Quit being a follower Featured

12:02pm EDT July 14, 2011

How do you define effectiveness for your business? Does your definition match that of your customers?

“Today, with a world that’s filled with ruthless competition, dizzying speed and exponential complexity, just doing things efficiently is no longer a formula for success,” says Josh Linkner, author and founder of the promotions company ePrize. According to Linkner, what separates successful companies from the rest is their approach to creativity.

In his new book, “Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity,” Linkner dispels the myth that creativity is something with which people are born. Below, he discusses the impact of using a borrowed idea and tells the story of the day he kidnapped his own company.

Why do so many companies get in the habit of waiting for someone else to innovate?

Society tends to reward followers. We’re taught in school to follow the rules — do what you’re told; don’t make mistakes. The problem is that if you do that today in the business environment, that’s a surefire path to mediocrity. Similarly, the companies that follow the herd are the ones that get left in the dust. What we’re seeing now is that the companies, and individuals, by the way, that are winning are the ones that forge new ground, the ones that dare to break the mold and dare to come up with something that is remarkable. [These are] people that are more interested in standing out rather than fitting in.

What’s the secret to finding and adapting a borrowed idea?

Great sculptors will often tell you that they start with a big piece of rock and they chip away the things that don’t need to be there and they reveal the artwork underneath. In other words, they don’t create it. They reveal it.

There are many ideas out there, and there are many points of inspiration. Creativity isn’t something that you’re just born with or not. In fact, it’s absolutely a learned behavior and a skill, just like doing math or some other skill. There are ways to find creativity in other places. You can borrow ideas from other industries or even nature. There’s a metalworking company, for example, that’s developing new cutting techniques for metal by studying the teeth of predatory fish like sharks and piranhas. If you can borrow these ideas and then twist them in a unique and compelling way that solves a real problem for your customers or your colleagues, that’s the type of creativity that’s still remarkable but doesn’t require a lightning bolt from above.

Tell us about how you kidnapped your company.

We had about 250 people. I wanted to share the success that we’d had, but I didn’t have that much money at the time to do it. I did the math and it turned out that I only had about $200 per person to share. Well, I figured that if I gave everybody $200 that would be kind of a nonstarter. You could pay half of your light bill and that would be it.

So, I thought it would be fun to make something more exciting. What I did was on a random Thursday afternoon, I shut off the phone system. I shut down the servers, and I said, ‘Guys, I’m kidnapping the company.’ I grabbed everybody and I took them all to the closest Best Buy, gave them each a $200 gift card and said, ‘You have to spend it right now.’ What happened was that pandemonium erupted. People were running up and down the aisles saying, ‘Are you going to get the Xbox? Are you going to get the digital camera?’ It was really a fun, cool experience. A year and a half later, people were still talking about it. Sometimes you don’t need to have more money to solve problems, you can use creativity. We applied creativity to do something that had a high impact and a low cost.

Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity

By Josh Linkner

Jossey-Bass, 256 pages, $26.95

About the book

“Disciplined Dreaming” helps individuals and organizations unlock the creative process. According to the author, creativity is a skill that can be learned and developed. The book provides a five-step methodology for the “Disciplined Dreaming” process and offers strategies to breathe fire into the creative soul of a company. Linkner proves that creativity is about far more than “brainstorming.”

The author

Josh Linkner is the founder, chairman and former CEO of ePrize, an interactive promotions agency. He is currently the CEO and managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm helping to rebuild urban areas through technology and entrepreneurship.

Why you should read it

Creativity is something that many companies label as an essential part of their organization’s culture, but they struggle to free themselves from the procedures that limit it. “Disciplined Dreaming” takes the freedom and artistry of the creative process (something which many companies dismiss as frivolous) and gives them structure and purpose. Linkner provides numerous examples to help companies empower their staff and generate creativity in an open, productive environment.

Why it’s different

Linkner, an experienced jazz guitarist, brings an artist’s touch to the realm of business thinking in “Disciplined Dreaming.” He doesn’t resort to lists of tips or case studies of the same four or five companies that are featured in the majority of the business books lining today’s shelves. There is a sense of freshness to Linkner’s process and prose that makes his ideas adaptable in an organization, regardless of the industry in which it operates.

Can’t miss

“Defining the Creativity Challenge.” This is an essential chapter because it conquers the most difficult challenge that many companies face: how to begin the creative process. Linkner provides a system to help companies define the problem that requires a creative solution, then helps companies find the right approach to solving the problem.

To share or not to share

The difficulty that most organizations experience in generating new and creative ideas can drag down everything from morale to the bottom line. There isn’t a department within an organization that doesn’t need to generate new ideas. Linkner’s book is a great accelerant to help the creative fires brightly burn.

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