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Harnessing innovation: Fresh approaches to growth, creativity and transformation

Josh Linkner

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As a five-time successful tech entrepreneur and investor in dozens of startups, Linkner has seen thousands of companies loaded with creative buzz and big ideas. How is it that some harness their imagination to create game-changing drivers of growth and innovation while others miss the mark? The answer: The best companies have a systematic process to focus their team’s creativity into practical outputs. Linkner’s inspiring presentation delivers practical tools you can use immediately to increase creative output and deliver bottom-line results.


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I am delighted to be here for many reasons, of course, not the least of which is that my dad was in the profession. He sold insurance, mainly life, but also provided annuities and a number of other financial services products. So I grew up hearing about the differences between whole life and variable around the dinner table. But, more importantly, I got to understand the impact that he made, that you make, on your clients, their families, and their communities.

Unfortunately, I lost my dad to cancer back in 2007, but I always enjoy getting to speak with people in his profession. It reminds me of the impact that he had not only on me but on his clients and, ultimately, our community as well.

With that in mind, let’s dive in, because things are very different from what they were when my dad was in the field back in the 1980s. Today, innovation is everywhere. Change is everywhere. Transformation is everywhere. So how do we rise to that challenge? How do we harness innovation to drive growth, prosperity, and ongoing transformation in the context of overwhelming change?

I’d like you to think about this notion, for a moment, of everyday innovation. When we hear words like innovation, they can feel overwhelming. We think of giant change, like inventing the lightbulb or the automobile. And, in that context, you might say, “How does that apply to me?” Everyday innovation is something that applies to us all. It’s the idea of ingesting the principles of innovation directly into our daily work. You don’t have to start a mobile app company and get a hoodie to be innovative. We can be innovative in the way that we call on a client, the way that we propose a new solution, the way that we hire team members.

Here’s a quick example of what I mean by everyday innovation. This is a picture of a company that I started in Detroit in 1999. [visual] It was called ePrize. We designed, built, and ran digital promotions. It was kind of like half ad agency and half software company. But we had everything going against us despite the fact that we ended up fairly successful, with about 500 team members, before I sold the firm in 2012.

First of all, I’m from Detroit, not exactly the tech hub of North America. And the whole time we were understaffed and undercapitalized and under-resourced, and we were not the smartest people around. What allowed us to win is this expanded definition of innovation. For us, it wasn’t only about the code that we wrote; for us, it was a way of life. How we served. How we led. Even how we sold.

Here is an example of everyday innovation in action. I know many of us are out on the sales front. We’re trying to drive new business and sell more to our existing clients. I think you’ll appreciate this. As I was building my company, we had the chance to win a huge amount of business from a giant corporation called ConAgra Foods. You might recognize some of its brands at the grocery store. Well, this giant company decided to single source its purchases of our type of work—digital promotions—and give all its business to one supplier.

As you can imagine, a competitive shootout began. We made it to the finals. So, at this point, there were three companies left standing—my little shop from Detroit and two much larger companies—and all three of us were desperately competing to win. Here’s the problem. The buyer, the decision maker—he was kind of a jerk. Actually, he was really a jerk. I’m sure you’ve had clients like this before. He was condescending and arrogant and difficult. And he was dragging the process out. He kept setting a deadline to make a decision, and then he blew every deadline.

So we just wanted the thing over with at this point. Well, I bumped into this gentleman and his wife at an industry conference, much like this, actually. I kept finding him at the coffee breaks, and I kept running up to him trying to close the deal. Nothing worked. He was totally dismissive. I saw him again at the airport. It turned out that this guy and his wife were on the same outbound flight that I was. Here’s what happened next.

I can’t even make this up if I tried. Well, the guy was a frequent traveler and he got an upgrade to first class. Being the gentleman that he was, he took the seat for himself and sent his wife on back to coach. Can you imagine? I mean, just for the record, if I did that with my own wife, Tia, game over. Not happening. Next, what happened, believe it or not, was this: I also got an upgrade. I’m a frequent traveler myself. So I walked on the flight, I was looking for my seat, and it turned out I had the seat next to him. Now, think what your instincts would be telling you. You’re seated next to your biggest prospect, you go in for the kill, and you close the deal. I was feeling that. But then I paused. In the same way, I want to encourage you to pause. When you’re facing an opportunity, a challenge, or even a threat, those little pauses give us a chance to express some creativity, to explore an unorthodox route. Everyday innovation.

