Unleashing Creativity | Josh Linkner, Detroit Venture Partners | BoS USA 2011

Remember LEGO when you were a kid? It was a system that encouraged creativity.

  • You had a bunch of bricks, you did stuff.
  • Now, LEGO is more about following a series of instructions.

So what on earth happened and more importantly, what can we do about it? Turns out, a lot – easily.

Josh’s talk considers what happened to creativity, why the world is a much better place when people can be more creative and some brilliant tips on bringing creativity to your own life. Creativity is a skill. It can be taught and it gets better with practice. It’s also fun.

Bio, Video & Transcript below


Prior to ePrize, Josh was the Founder and CEO of three other successful technology companies. For 2011 he was named the Ernst & Young Entrepenuer of the Year, the Automation Alley CEO of the Year, and the Detroit Executive of the Year. Josh’s writings are published frequently by Fast Company and Forbes and he’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, and on CNBC.

Josh is the New York Times Bestselling author of Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthough Creativity. He is the CEO and Managing Partner of Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm helping to rebuild urban areas through technology and entrepreneurship.


Josh shows how to jump-start your creative muscle to drive meaningful and immediate results. Listeners will learn specific techniques to unleash their most valuable resources – human creativity, imagination, and original thinking. Josh is the Founder, Chairman and former CEO of the ePrize, the largest interactive promotion agency in the world providing digital marketing services to 74 of the top 100 brands.



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I have the envious role of being between you and food, so it’s like extra pressure to be really good otherwise you’re just gonna sprint on out and get some sushi or lobster rolls or whatever.

Very good morning everybody! My name is Josh Linkner and I’m really so excited to be here. I’ve been a tech CEO for the last 20 years so, I started my first company in 1990 and have had the opportunity to build four other ones since. And about a year ago I moved to the dark side; I became a venture capitalist and started now investing in technology companies.

So I think I can relate to the journey and the challenges that many of you have in this room -specifically as it relates to differentiation, you know, how do you launch a product that’s gonna be really embraced by the audience, by your customers and ultimately gain a lot of steam? So I’ve also had the privilege over last year, I launched a book called “Discipline Dreaming” which is a proven system to drive breakthrough creativity and in doing the research for the book, I started exploring a lot on innovation. What does it take to drive innovation and create cultures that enable creativity? So, that’s what I’d like to cover a little bit with you this morning. Okay. Good.

So as I get started I was hoping you could help me identify a specific company, which company is a mission statement that looks like this: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”?

Audienc]: Google.

Josh Linkner: Google. So here’s a little trickier question: which company had basically that same mission statement for 219 years in a row before Google was even founded?

Audience: Encyclopedia Britannica.

Josh Linkner: There it is, Encyclopedia Britannica. They were the Google of their day. By the way, you know how we use Google as a verb, like I ‘Googled’ him? Due you think 150 years ago there were people running around saying, “Well let me get right back to you, I need to go Britannica that?” [LAUGHTER]

So this company was cool, they were in the information age 100 years before the Industrial Revolution – very sophisticated for their day, very profitable, everything is going great until a hurricane strikes: hurricane Microsoft. And so Microsoft comes along and takes all the content and digitizes it and using technology provides a better way for consumers to get this amazing content. While Britannica is still in business today, they’ve never recovered.

A disruptive blow of creativity sent this huge powerful longevity company reeling. So Microsoft goes on to take over and become the dominant source of information on the planet. And I’m a huge fan of Microsoft, I know there’s a lot of Microsoft people here today in the room. It’s an amazing wonderful company with tons of resources, the smartest people on the planet. So they go on to become the dominant source of information but once again a hurricane strikes. So Microsoft with all their talented, all their smart people because of hurricane Wikipedia a startup, a non-profit startup, ends up shutting down Encarta 2009 altogether.

Now this is no way a dig against Microsoft, Microsoft is an amazing company but it shows that all of us are susceptible to these disruptive forces of creativity and innovation, and today it’s all of our jobs at every level of an organization, whether you’re a startup or a multibillion dollar company, to disrupt or be disrupted.

Who will dislodge Wikipedia? We can hardly imagine it but it’s likely to happen because these hurricanes of disruptive creativity are coming at an increasing pace with increasing force. Think about the world that we live in today, we live in a world of dizzying speed, exponential complexity and ruthless competition. In the past where creativity and innovation was relegated to the C. suite or to the engineers in the R&D department, now it’s all of our jobs at every level of an organization. It’s gone from being nice to have to being mission critical. Even as an individual, I mean you might get hired at a company based on your resume, but you will ultimately be promoted and reach your goals based on your ability to innovate, to adapt, to create in real time out.

Now, some companies have managed to do amazing things despite all these crazy challenges that we’re having in the economy. In 2008, in the eye of the storm, my friends in Chicago started Groupon. They didn’t create billions of dollars of wealth because they followed the heard or they did what everybody else was, or make some slight little teeny incremental improvement in the coupon business. They re-imagined, they reinvented, they disrupted, and as a result created incredible wealth.

