Harnessing innovation for the win: Josh Linkner at #CommunityLIVE

When Josh Linkner took the stage to deliver his keynote speech at CommunityLIVE, he immediately addressed an issue that is near and dear to those of us who work in the technology industry.

“When you think about innovation,” Linkner said, “it’s sort of overwhelming. You think, ‘Maybe it doesn’t apply to me. It’s not in my job description.’”

As a technology entrepreneur, author, venture capital investor, and jazz musician, Linkner knows innovation. And he wants us to challenge our assumptions about this important topic.

He wants us to apply innovation directly to our daily work, at all levels of our organizations. He wants us to take a fresh approach to growth, disruption, and transformation.

“Innovation is the killer app,” Linkner said. “It can’t be outsourced or automated. It gives us a sustainable competitive advantage.”

He should know. Over the years, Linkner has started, built, and sold five tech companies. And he did so by harnessing information.

Sounds great, but how did he do that?

Listen to what your challenges are trying to tell you

“In 1999, I started a digital promotions company in Detroit. We were understaffed, undercapitalized, and under-resourced, but we used innovation to liberate ourselves and win on a consistent basis.”

But sometimes, innovation comes in a plain package. As a great example of this, Linkner told the story of how his company won a huge contract. They made it to the final round of vendors, but his little company was up against two huge competitors.

“The problem was, the decision maker was … difficult. He kept dragging out the decision. He kept setting deadlines for his decision, then blowing those deadlines. Then, one day I bumped into him at an industry event. I was trying everything I could think of to close the deal, but nothing was working.”

Then, Linkner saw him at the airport. Turns out, they were on the same flight.

“I can’t even make this up if I tried. The guy was upgraded to first-class and, being the gentleman he was, he took the seat for himself. He left his wife in coach. For the record, if I did that with my wife – game over.”

Linkner also received an upgrade to first-class, in the seat right next to the gentleman decision maker.

“When I walked up and looked at that open seat, my mind was racing. Think what your instincts would tell you: I figured, ‘Go for the kill, close the deal,’’” Linkner said.

“Then I paused. The same way I want you to pause.”

During that pause, he had an idea: Linkner decided to offer his seat to the decision-maker’s wife. He told her to go sit with her husband. She teared up. ‘Thank you so much, I’m so happy to sit with my husband.’”

“I don’t know why,” Linkner said, noting the gentleman’s lack of empathy. “I expected her to say, ‘You sit next to him.’”

When he got off the plane, he got a text telling him that the deal was closed. They won.

In this case, Linkner’s innovation was his ability to demonstrate humanity. He didn’t need to be a super-creative wizard. He simply paused and gave himself the space to find the right thing to do. In a world of dizzying speed and information, you need to give yourself permission to pause. That gives you space to be creative, to be innovative.

Later, the gentleman told him that all three companies were solid in his view, and that he was waiting for something to break the tie.

“When you demonstrated an innovative approach to an everyday situation,” the gentleman said, “I knew that I wanted you on my team.”

It was a $30 million deal.

“We can’t rely on the models of the past and expect the same results. Creativity is the killer app,” said Linkner. “That’s the technology that will power the future. We all need to embrace the roles of interrupters and innovators. We all have enormous creative capabilities, we just need to harness them.”

Again, sounds great, but how?

5 obsessions of innovators

Linkner then segued into what he calls the five obsessions of innovators.

1. Get curious

The more curious we are, the more creative we get. Today, the rate of change is incredible. So you need to give yourself permission to take a pause.

“Don’t do what you did in the past. Ask questions,” Linkner said. “Why? How come? What if? This forces you to see through the static. It lets you see the obvious solution.”

When you ask those questions, it forces you to challenge conventional wisdom.

Linkner then used a great example of creativity fueling innovation.