In my case, I said, “Hey, I have the seat next to you.” He looked back up me. “Cool, we could chat.” I said, “Look, I’d love that. Here’s the problem. I have a ton of work I have to catch up on. By the way, I noticed that your wife is sitting in back. How about we switch seats? You two can enjoy some family time, and I’ll get my work done back in coach.” So, anyway, I walked back, and I found his wife and presented her my ticket. I said, “Go sit with your husband, and have a great flight.” She teared up a little. She said to me, “Thank you so much. This means the world to me. I’m so happy to be sitting with my husband.” I don’t know why. I was sort of expecting her to say, “How about you keep the ticket, pal.”

Anyway, the flight took off. I wasn’t thinking about it too much until we landed. The first thing we all did when we landed was to check our mobile devices. I looked down at mine and saw an email from my office: “Josh, ConAgra deal signed. Thank you.”

This is a true story, by the way, and here’s what he later told me. He said, “I was looking for a tiebreaker. All three companies were solid. But when you demonstrated some humanity, instead of only chasing the bottom line, and when you showed a willingness to be innovative in an everyday situation,” he said, “that’s who I need on my team.” Before the flight took off, he had texted his office. By the time we landed, the deal had already been signed—$30 million.

So I bring this up for two reasons. First of all, what I did on that airplane—it’s nice of you to acknowledge that, but it wasn’t extraordinary at all. The truth is that all of us, all of us, have enormous amounts of creative capacity. That’s our natural state as human beings. We are hardwired to be creative.

The second reason I bring it up is that today, more than ever, we win or lose in those tiebreaker situations, don’t we? It could be landing a new client; it could be recruiting new talent. And I argue that a little layer of creativity in those tiebreaker situations can make all the difference in the world.

Here’s a question for you. If you were to look across the entire globe today, who do you think is the number one map company in the world? Google. Google, of course, is the dominant player. It owns Google Maps and Waze. Dominant player.

Here’s a trickier question. Who was the dominant player 20 years ago? The dominant player 20 years ago was actually Rand McNally. Here’s the crazy part. Not only was it the dominant player 20 years ago, but it was the dominant player 120 years ago. The company was founded in 1856. At its height, it had 5,000 mapmakers—the most powerful and innovative folks on the planet in this industry. But then it fell into a trap, a trap that befalls too many companies and too many careers. The trap is that it became intoxicated by its own success. It failed to adapt. It failed to innovate. Then it simply failed.

The good news for us is that this is an avoidable trap. We can do better by ensuring that we are the source of disruption rather than having it thrust upon us. We can encourage it to sustain ongoing success.

Now, this is especially true today more than ever because some of the most basic things that we know have been flipped upside down in the last few years. Today, we work in offices that look like homes, and we live in homes that look like factories. In some parts of the country now, here in the US, you can get your gas, if you own a vehicle, delivered by mobile app. You no longer need to go to the local Texaco station. The gas truck comes to you. Here’s a shot in Europe. [visual] Something as basic as crossing the street is changing. This is an LED-based street crosswalk that even alerts motorists when a hazard enters the roadway. In New Zealand, you can get your pizza delivered by drone.

What I think this tells us is a message that’s crystal clear, and it’s that we can no longer simply rely on the models of the past and expect the same results. Today, we need to embrace an entirely new and fresh approach in order to meet the challenges of the day that involves leveraging the hottest technology of all, which isn’t augmented reality or machine learning. It’s human creativity. That’s the one thing that can’t be outsourced or automated. That becomes our source of a sustainable competitive advantage.

So here’s my suggestion to you. You don’t need to change jobs or change industries. My suggestion is to embrace a new and secondary role no matter what your business card title may say. And that role is of disrupter, of innovator, a financial services artist or entrepreneur. Because these are the skills and mind-sets that allow us to win in these increasingly challenging times.