Now, it doesn’t only apply in our world – in technology; in my home town, I’m a Detroiter, my friends at Ford Motor Company, they were facing the same seemingly insurmountable challenges as their competitors but when Chrysler and General Motors went running for bankruptcy protection, Ford doubled down on innovation. And as a result, they are enjoying record profits today. So we’re seeing this pattern again and again and for the startups in the room, for the pioneers in the room, therein lies the opportunity. It doesn’t matter if your competitor is 10 times your size, you have the opportunity to disrupt and to win the renovation.

The problem is that so many of us don’t even see these forces coming on the horizon. Because we’re too busy being ‘heads down’. We’ve all heard this expression; you’re head’s down on a project? What do you see when your head’s down on a project? I mean, try it. So, you’re so busy writing that line of code or getting our daily to do list done, that we don’t even see all these changes happening around us. What I would suggest to you this morning, is that all of us; the more heads-up we can be, the more we’re gonna win. Because when your head’s up you notice things, you notice trends in technology, you notice what your competitors are doing, you notice new preferences in consumer engagement, you notice opportunities to win in social media.

So how do we do that, how do we become more heads-up in these challenging times?

Well clearly we need creativity more than ever whether you’re a startup or a big company but unfortunately in our country, in fact across the world we’re facing a big problem. The problem is that instead of rising to meet the challenges of the day, our creativity infact is declining. So what’s going on here? A cover of Newsweek last year, talked about the Creativity Crisis. They revealed the results of a test called the “torrence test” which measures creativity in kids and for decades creativity here in North America has been on the rise until about 15 years ago we saw a sharp decline.

Why? What’s going on? Well I’ll give you a quick example: this is a picture of my daughter Chloe. Chloe  was in fourth grade, a year or so ago, and the teacher says to Chloe, “Chloe, go draw a picture of a bear.” Cool, no problem. So she goes and draws this bear and she makes it purple and funky shaped and it’s really cool you know? So she runs up to the teacher and she hands it to her and she’s waiting for praise and admiration. You know what that teacher said? “Chloe, that’s not what bears look like. Bears aren’t that colour. Go back and redo it.” So in that moment, it wasn’t that her creativity went away – that’s her gift as a human being, in fact that’s all of our gifts as human beings. But she learned a terrible lesson that we teach throughout the day to our kids but also to out colleagues and even ourselves. ‘Don’t take risks, don’t try something new, don’t do something interesting, just do the bare minimum.’ That’s not what bears look like.

Really? Anyone ever see one of these? [Shows slide] What is this called?

Audience: An ugly doll.

Josh Linkner: An ugly doll. So these fun things, I bought one to show you, this has been a huge entrepreneurial success story. It was the 2007 “Toy of the year” and in fact when Sasha Obama went off to first day of school in Washington DC, she went clutching tightly to the security of her ugly doll. You notice a disconnect?

We teach this [shows slide], yet we reward that? [shows other slide]

We’re taught in school to follow the rules, guess what the teacher knows, there’s only one right answer and whatever you do, don’t make any mistakes. But if you run that game pan in the real world it is a sure fire path to mediocrity. Doing exactly the opposite is what allows us to reach our true potential. Another study done to try and measure the impact that schools are having on kid’s creativity: so they asked kindergarteners, entering kindergarteners – a simple question: are you creative? Turns out that  98% of those kids raised their hands and self identified, “Yep, I’m creative.” They asked the saem question to graduating high school seniors. The numbers changed a little bit. Can you guess what they dropped to? [Audience offer answers] [Josh LInkner]: 3, 10, 20, none, 1? 2%. 2% – how does that happen? We send our kids to school to prepare them to meet the challenges of the day and the exact opposite is what’s going on.

So what’s happening is instead of growing into creativity, we’re growing out of it. And you remember, when you were a kid there was no such thing as a cardboard box. It was a fort or a Barbie mansion or a pirate ship. You put a bunch of kids full of toys and art supplies, they’ll play for hours with endless imagination. You put us in the same room, we’re checking our Blackberries in 45 seconds. So over time, our schools and out systems and our bureaucracies, they beat it out of us and we become the thing that we fear the most: grumpy adults, a.k.a. our parents – and not the cool parents in the Viagra commercials. [LAUGHTER]

So, I’m building this Lego death star project with my son Noah. And we’re real proud of it, you know it was real complicated and we built it. But I realized something was wrong with this. Something was wrong. So I brought it with me to show you. This is the instruction manual. [LAUGHTER] I wish I was kidding but I’m not! There’s 192 detailed steps on where to put every single use piece. Is this insanity or what? I mean, when I was a kid this is what Legos looked like. [slide] Right, the active leg wing was to use your imagination. You take these modular pieces you build something once; you bust it apart you build something else. But now we are doing exactly the opposite. Instead of fostering imagination we are simply teaching kids to follow the rules. So now that I have bummed you out today, there is good news. In fact there is really good news.

Harvard University ran a study in 2008. They asked the age old question; is creativity born or is it developed? Is it nature or nurture? Here’s what they found.

Creativity in fact is 85% learned behavior. Think about what that means? That means you and I on our groggious day have 85% the creative capacity as Mozart, Da Vinci or Picasso. The problem is we don’t feel that way. The problem isn’t that we don’t have the capacity, it’s that we don’t feel that way. So you start to say, why not? Why don’t we feel creative? There are a couple of reasons.