“You might think this type of thinking is only applicable to the tech sector, but it can be applied to any situation. A few years ago, the library in Troy, Michigan, was facing a budget crisis. It was so bad, it was possible that the library might have to shut down. So they tried to pass a small property tax increase to keep the library open. But unfortunately, some outside forces came in and changed the conversation from ‘Save our library’ to ‘No new taxes.’”

So what did the Troy Library do? With one month to go, it was set to lose by a landslide. So leaders at the library challenged conventional wisdom. They started placing signs all over telling people to “Vote to close the library on August 2nd, come to a book burning party on August 5th.”

That angered people and started a massive online conversation: Memes, videos, ironic book burning book bags.

People were enraged. Then, it became international news. That’s when the library revealed its hand, telling people that a vote against the library is a vote to burn books.

By challenging conventional wisdom and being creative, the library changed the conversation – completely. And won. The voter turnout was 400 percent higher than expected. And the Troy Library is still there today.

2. Defy tradition

Traditions in business can be deadly. They can be the road to the end of your company.

“You need to flip traditions upside down,” Linkner said. “When you find yourself about to do what you always do, flip that tradition upside down and see what happens.”

Like the Troy Library, be bold. Be creative. Think outside the box.

Better yet, forgot all about the box. Odds are, there was never even a box there to begin with.

3. Crave what’s next

“Let go of stuff that isn’t working,” Linkner advised. “It takes more to let go of what is working, but it propels you and your organization forward.”

Today’s business world is like the video game Frogger. Things are moving quickly, but you have to jump on them to move forward. If you stand still, you die.

Linkner then talked about the comedian Louis C.K. At the end of every year, he throws out all his material and starts over.

“What if we did that?” Linkner asked. “Maybe it’s time to try something different. Try this the next time you have to work with a customer or vendor. For example, craving what’s next, Idea Bank, a bank in Poland, recognized that sometimes, customers didn’t have time to visit their ATMs. So what did they do? They borrowed an idea from Uber.”

Customers now can use an Uber-like app to request Idea Bank’s electric car that is also an ATM. It then comes to you.

“They didn’t look to other banks,” Linkner said. “They looked to Uber. So they adopted that model and scored big.”

Sometimes, you need to look outside your industry to find inspiration. Let go of what isn’t working and mimic what is working.

4. Get scrappy

The real deal of innovation is grit, tenacity, scrappiness.

For example, Linkner is a trained jazz guitarist. In college, his professor made him remove some strings from his guitar. So with limited resources, he had to figure out solutions to musical problems. But with less strings to rely on, he found that his imagination and creativity soared.

Another example is the bicycle company that wondered what it could do to stop its bikes from getting damaged during shipping. They noticed that plasma screens never got damaged. Challenging tradition, the company simply printed a plasma screen on the outside of their boxes, and reduced damage to their bikes during shipping by 70 percent.

5. Adapt fast

It’s not about a huge, killer idea. It’s about adapting fast to the issues you encounter while bringing your idea to life. And sometimes, it’s about adapting fast to turn tragedy into triumph.

Linkner’s example for this was an ex-convict who got into shape while in jail. He couldn’t find work when he was released, so he ultimately decided to follow his passion – fitness.

Years later, he now has multiple gyms that are based on a jail theme: ConBody. More than 10,000 members – playfully called “inmates” – workout at his gyms and wear workout apparel that reads “#DoTheTime.”

By embracing his situation and adapting to the curveballs life threw at him, he became wildly successful. He now hires other ex-cons, who usually have a difficult time finding work.

“Ideas are contagious,” said Linkner. “In the next seven days, I want you to seek one creative disruption. See what happens.”

Make today the day. Now is the time to get curious. To defy tradition. To crave what’s next. To get scrappy. To adapt fast.

And win.

Scoop Skupien

Scoop Skupien

Scoop Skupien is a former radio station mascot. A rabbit, if you really want to know. These days, he's a content marketing manager at Hyland, as well as the editor of this blog. The author of three books, he’s been writing about tech at Hyland for more than a decade. His industry certifications include CDIA, ecmp, and an MBA.

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