Here is a little sense of why I’m so passionate about this topic of leveraging human creativity to drive business results. In the last 27 years, I’ve had the chance to start, build, and sell five technology companies. I raised over $250 million of venture capital and created 8,700 jobs. My partners and I, in my hometown of Detroit, wanted to give back to our community. So we decided to start a venture capital fund investing in tech entrepreneurs to make a difference in our city. In doing that work, I’ve now sat through 3,100 entrepreneurial pitches. I’ve made 110 startup investments, and while some have worked out very well, I’ve also had 16 total zeroes. So I do now know what it’s like to win, but I also know what it’s like to stumble. You learn a lot from both. I’ve now had the chance to sit on 83 corporate boards. I don’t say this to be boastful at all. There are many people far more successful than I am. The only reason I bring it up is that I’ve had a front row seat to see exactly what happens when leaders and organizations fully embrace innovation and, frankly, what happens when they don’t.

This passion of mine—leveraging human creativity to drive business results—led me to write three books on this topic. In doing the research for the books, I had the privilege to personally interview more than 200 thought leaders around the globe. I interviewed CEOs, billionaires, celebrity entrepreneurs. But I also got to interview others at the top of their field, including teachers and musicians and even hackers.

Here’s what I discovered. Across this widely diverse group of extraordinary people, it turns out that there are some very common patterns, common approaches, and common mind-sets of the most innovative people and the most innovative organizations.

That’s what I’m excited to share with you. Five big ideas. The five core mind-sets of innovation. As we attack them, I would encourage you to have an open mind and an open heart and think how you can take each of these core principles and drive them directly into your daily work, to lead, to win, to serve, and to soar.

The first core mind-set of innovation is the notion that every barrier can be penetrated. It’s an inherent belief that no matter how difficult an obstacle may feel, if you throw enough imagination, enough creativity at that problem, eventually it will melt away.

Here’s a fun example for you. A couple of months back, an Air Canada flight was stuck out on the runway at the Toronto airport for seven hours due to weather conditions. Those poor passengers. Once they gobbled up all the peanuts and drank all the booze, they were getting pretty restless. They were tweeting their friends; they were calling their loved ones; they were complaining, begging the flight attendants. They said, “Look, you at least have to give us some food.” Well, an Air Canada flight attendant got on the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry, but nothing can be done.”

Interestingly, a nearby pilot from WestJet, a competitive airline in Canada, overheard the commotion. But this man believed that every barrier can be penetrated. Even though his core job was to fly the airplane, if you really thought about it, his core job was to serve his customers and the community. He believed that, again, every barrier can be penetrated.

About 45 minutes later, he wheeled up one of those metal staircases to the plane. He climbed up the stairs and knocked on the door, and when they opened up the door, there he was holding an armful of pizzas. And it enabled amazing tweets like this one. Check it out: “Awkward but funny moment: @westjet guy walks in and says, ‘hey guys, I’m from WestJet and we do things differently, want some pizza?’”

Amazing. Now think about the impact of what happened at that moment, and not only for the folks on the airplane. If this went viral, think about the loyalty that was created because he believed that every barrier can be penetrated.

Similarly, a woman named Jessica Matthews had the same belief. Jessica was born in Nigeria. She came to the United States to attend university. She went back to her hometown in Nigeria, about a year later, for her aunt’s wedding. They were having a lovely time at the wedding. Things were going fine until the power went out. Now, this is a common occurrence not only in Nigeria but in many developing countries. Old-school power systems can’t keep up with current demands.

So what did they do? They did what they’ve always done. They fired up the diesel generator. The party continued, but now Jessica and the other guests were breathing in these exhaust fumes. As her lungs were burning and as she was choking, she thought, There has to be a better way, and I’m going to do something about it. She had no business saying that; she was a college student, with no energy sector knowledge, no capital. But she believed that every barrier can be penetrated.

The next day, she was watching some kids playing football, and she had an idea. She thought, Look at all the energy out on that field. What if I could capture it? I bet I could power this whole town. She teamed up with a classmate of hers, an engineer, and together they invented something called the Soccket. The Soccket looks and plays just like a regular soccer ball, but inside it’s actually a generator that’s being fueled with kinetic motion. That’s a fancy way of saying one hour on the soccer field powers a lightbulb for eight hours. Pretty cool.

But she didn’t stop there. She kept going because she knew soccer balls alone couldn’t do it. She thought, Where else can I apply this thinking? Motion to create energy. Her next invention came pretty quickly. Jump a little rope, and charge your mobile device. Wanting to make the biggest possible impact in the world, she then started her own company, licensing the technology to third-party manufacturers.