The first one is labeling. We somehow attribute job titles with levels of creativity. We think that artists and musicians and graphic designers are really creative and we think that statisticians are not. Well there are professional musicians in symphony orchestras and they play the notes on the page beautifully, fabulous technicians but they are not creating much of anything. On the other hand we’ve seen how creative accountants can get. [Laughs] Now obviously you don’t want to use creativity for nefarious purposes but the idea is that we are all creative, and today in the hyper competitive world that we live in an era where it’s too complex and too fast to have an operating manual following the rules and hoping to get ahead, it doesn’t matter what your job title is, it’s up to all of us to tap into that creativity inside.

Now the biggest problem is fear; the number one blocker of creativity. And we’ve all done it. You’re in a meeting your brainstorming and you’ve got a great idea, but instead of sharing it you hold it back because you talk yourself out of it. You say like, “well what will my boss say? Will I look foolish, whose going to fund this idea? If it was such a good idea somebody else probably would have already said it. If this project goes forward and I’m responsible for it and I screw it up what does that mean to my career? So we let fear get in the way of the most important gift that we can have as contributors, we hold back our creativity.

I want you to think about creativity today in a different way. Think about it as a muscle. As human beings we all have muscles, we all have muscle mass. And we all can expand that if we work out. If you never go to the gym you don’t have too much muscle mass but if you exercise obviously you can build it. Creativity is the exact same thing. It’s a complete myth that one out of a hundred people are born with a lightning bolt of creative inspiration, we are all creative; science proves it. Now it’s true most of us are scrawny today and most organizations are ‘creatively scrawny’ but I want to share with you today some very specific techniques that you can use immediately to pump those creativity muscles up. [slide] [Laughs]

I’ve been a jazz musician most of my life. I started playing jazz 31 of my 41 years ago and jazz is really an interesting art form because only 1% of the notes are on the written page and the rest of it you make it up as you go; spontaneous innovation. I would argue today that we are all jazz musicians because that’s what we have to do today in an era of ultra-competitive environments. The metaphor for leadership in the past was that of a symphony conductor, one person’s stands in the center of the room everybody has got their sheet music, it’s orchestrated, it’s precision, it’s accuracy. But again the world has changed. The fundamental rules of the game have changed forever and today an entirely new set of skills are needed in order to win. Today it’s like being a jazz combo, where you’re jamming and playing off each other and trying new things. If I go out to play a jazz gig and play it safe I would get laughed off the stage. So I would argue that the environment inside a jazz combo fosters creativity. It’s not that jazz musicians were born more creative it’s that the culture they’ve built enables that creativity. So if you can start thinking of your own teams and your own organizations as that of a jazz combo where your helping each other your supporting your listening and your jamming and you are taking responsible risks, it’s going to be a very quick step in order to crack that code.

In preparing for the book, and I’ll share some specific techniques, besides my own experiences as an entrepreneur and a jazz musician I had the opportunity to interview over 200 thought leaders. I interviewed artists, musicians, CEOs, billionaires, entrepreneurs, even military leaders. And I tried to take their best practices and boil all that collective wisdom down into a step by step process to unleash creativity. I thought we’d have some fun this morning and share some of those ideas. So take a quick look at this picture and imagine that it’s a snap shot from a movie. In other words there’s a story leading up to it, something’s happening here, there’s something about to happen and maybe just shout out, tell me what’s going on in this movie.

Audience: Aliens!

Josh Linkner: Aliens… being followed?

Audience: Child in the backseat.

Josh Linkner: Child in the back seat? We’ve all been there right?

Audience: ? [laughter]

Josh Linkner: wow…you know we are at a software conference right?

Audience: a girl having trouble cancelling her Netflix registration. [Laughter]

Josh Linkner: So here’s the thing, how did you know that? You made it up. Even the people that came into this room arms folded ‘oh am not that creative, am a finance guy whatever’ we’re all creative. Even the folks that didn’t say something, I know you were thinking something. Because when you are in an environment where there are no wrong answers, you are not going to be criticized for saying something or feel foolish, the creativity shines. This is a very fun and easy exercise to get your teams warmed up to get creative. Simply grab a random picture from the internet or from a magazine and ask your team what’s going on in this picture?

I don’t know if you notice by the way what happened to the energy in this room. When we started creating everyone’s laughing, and the energy, I could feel it! That’s the same impact that’s going to be in your teams when you give them permission to be creative. Let’s do another one just for fun since we are here. What’s going on in this picture? Oh… [Laughs] I think that’s what they are doing in every picture pausing for Clipart, that’s great. Watching an inappropriate video on you tube. Wow! Now that’s creative. [Laughs] So again it’s a fun way to get warmed up and get your creative juices flowing.

Along those lines, if you get more curious, you become more creative. So curiosity is one the key building blocks of creativity. Simplest technique that you can do to get yourself and your team more curious; ask these three simple questions again and again and again. Why, what if and why not? Because when you ask these questions it forces you to challenge conventional wisdom, it forces you to attack the status quo and imagine what’s possible instead of just ‘what is’.

