounded in research. Like we love out of the Institute, but also usable tomorrow morning. And so I, I love it.
So, you know, Josh you’ve sold businesses, combined value over a couple hundred million. What you’ve, you know, written New York times bestsellers before you, you’re doing all these things. You’ve been a part of a hundred startups or whether that’s intimately or, you know, VC or certainly advising. And so tell what’s it take to have a successful startup today?
Well, it’s a lot of it is opposite. What you think, you know, first of all, we think that it’s about an entrepreneur that fills the room. That’s charismatic like Steve jobs, actually the best entrepreneurs are much more thoughtful. Often. Not that larger than life, they’re humble. They, they give credit to others. It’s not about themselves. It’s about the success of the team and the business. They lift other people up rather than push other people down. So I think one thing it takes is an open-minded coachable, you know, humble leader who has empathy and compassion. And again, these are skills that you don’t often associate with business success, but I truly believe that they drive drive results. I think another thing is that a real commitment to your, to the customer. I’ve heard so many companies talk about the financial model and how much money they’re gonna make.
And then you’re like, well, how are you helping a customer? Like what, and, and I think not losing sight of that, you know, you’re, you’re there to serve any business, is there, but to service or product to, to deliver value, to, to real paying customers. And, and not just in a way that they’re an annoyance that will, you’re just trying to cash their check. It’s that you’re really there, you know, your heart’s gotta be into, to providing real value to them. And so when you push the creativity on, on providing real value to customers, I think that’s something that sounds so obvious, but is often missed.
I think that was the Einstein quote. We’ve heard it before, but you know, don’t work so much at being a success work at giving value, right. And a, a huge key. In fact, one of the things we saw this year, especially last year the pandemic and everything is we noticed empathy is more important than ever before in leaders. And in fact, our, our annual study phone, 90%, 92% of people would trust their leader more. If they were more transparent about their mistakes, people stop at transparency because, oh, transparent. No, it’s not transparency. It’s transparent about their mistakes willing to admit when they did it wrong and willing to lift others up when the team succeeded and, and defer the good. Right.
Yeah. Can I actually, Dan, can I tell you a quick story about that? It’s so it’s, it’s a very personal one for me. And it’s about a screw up that I did. I didn’t write about it in the book or anything. I just thought was thinking about you today and in your incredible body of work around trust. So I was building my company. It was called Eris. We were sort of like half ad agency and half software company. And at one year I set a bonus program up that was terribly flawed. Like it was awful because it was binary. If we hit the target, I think it was like 40 million in revenue at the time everybody got a sweet bonus. If we missed it by one penny, everybody B got nothing. So again, ill conceived totally my fault. I was the CEO, but it did work to like drive performance.
So we all anchored around that goal. Every, we had charts and graphs and scoreboards and we were gun and heart. So on December 31st, David, I get a call from my CEO my chief sales officer. So he says, Josh, we did it. We hit the 40, where I at 40 million, $200,000. And I gotta tell you, like, I was deeply moved, not because I was greedy. I didn’t care about the money. Honestly, I just was proud of my team. We accomplished something together. And so I immediately fired off a note to everybody. Congratulations, you guys did it, everyone’s getting their bonus. So the bonus, according to the plan was gonna be paid like 45 days after the end of the year. So we could, you know, get the accounting straight and all that. So about a week before the bonus to be paid, my CFO comes and knocking.
He says, Josh, you know that $40 million. I’m like, yeah, wasn’t it great. He says, yeah, we got a problem. He said, it turns out we double counted one deal and we didn’t calculate for a particular cancellation. So instead of just making it, we actually just missed it. Now, keep in mind. I had already told my team, like weeks before that they were getting this bonus and, and they like put deposits on new houses and sent, you know, signed up their kids for camp or whatever. So I go to my board of directors and I said, guys, like, here’s the situation? And their first response was sweet. We don’t have to pay a bonus this year. And, and by the way, this was over a million dollars of cash of collectively. And, and we were successful, but we didn’t have like, you know, a giant, we weren’t Amazon.
Like we didn’t have lots and lots of extra money. This was meaningful amount of money. And so I, so they said, and, and rightfully so, by the way, they, I’m not pointing blame at them. They were a fiduciary board and they said, look, you don’t get a Superbowl trophy for almost making it into the end zone. And we have to, you know, celebrate accountability and, and like, we didn’t hit the result. You don’t get the championship. And I said, I hear you. And I agree with that. I said, however, to me, the only thing that supersedes accountability is trust. I told all those people that they’re getting their bonus. So we had an ethical debate for a while. Then I finally said, look, put aside what’s right or wrong. Because if you look at yourself and they mirror, you know, what’s right, but let’s just look at the economics here.
That million dollars I argued was gone. Whether you like it or not, if we don’t pay the bonus, it’s gonna come out in the form of bad morale, employee turnover. Someone will walk out for the laptop like it’s gone, or we can look at it as an investment in who we are. You know, you really show your character when things are tough, not when they’re good. And now’s the time it’s tough. So, so for the next week, David, it was like the Cuban missile crisis. I was taking heavy artillery fire from my board of directors, but here’s why that ended up happening. I gathered my whole team together at the time. I think it was about 500 people or so I explained in absolute detail, here’s the email I got. Here’s the numbers. Here’s the cancellation, here’s the date and notes from the meeting with my CFO, we did not make the bonus.
Everybody is legally entitled to zero. And by the way, totally my fault. I own it. I BU buck stops with me, not pace it past any blame. I said that after I pause, I said, however, the only thing in my mind, that’s more important than accountability is you have to know that I have your back and that we have each other’s back. So therefore we are paying every penny of that bonus on time. The motion of that room that day, like there were tears streaming down people’s faces. I was getting bear hugs from grown men. And, and, and I did it because it was the right thing, but by the way, best million dollar investment I ever made because years later people were like, if we had a tough problem with a client, people would work all night on it. And, and people would pour their heart and soul.
We had almost no voluntary turnover on job interviews. Candidates would come in and say, I heard what you did. I, I wanna work there. I never told the story to anybody. But my only point is that when we think about trust, at least I understand, you know, your body of work to me, it’s not only the right thing. And by the way, it is the right thing. But besides that, in addition to that, it’s also good for business. And I, again, I just really admire the work you’re doing. And I just wanted to share that story. Thank you to a degree, I guess that might be using creativity, but, but you know, that, that, that’s what happened.
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