For example, a luggage company. Let’s say you’re pulling your roller bag through the LA airport, but as those wheels are turning, it could be creating a clean, free, renewable source of power. Not only is Jessica making a real difference in the world, but she’s created quite the company for herself. It’s amazing what happens when you believe every barrier can be penetrated.

Here’s one last example of this, because I know most of us are not in startups; we’re in bigger, more established organizations. Near my own town of Detroit, 20 miles north of our city, there’s a town called Troy, Michigan. The library in Troy was facing a problem, a budget crisis that became so bad, they were about to shut down the library for good. The leaders didn’t want that. They said, “Let’s fight back.” So, they managed to get a millage proposal on an upcoming ballot, a small increase in property taxes to save their beloved library.

Unfortunately, here’s what happened next. A well-organized, well-funded national group descended on Troy, Michigan, changing the conversation from “save our library” to “no new taxes.” At this point, there’s only one month to go, and the library was facing certain defeat. They were out-funded, outorganized, and running out of time, but they weren’t running out of creativity. Instead of looking for this next job, they said, “Let’s fire back.” I’d like to share with you exactly what they did. [video]

So the vote came down. The voter turnout was 400 percent higher than expected. That beautiful library is still there today. Of course, they won in a landslide. This is what happens when we believe that every barrier can be penetrated.

I can summarize our first core principle here with a simple and very elegant ancient Chinese proverb, which simply says, “Man who said it can’t be done should not interrupt man doing it.”

Let’s take a look at our second core mind-set of innovation. This one I like to call “video killed the radio star.” Some of you may remember the song from 1979— it was the first song ever played on MTV. For us, as members of MDRT, it’s about letting go of what was in favor of what can be. It’s a willingness to defy tradition, challenge underlying assumptions, and lean into fresh possibilities.

As I built my own company, I had a saying that I would repeat almost every day: “Someday a company will come along and put us out of business.” It might as well be us. Video killed the radio star.

One of the most innovative ice cream companies on the planet is Ben & Jerry’s. And part of the way that it stays at the top of its game is because it’s willing to let go, to let go of previous success so that it can make room for new ones. When an ice cream flavor, even if it was successful in the past, is no longer doing so well, it buries it. I mean literally. It actually holds a business funeral.

Here’s what it does. [visual] This is for the “dearly de-pinted,” by the way; it’s really clever. It celebrates the success of the flavor in the past, but then it lets it go to make room for something new. On its website, there is even a graveyard for no longer successful flavors like Wavy Gravy, which was awesome from 1993 to 2001, but is no longer with us. Having a celebration of the past, instead of clinging to what was, allows Ben & Jerry’s to lean into fresh possibilities.

Here is another fun example of video killing the radio star. The St. Regis Washington, DC was trying to reinvent itself, like most of us are. It looked around the hotel and saw that empty closet, the same empty closet that’s in everyone’s hotel room. And it got an idea. Now, here’s what happened. Before you check in, the hotel sends you a survey via email asking about your size and your fashion preferences. When you walk into the room, instead of that closet being empty, you see that it’s filled with items you may enjoy, hand selected in your size and style. If you like it, try it on. If you walk off with it, it’s billed to your hotel invoice. If not, you just leave it there in the room.

Now, it was able to do this because it partnered with luxury retailer Neiman Marcus. So this is one small idea of a willingness to take a look at something that’s so standard in its industry and imagine something better. Here’s what happened. New revenue stream was created. It did it with no capital since it partnered with Neiman Marcus. It activated a dead space and created competitive advantage.

What’s the equivalent of that empty closet in your business? Again, it may be something we go past 50 times a day and don’t even process. There may be an opportunity to reinvent, reimagine, and lean into fresh possibilities.

Imagine for the sake of argument that you ran a tour bus company. Well, your tour bus would probably look just like this because that’s the way they all look. [visual] Again, like financial services, it’s a mature industry. There’s regulation and such. Here’s the problem with this. There’s a design flaw. At any point, half of your customers have an obstructed view. But nobody did anything until recently.

A tour bus operator in New York believed that video could kill the radio star. Check out his tour bus. [visual] They installed stadium seating all facing the same direction and a big wall of glass so that everybody has a gorgeous view, and they coordinated street performers at various stops along the route. In the highly competitive, highly commoditized field of tour bus operators in New York City, I bet you’re not surprised to know who now is the number one company in that area. Video killed the radio star.