Give you a quick example, there was an entrepreneur and she was about to launch a girls sock company. So she was going to manufacture socks for teenage girls any way the conventional wisdom, the way the most of us would solve that problem. We’d fly overseas; find the cheapest possible factory to manufacture boring white utilitarian socks. Then we’d get on a plane and fly to Bentonville Arkansas and beg Wal-Mart, “please sell my sock, I’ll sell them to you super cheap, 5 pairs for a dollar.” That’s what most people would do. But this woman, before launching her company got curious. She said ‘why, what if, why not? Why do socks have to be boring? What if socks were colorful and fun and expressive? Why do socks match? Why do socks come in pairs of two you always lose one and that’s annoying?’ So she launches this cool company, and this cool company is called Little Mismatched. So as you’ll see these socks boring white utilitarian and basic, they are fun and colorful and expressive. You can’t buy a pair of socks that match. They are color coordinated but they don’t match. In fact you can’t even buy a pair at all because they come in sets of 3 or 5. [Laughs]

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So you start to say, ‘OK is that frivolous, is this creativity run amok?’ This company went from 0 to 30 million dollars in revenue in 4 years. And she did it not by following the pack, not by launching another commodity; she did it by being remarkable and different. The world doesn’t need another commodity folks. The world doesn’t need another ‘me too’ player, the world doesn’t need another ‘me too’ anything. What the world craves and is willing to pay handsomely for is originality, creative thinking, disrupt or be disrupted.

Now another powerful way to get right into the heart of an issue, to get creativity and curiosity rolling, this was a technique that was pioneered by Toyota called the ‘5 Why’s’. So basically you ask why something. If you are trying to solve a problem get the answer to that and ask why that? And if you do that 5 times in a row it’s amazing how much curiosity and creativity comes to the surface. So I want to share with you a brief video demonstration of the ‘5 Why’s’ in action by comedian Louis C. K. Let’s take a look.

You see a mother with her baby at McDonalds and the little girl says something like “mom what are those people doing there?” And she just says “just shut up and eat your French fries.” And you think what a mean mother. Why doesn’t she just answer her and open for her horizons? Well you don’t know what you are talking about? Coz when a kid asks why something and you tell her why she wants to know why that. And then you tell her that and then she wants to know why that and then you try to come up with an answer that stops but you can’t. She takes every idea and deconstructs it until the point I do not even know who I am any more [laughs] and then again she says to me “papa why is it hot?” “Coz its summer time” “why?” “coz it’s that time of the year” “why?” “Coz the sun is closer to the earth” “why?” “because its tilted on its axis” “why?” “I don’t know” “why?” “I just didn’t pay attention when they taught me this stuff in school, I didn’t really listen. I didn’t think it was important.” “Why?” “coz I smoked a lot of pot, I didn’t have any values“ “why?” “Coz my parents didn’t raise me very well they didn’t pay attention to me” “why?” “Coz they just had sex in a car and here I am and they resent me for taking their youth” “why?” “They have no moral compass coz they had bad parents and it just keeps going like that” “why?” “Coz there is no God and we are alone and there is no point to anything.” I’m only stopping to be polite to you. It goes on for hours and it gets so abstract. “Why?” “Because some things are and some things are not.” “Why?” “Things that are not can’t be” “why?” “Coz then nothing would not be. Something has to ‘isn’t’. Everything can’t ‘is’” “Why?” “Just shut up and eat your French fries alright” [Laughs]

Louis C. K. doing the 5 whys. Who’s this guy? Waldo. So maybe to your kids and grandkids niece and nephews you’ve probably read a ‘Where’s Waldo’ book all of a sudden you have this magical where’s Waldo level of awareness. You notice everything. All these things you wouldn’t ordinarily see. You notice the weird creepy guy in the purple pants, you notice the bumper car going of the track, you notice the out houses with the windows. You notice all these strange things. If where’s Waldo level of awareness is as easy as opening a kid’s book, why don’t we bring it with us to the office? It’s the difference again between being heads down to heads up.

When your heads up, when you have awareness you all kinds of opportunities for change, all types of opportunity for creativity. So let’s try it. Let’s put that to the test. Using your new ‘Where’s Waldo’ level of awareness tell me what’s wrong with this picture. Anybody? It’s going to UPS. Well this is a true story, my company that I built over the last 11 years; it’s called Eprise – about 400 people, technologist Software Company. We work with major brand advertisers, Coke, Microsoft etc. Anyway we won this new account, UPS. And we are all excited and we are slapping high fives until we had to mail them the contract. You see where this is going right? Sure enough we did it, we sent them a contract in a FedEx envelope. Can you imagine the delivery guy walking up to UPS headquarters like “I got a package.” Oh! They signed it. So I got a call from my client and let’s just say she was displeased. I learned some new vocabulary words in fact that day from her. I went to my team member who sent this, I couldn’t believe it. Think about the sheer mechanics. You’re writing UPS and there is a giant purple and orange FedEx logo there. How does that happen? So I go to my team member and am outraged and everything. And I say, “what’s going here?” Here’s what she said, “Josh our contract is with FedEx.”

Now here’s the thing. She wasn’t a bad person she wasn’t stupid or something, she was just so busy being heads down that she didn’t look up and see the opportunity to win. If that’s happening at Eprise where the average age is 28 and we got piercings and tattoos and purple walls and exposed brick, it’s happening everywhere. Which means as leaders of emerging software companies we need to be ever vigilant and encourage our teams to be heads up, to bring that ‘Where’s Waldo’ level of awareness with us. Coz that’s what the difference is between winning and losing. Luckily we kept the client but it was a bit of a struggle.

