Dream Big-Before Your Competitors Do

April 8, 2011
Best Plants: Author, entrepreneur shows manufacturers how they can ignite their creativity.

At the conclusion of his keynote presentation at IndustryWeek's Best Plants Conference in Atlanta, Josh Linkner told the audience to open the small manila envelopes that had been placed on each table.

The envelopes contained get-out-jail-free cards.

Printed on the cards were three messages meant to inspire the several hundred manufacturing leaders to tap into their powers of creativity: "Try new things. Take responsible risks. Let your creativity shine!"

Linkner's point is that we need to be emboldened to think creatively -- without fear of reprisal if we screw up.

Unleashing the creativity that exists in all of is the key to attaining the competitive advantage that we all seek, Linkner asserted.

"Originality is craved for," Linkner said, pointing to companies ranging from Groupon to a new startup that sells mismatched socks. "That's what people are willing to pay for."

Unfortunately, our culture -- from our classrooms to our boardrooms -- doesn't encourage people to be creative, he said. In our schools and our jobs, we don't learn to create. We learn to follow instructions.

"We don't grow into creativity, we're growing out of it," Linkner said.

More Classical Than Jazz

Creativity, according to Linkner, is 85% learned behavior. Unfortunately, our culture discourages creativity in a number of ways, such as labeling and restrictive environments.

For example, musicians play for a living; the rest of us "go to work." Linkner, a successful Internet entrepreneur and part-time jazz musician, wonders if we should change our label from "work force" to "play force."

"What if we had play force management and not work force management?" Linkner asked.

Environment plays a role in harboring creativity, Linkner noted. So it's counterintuitive that many of us assemble in drab conference rooms to come up with ideas.

A boardroom, Linkner said, is a "sensory-deprivation chamber."

If the fact that "we've become more classical than jazz" in our thinking doesn't worry you, it should.

Remember Encyclopedia Britannica? It was the go-to reference source until Microsoft Encarta came along. Then Wikipedia wiped both of them off the map. (If you haven't heard of Encyclopedia Britannica or Microsoft Encarta, you can look them up on Wikipedia.)

"Startups eat the lunch of big companies because they think like jazz musicians," Linkner said.

A Better Way to Carve a Pumpkin

So how can companies inspire the kind of "disruptive creativity" that's making multimillionaires out of startup entrepreneurs with original ideas?

Linkner, who is the author of "Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity," said it starts with awakening our curiosity -- the building block of creativity.

We do that by asking three questions: "Why?" "What if?" And "why not?"

It also helps to get out those sensory-deprivation chambers.

"If it's time to come up with some fresh new ideas, go on a field trip," Linkner said.

Another useful exercise to try with your team members is something Linkner calls "The Opposite."

Take a blank sheet of paper and draw a vertical line dividing it in half. On one side of the line, describe the way you've always done things. On the other side of the line, write down the opposite of the way you've always done things.

"Traditions are great in families, but they can be deadly in companies," Linkner asserted.

He offered one example of how thinking in the opposite fashion can yield innovative results. When he asked business partner Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, for a better way to make a jack-o-lantern, Gilbert suggested starting by carving a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin -- the opposite of how most people do it.

What's the benefit of Gilbert's approach? You can use gravity to help extract the guts of the pumpkin, and it's easier to light the candle without burning your fingers.

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