This is happening in nearly every industry. Again, I’m from Detroit, so I study automotive a lot. If any of you have a vehicle, you probably bought or leased your car. Now there’s a third option. Porsche and Cadillac are experimenting with a membership. Here’s how it works. You sign up and pay a monthly fee. You don’t take title to a vehicle, you don’t pay any acquisition costs, and you don’t pay any disposition costs. There’s no maintenance cost, and there’s no insurance cost, only one monthly fee. And instead of having just one car, you have access to the whole fleet. You can take the convertible for a weekend, and when you’re ready for a change, you can use a mobile app to say, “I want the SUV,” and it’s delivered to you nice and clean, filled with gas. Drive it for a little while, and then swap it out for the sedan. There are unlimited swaps.

Now, we’ll see if this becomes the new model of vehicle ownership. I don’t know. But I admire the fact that they are taking an old mature industry and pushing the creative boundaries. They’re reimagining what it looks like when video can kill the radio star.

Here’s a good technique for you to remember. I’m going to share a number of very specific and easy techniques with you to help you take these ideas and put them into action in the months and years to come.

The first one I just call the “judo flip.” In other words, when you’re about to do something in a traditional way, ask what would happen if you flipped it upside down. Judo flip a tradition. Judo flip a threat. Judo flip a challenge. Judo flip an opportunity. This oppositional approach has fueled progress since the beginning of time.

It certainly worked for a man named Kevin Bull. Kevin is in our industry, in financial services. But Kevin had a dream. Kevin’s dream was to become an American Ninja Warrior. Have you ever seen this show? It’s insane. It’s one after another of these incredibly difficult athletic competitions. The people who make it onto the show, let alone win, are professional athletes, Olympians, people who have trained their whole lives. Kevin sits in front of a computer all day. But with hard work and persistence, he actually made it onto the show as an amateur. But then he was facing the challenge of his life.

It was called Cannonball Alley. It required enormous upper body strength. There were these balls hanging from the rafters, and he had to grab onto one ball and leap to the next. Sixteen of the world’s finest athletes all attempted this challenge before Kevin. Every single one of them failed. Now it was Kevin’s turn. What was he going to do? He knew that he didn’t have the upper body strength of those who went before him. He knew a traditional approach wouldn’t work. He had to get creative. He had to embrace video-killed-the-radio-star thinking. He had to give it a judo flip. Let’s check out exactly what Kevin did. [video – Kevin uses his feet to win]

He was the first man to beat the course. I think that’s the opportunity that all of us have here in the world of financial services and across the MDRT family. Doing things the old way—that’s just not going to get us to where we want to go. It’s doing that. It’s flipping it upside down, taking our traditions and confronting them and reimagining a new path forward to serve, to sell, and to lead. That’s how we win. That’s how we come back here next year and the year after that and the year after that.

So to quickly recap our second core mind-set: Video kills the radio star. It’s about defying tradition, challenging underlying assumptions, and letting go of the past to seize the future.

This brings us to our third core mind-set of innovation. This one I like to call “change the rules to get the jewels.” It’s a trap to think that we can keep doing things the way we’ve always done them and accept the same results. Think outside the box—change your approach, change your methodology, change your constraints. That’s what drives progress.

One thing I’ve learned now in 27 years of business is that too often we tend to overestimate the risk of trying something new. But we underestimate the risk of standing still.

Back in the early 1960s, the CEO of Random House made a bet. He bet a young children’s author $100 that this author couldn’t write a successful children’s book using only 50 words of the English language. The CEO lost the bet, and a legend was born. Would Green Eggs and Ham have been as good if Dr. Seuss could have used every word in the dictionary? Would it have sold 200 million copies and launched Dr. Seuss to become one of the most important children’s authors in history? I would argue here that they changed the rules to get the jewels. They were able to take a different approach, which liberated creativity.

I started my career, before building tech companies, as a jazz guitarist. I actually went to university to study music, and I had a professor who would force me to remove strings from the instrument. I would have to take off one, two, sometimes three strings from the guitar. Well, you would figure if your resources were cut in half, your creativity would suffer. But a surprising and counterintuitive thing happened. When those strings were off, I could no longer rely on the patterns that I knew. I had to solve musical problems in a totally different way. And, as a result, my creativity actually took off.