So I run this venture capital firm in downtown Detroit. Some pretty cool partners, one partner is Dan Gilbert who is the owner of the Cleveland Cavs he is the guy that famously flamed LeBron James in the media with comics sans font, one of my other partners is Ervin Magic Johnson. Anyway we look at deals all day long. And we have an all-digital strategy so I look at software deals all day long. And one of the things I thought I’d share with you today is that so often the aim of companies is off.

When I started my third business in 1995 most people thought I was crazy. I was going out and building these bizarre contraptions called websites. Well nobody knew what that was. I would literally call people up on the phone and say “hey have you ever heard of the internet, “and people where like “what’s that?” I’d say ” look I can build you a website.” ” Well what’s a website?” if I had looked at the market data at the time and all the research reports that we all read it would have clearly revealed that there was zero market opportunity for website development. None, it didn’t exist. There was no industry. Luckily I was at something in the future and it didn’t take that big of a leap at the time to think that well now two percent of companies have websites in the future everyone will need a website. The reason we were successful isn’t because I looked at the market conditions of the day it was because I aimed at something in the future. I hear pitches all day long at Detroit venture firm of software people saying “listen I’m going to launch this new thing and it’s going to compete with Facebook, Facebook isn’t doing this at all and so we are going to win” I say to myself well they might not be doing it right now but by the time you launch in 12 months don’t you think it’s possible they’ll be doing the same thing.

So I think what happens to most of us, and I think many misguided dreamers come up with an idea and they think the rest of the world will freeze for twelve months while they build it. But as we know the world doesn’t freeze. In fact we are living in a time of perpetual motion like none other in history. There’s new advances in technology, new political upheaval, new scientific breakthrough, new natural disasters, new innovation. So what I suggest to you, if you are thinking that you are going to win today exclusively because your product or feature set has something a little bit different than the big guys have today, it’s an unrealistic thought that they will stand still. Nothing is stagnant, everything is constantly moving. So I think you have got to aim at something in the future, use your creativity and innovation to think what’s about to happen not just what’s happening today. Follow?

Who’s this guy? Dyson. So the guy invents his vacuum cleaner goes on to become a billionaire. Well the part of the story that you may not know is that Dyson failed 5100 times before getting it right. Literally 5100 failed experiments in a row. Dyson knew that failure isn’t fatal; instead mistakes are simply the portals of discovery. I’ve interviewed people all over the world and I’ve seen the most successful people not only win more than they fail more because they are willing to go out on a limb and take a risk. The problem is that most of us don’t even try at all or if we do try and hit the slightest speed bump we go running to the hills for safety. We are so worried about playing it safe only to learn that playing it safe has become the riskiest move of all.

I want to share another quick video clip. This is from the movie called Meet the Robinsons. Anyway in this movie there is this little boy and he is an inventor, and he invents a peanut butter and jelly gun. Kind of like a squirt gun for making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He is all excited to share his invention and he hooks up with this cookie inventor family. He is all excited to share the invention but something goes terribly wrong. Let’s take a look.

[Movie clip]

Spk1: Oh no! I didn’t know it. I’m so sorry. Spk2: You failed. Spk3: And it was awesome, Spk4: exceptional, Spk5: outstanding, Spk6: I’ve seen better. Spk7: From failing you learn, from success not so much. Spk4: if I gave up I every time I failed I never would have made the meatball canon Spk2: I never would have made my fire proof pants… still working out the kinks. Spk7: like my husband always says: [song plays: keep moving forward]

I don’t know if you call what the mum said ‘from failure you learn, from success – not so much.’  an amazing message, what if we sent that message to our teams, our families? What do you think would enable creativity more? Sharply criticizing somebody who comes up with a little spark of an idea or letting him go and run and take a couple of risks along the way? A couple of examples I did from the research of the book one company I interviewed issues a failure of the year award. Literally they have this huge ceremony and they celebrate other things, the team member of the year, the project of the year but they also celebrate the failure of the year. They say this is for the team or individual that had a great idea all their numbers made sense, they went for it and it didn’t work out at all, but good for them all. Think about the message that drives deep into the DNA of this company; that it’s ok to take risks, it’s ok to be creative.

Another company that I interviewed issues every team member two corporate get out of jail free cards. They say take these cards go on a limb be creative and if you really screw something up hand us one of these cards, you’re off the hook no questions asked. On the annual reviews a team leader will actually be disappointed with at a team member if they haven’t used both of them. So you’d say is that risky? Perhaps, but what’s the risk of not doing something like that?

You know we are all busy about managing resources, human resources and technical resources and server power. I would suggest to you the most powerful natural resource that you have in teams and organizations is the creative capacity of those individuals. How are you managing those resources? If you sharply criticize the slightest misstep you are restricting them. This is the kind of thing that will get them to flow.

Anybody have sushi for thanksgiving dinner? Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes right? Well me too of course that’s a great tradition. Well traditions are amazing in a family environment but they can be deadly in the business world. Because when you’re going to have 30 people for thanksgiving dinner you’re not worried about what you are going to serve, you already know coz that’s the way you’ve always done it. You are blindly saluting the flag of the past. Great in the family, deadly in business. The problem is that the business world isn’t static as we said earlier. Every night when you go to bed and wake up the next day the world has changed. So a process system procedure whatever that worked 5 years ago let alone 5 months ago may have been great then but can be totally irrelevant today.

I was carving a pumpkin like you always do from the top, then you stick your arms in there and you get all the goop everywhere. Then you go to light it and you stick your hand down there and you get your second degree burns, you know what I’m talking about. Then you got to carry it around and you getting in the slippery thing and it’s clumsy. Anyway I was complaining about this to my partner Dan Gilbert, and Danny said, “Josh you’re doing it all wrong. Curve it from the bottom.” It blew my mind. Think about it. You curve it from the bottom you get to use gravity, all the goop just plops right out. You go to light it. You put a candle down; gently place the pumpkin over the top, no burns. You want to carry it around you get to use the candle that nature intended. Brilliant right, and by the way no one in this room will ever carve a pumpkin the same way, zero chance. But I didn’t think of that, very few of us do because we are doing things the way we’ve always done them.

So you might be saying, ‘I got a code to write, I got a competitive landscape, I got cloud computing, I don’t have time for pumpkins Josh.’ But I would say that if you can look for points of innovation, even in the littlest things, even in the pumpkin, you’ll create a culture that drives massive creativity. Creativity isn’t only being Steve Jobs and inventing iPod or disrupting an entire field, creativity in the little everyday things can become transformative. How do you conduct your Monday morning meetings? How close is the printer? Can you save a couple of steps? How are you handling quality control? Creativity applied on an everyday basis again can be transformational.

[Slide] This ugly fish is called a pike. So pike are fresh water predatory fish, they have sharp teeth and they eat the little fish. Anyway I want to share an experiment that scientists have conducted many times. Here’s what they do, they take a huge tank and on one end they put a pike and on the other end they put lots of tiny little fish that the pike will love to eat. But in the middle they insert a glass divider. Here’s what happens every time this experiment is conducted. The pike sees the fish, goes over, crashes onto the glass, goes back tries it again; into the glass. After a couple of dozen attempts that pike gets frustrated and disappointed so he lingers at the bottom of the tank. Well next the scientists remove the glass divider. So you would think that that pike would go to town and have the feast of his life but he doesn’t, he lingers at the bottom of the tank. After a while those little fish start getting brave and they swim round and I’ve seen videos they actually swim right around that pikes nose. So once again you think, ‘wow feast time, chow down.’ But every time this experiment is conducted that pike lingers at the bottom of the tank and dies of starvation. Scientists refer to this as the pike syndrome, which is essentially that an imaginary barrier is getting in the way of progress. Well as we know this just does not apply to fish it applies to people, it applies to software companies. What are the imaginary barriers that are holding you back? I don’t have enough resources, I didn’t finalize my (?) my code isn’t tight enough, I’m too tall, I’m too short, too old, too young, I didn’t go to the right school, I didn’t have the right connections. So we talk ourselves out of these things and we get in the way of reaching our true potential.

This makes me want to introduce you to this guy. This guy is named Joseph Huneker, a software kid, he’s 8. He invents this game called Puckz. It’s a cross between checkers and hockey. It’s a downloadable app for 99 cents and he is selling thousands of them a day. You didn’t go to the right college; this kid didn’t go to the right middle school. [Laughs] But he is not letting his imaginary barriers get in the way and neither can we. I just read that two thirds of the world’s billionaires are self-made. That means they had the exact same barriers the exact same disadvantages that we all do but somehow they managed to afford to follow it anyway.

One of the things I’d like you to look out for in your own teams, in your own organizations is the concept of ‘group think’. ‘Group think’ is that poisonous fearful thinking that waters down your most powerful ideas. An example is this cool product Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream. Have you ever had this by the way? It’s the bomb right? Oh it’s so good. So chunks of chocolate cherry flavored ice-cream, big chunks of cherries it’s just awesome. Well this is a huge multi hundred million dollar product line from Ben & Jerry’s widely successful, there’s nothing else like it. But in most companies this would have never passed the original brainstorm. Here’s how the brainstorming session would go in most companies. Someone says, “oh I got an idea: Cherry Garcia ice-cream flavored ice-cream chunks of chocolate, cherries; it’s going to rock.” But then you got Sue over in Legal and Sue says something like “oh yeah, about that. You know that one out of a hundred thousand people are allergic to cherries? Why don’t you pull those cherries out.” Then you got jimmy out in purchasing. Jimmy says “those chunks of chocolate – that’s going to reduce my gross margin by 0.2 cents a unit. Why don’t you pull those chocolate chunks out.” Then you got Ben at manufacturing and Ben is like “Hey listen, cherry flavored ice-cream. I got to install a new piece of equipment; I got to do something on my line I got to retrain my people. Can’t you just pull that cherry flavor out of the ice cream?” What do you got left? Vanilla. You got a big bowl of vanilla nothing, a commodity. And again the world doesn’t need another commodity. If you launch a software product that is nearly identical to Twitter, Facebook or whoever else other than one feature, it’s a commodity. What the world craves is this, what the world will pay handsomely for is this.

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I want to share a technique. I always go to conferences like this and sometimes you feel inspired but then you walk out and then say “now what?” Well I wanted to give you a “now what”. This is my favorite brainstorming activity that you can use immediately and I think you’ll see a lot of results with. It’s called ‘Role Storming’. The idea is like brainstorming but you brainstorm in character. At Eprise we were trying to win a new a new business and we were trying to come up with some really creative ideas in order to win. So we are having a normal brainstorm session and frankly the ideas were sort of flat, until we decided to ‘role storm’. What we did is we pretended we were the characters from the hit TV show Mad Men. I don’t know if any of you have seen it but it’s a show shot in the 1960s about an ad agency. So one of us pretends we are Dan Draper the other pretends he is Roger Sterling. Anyway we had a blast. The energy levels went up and the white boards were filled with ideas. Those ideas allowed us to go and pitch to the client and win the business. We ‘role stormed’ our way to success. The reason is that when you ‘role storm’ all that fear that we talked about goes totally away. If you are brainstorming as somebody else no one is going to laugh at you.

So let’s say Judy here is playing her role in the next brainstorming session of Steve Jobs. And I’d say bring the turtle neck, the whole deal. Now no one is going to laugh at Steve for coming up with a breakthrough idea. In fact they might laugh at Steve if his idea was a little tiny small idea. So now Judy is totally liberated to share anything that she wants because there is no repercussion, nothing bad is going to happen to Judy because those ideas came to Steve. So let’s say here our friend here is playing the role of Charlie Sheen. So Charlie here is all crazy with ideas winning and charge and tiger blood and all this kind of stuff. Now that’s ok because ideas in their raw form are amazing. Those crazy breakthrough ideas, maybe he’s ideas will be illegal and immoral, fine. It doesn’t mean you need to implement them that way. I mean he may come up with a completely wacky idea but once it’s out there you can shape and pivot it and it becomes your powerful new software application. But because he played the role of Charlie Sheen it forced him to think differently and allow those ideas to come to the surface.

What’s your name? So let’s say Dave here is playing the role of Oprah. You can see the resemblance, kind of cool. So Oprah over here probably is thinking big ideas to solve the problem at hand but also what’s going to help the community and maybe Oprah’s perspective completely breaks things up and they get a brand new interesting idea they hadn’t thought of before. So give it a try. It sounds a little goofy at first but simply pick your favorite literary figure politician, sports hero. I challenge anyone to become a villain; it’s really fun to become Darth Vader I’ve tried it, and role storm and you will be blown away about the creativity that starts to fly.

I’d like to wrap things up with a quick example of creativity in a highly competitive world and I’d be happy to take a few questions. So as I mentioned my partners and I launched Detroit Venture Partners. It in itself is a typical place to launch a venture firm, typically Boston, New York or San Francisco but we felt why follow the heart when we can innovate. We launched Detroit Venture Partners not only for economic gain but also to create jobs, urban density and hope. We are trying to build our crumbling city through entrepreneurial fire. So any way we are investing in digital companies; mobile apps software etc. as you know or many of you have pitched VCs getting a venture capitalists to fund your business is extremely competitive. The odds in Silicon Valley are 1 out of 300 deals get funded. Three times harder than getting into Harvard business school.

So in a highly competitive world how does creativity win?

First of all has anyone ever seen one of these? Anybody like it? It’s awful right? So these stupid horrible things are called captures. They exist on web forms and the idea is to block out fraud. To make sure that it is actually a human being completing a form instead of a computer bot. You got a couple of problems. One is, nobody likes it. Universal hatred. So you are already pissing off your customer before they even place an order. Second problem is there is huge drop off. You spend all those marketing dollars and you optimize your SEO, you tweak and you get people to the site they try three times and they can’t figure it out and they split; fail. The third problem is they are not even that secure. On average they are only 58% secure in preventing fraud.

Now how is the rest of the world solving this problem? They keep making these things more stupid. I had these entrepreneurs come see me. Talented young bright entrepreneurs and they said we’ve got a different approach. We’ve tried something creative. Here’s what they did. It’s great right? It’s just great. So you replace the capture with this little unit. And by the way if you see it real time the toppings are floating gently. And if you reload the next time it’ll ask ‘drag 2 green olives and a pepper onto the pizza’. So the game is always changing and always moving. This is a generic one but it can be branded. For example this can be for Domino’s pizza. Or you might say for Coca-Cola instead of pizzas its refrigerators and drag 2 coke zeros and a diet coke into the left fridge. Now you’ve an easy thing for humans to solve, it’s totally secure, it’s branded, its positive, it just rocks. Does everybody think it rock? It rocks. When I saw this thing my jaw hit the table. Original, creative, inspired, innovative. I gave them a term sheet instantly. From the time I gave them my term sheet to the time we closed the deal literally I had 11 other venture capitalists from around the country call me and beg me to get in on this deal. I am not so good at math but if you take the odds of one of three hundred to the eleventh power, those are some long odds.

The reason that they were able to win is because they were creative, it’s because they let a remarkable innovation carry the day. It wasn’t because they had the fanciest sales deck, it wasn’t because they were the most charismatic. It’s because they were the most creative. That’s what it takes to win the hyper competitive world of software, that’s what it takes to win in this new challenging global economy. By the way, for the software geeks in the house, which is pretty much all of us, they wrote an algorithm, they take a digital fingerprint underneath that game, and they track how the mouse moves and they compare that to the way a human would solve the problem versus a computer so they can know with extraordinary detail how accurate this is in terms of preventing fraud.

Anyway if you would like new sources on creativity, I’m not selling anything, there are all kinds of free resources, I write a weekly blog joshlinker.com. There is actually a creativity quiz that you can take and it’s free and figure out how creative you currently are and how creative your organization is. So I just want to give you a resource as you continue to embark on your own creative journey, something that you can use to get really rolling. So before I take a couple of questions I’d like to actually leave you with a challenge, a 5% challenge. If you take a 40 hour work week and I know we all work more than 40. If you just took a 40 hour work week, 5% of that is 2 hours. If you took 5% of your time 2 hours a week for 30 days you’ll see remarkable results.

What I want you to do is use that time instead of being heads down, being heads up. Using the time to be creative, ask the 5 whys, ask why, what if and why not. Try ‘role storming’, play around with your aim, surf the web, go to an art museum, smoke a joint, whatever you got to do but get creative.

Here’s what happens by the way, coz I’ve issued this challenge to thousands of people all over the world. Here’s what I hear back. I hear back from some companies big and small productivity drop of 0%. Magically 40 hours of transactional to do list type of work get mushed down to 38 hours no one misses a beat. But then you got these two hours left over which is a gift. It’s a gift to your organization because now you are flowing with ideas and innovation and creativity one of which could be transformational to the company, but even more than that it’s a gift to you as a human being, because there are a few things more satisfying than inspired creativity. Give it a try 5% challenge 30 days let me know how it goes and once again thank you for the opportunity to be here today. [Applause] I’d love to answer any questions. Venture capital marketing software (boxes) of brief, whatever you got.

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Audience: if creativity is declining why is there so much innovation?

Josh Linkner: If creativity is declining why is there so much innovation? Good question. I wouldn’t say the word epidemic, it’s not that the entire world isn’t creative any more but what we are seeing are tangible results of creativity declining specifically within in kids. So I would say in the USA where we’ve historically been rather creative it doesn’t mean that we just stopped creating all together, think about it as a balloon with a leaking hole and air is starting to rush out of it. If we don’t do something about it soon we are going to run into problems. The other thing by the way is that the demand is increasing so now we need to be more creative than ever but our supply is decreasing. So you should think about it as an increasing creativity gap that keeps getting worse, which is all the more reason why we need to take action in our organizations

Audience: Two questions actually. How do you measure creativity, how do you count creativity to know that it is declining? Don’t you think difficult times foster creativity? Like the one that we are passing right now.

Josh Linkner: Well both are good questions. In terms of measuring creativity, again the research shows we are all creative as human beings. So it’s not that we are less creative as a species, it’s that we are not exhibiting creativity, for many of the reasons that we discussed. We are afraid; we are holding back, we are not empowered in our organizations to unleash that creativity. So it’s more that we have under developed those skills, it’s not that we are not creative as human beings. There are a lot of measures of that, the tests that I shared with you about what’s happening in schools, the Torrance test that Newsweek covered and so the data is showing that generally speaking in our society creative output is going down. Now does necessity drive innovation and creativity? For sure, in fact there has been more successful companies launched in the middle of recession than ever before so it doesn’t mean again that there is no creativity my argument isn’t that there is no one in this room who is creative, it’s that we are not encouraging it enough in our organizations and since we all have it as a gift we need to try and bring it more to the surface because the world is becoming more competitive than ever, we need creativity more than ever. So if we are repressing those skills instead of nurturing them it’s going to lead us into a problem.

Audience: You mentioned creativity is a learnt trade and you went to give examples how to express creativity through role playing and what a view. How do you teach creativity if it’s a learnt trait? If growing up I wasn’t put in an environment where I was given the tools to learn the creativity, how do you go about fostering that other than just saying ‘take two hours a week and be creative’.

Josh Linkner: Yeah there are some specific things I cover if you feel like picking up a copy where it offers a systematic approach. I set out to write kind of like the ISO 9000 of creativity because in the business world we have systems and processes for everything but creativity as you point out is sort of amorphous, it’s like I don’t just go out and be creative, there is no structure around it, so I offered up a step by step approach. Quick simple answer though there are a number of techniques when you put them together, they can quickly unleash human creativity, in the same way if you went to the gym and started doing curls all of us know how we are genetically laid out we will start to build bigger biceps and similarly we can start to build creativity muscles if we do things regularly. A couple of quick examples of that, there are some techniques in the book we talk about for example doodling and letting your mind wonder with random thoughts, or taking a few different things and putting them together. There is a technique I like to call the racist peanut butter cup where you basically take two or three random things from different industries put them together in the table and see if you can come up with something that’s better as a combination. So what I try to do is breakdown something which is very vague which is creativity in general and make it into simple step by step exercises that will help people to build those muscles. And again there is a bunch of free ones on the website which is joshlinkner.com. I’m running out of time but I will be around later. Thank you so much it’s been a pleasure.

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