The same can happen for you. Change the rules to get the jewels. Change the constraints, change your approach, and you drive real opportunity.

Monopoly is the number one selling game from Hasbro. It actually was started right around 1900, so it’s over 100 years old. Now, Hasbro tried to stay relevant over the years. It had a Star Wars edition. But how does Monopoly stay successful in the context of augmented reality games like Pokémon Go and video games and such? Well, it embraced this concept: Change the rules to get the jewels. Recently, it was talking to customers trying to really understand their needs. And it learned something that was really disturbing. It turns out that 50 percent of Monopoly players cheat. We’ve all done it. You move an extra space or two; you take a little extra money from the bank; you grab an extra hotel.

Instead of finding that behavior disgusting, Hasbro said, “Let’s run with that.” Then, it spent the next two years studying how Monopoly players cheat. In addition to those cheats, it came up with the 15 most common cheats. It invented some of its own and just this summer launched a new version of Monopoly, Cheaters Edition. Here it changed the rules. You’re still playing Monopoly, but now you’re playing a different game on top of it, trying to outsmart your fellow players, who can then send you to jail if they catch you in the act. It’s got all kinds of fun stuff. You can do squatter’s rights, there’s identity theft, there’s bank robbery. It’s amazing.

What I love about this, though, is that it took its own success and reinvented it. It continued to change the rules, and, in turn, it’s getting the jewels. It’s the number one product launch in Monopoly’s history other than its first game in the 1900s.

Here’s another quick fun one for you. Avery’s Beverages is a little company on the East Coast of the United States. It made sodas old school. We’re talking about hand-crafted colas and ginger ale with real ginger in it. But it ran into a problem. How does it compete with Coca-Cola and Pepsi? Over the last several years, its sales have declined, and it had been thinking about going out of business, until, in the 2008 election cycle, it had an idea. It said, “Let’s change the rules to get the jewels. What can we do that the big guys can’t?” And it realized that it could make small batches of sodas that the other folks couldn’t do. So, in the 2008 election cycle, it created the Barack O’Berry line of soda. It also made one for his competitor at the time, which was called John McCream. What happened? People paid attention to this dormant brand that was getting all the media attention. So it knew it was on to something.

Next, it said, “What if we invented a whole line of sodas for the 10-year-old in us all?” I mean, what 10-year-old doesn’t want to drink Alien Snot or Worm Ooze? What happened? The sales took off. Ten-year-olds were flocking to it. They don’t want to drink Coca-Cola; they want to drink Fungal Fruit. So the company now decided to make its whole business around these fun, topical, small-batch ideas.

In the 2016 presidential cycle, check out what it did. [visual] Yes, it had some fun. So you’ve got Hillary Hooch—her flavor is “classified” just like her emails. But—not to be political here—it also had Trump Tonic, which is made with extra acidity, making America “grape” again. Just in that election cycle alone, its sales spiked by 35 percent. This is what happens when you change the rules to get the jewels.

Idea Bank is a little bank in Poland. It had an insight that sometimes its customers didn’t even have time to get to an ATM. What are the rules of an ATM? ATMs live at a bank or maybe at an airport. But here it said, “Let’s change the rules.” Check out its ATM. [visual] It retrofitted electric vehicles with a built-in ATM. Customers can order it with an Uber-like app.

Here’s how it works. You order the ATM, you track it on your mobile phone, a car drives up, you transact your business, and the car takes off. If you live in that town in Poland, which bank are you going to? Here’s what I love about this example. It didn’t get the idea by studying other banks. It looked outside of its field. It saw the success that Uber and Lyft were having with on-demand rides. It took that idea and borrowed it. It borrowed an idea from outside of its field, and that drove incredible results.

This leads us to our next technique. It is simply called the “borrowed idea.” Absolutely, we should study our industry. That’s why we’re here. But, at the same time, if we want something bold, something that will really move the needle, let’s look outside of our field as well. What could you borrow from travel and entertainment or health care or technology or music or sports or the arts? You might find a pattern by looking outside of the field of financial services that you can grab onto and bring back home—an idea that becomes transformative.

We all know cycle racing is a field with many rules. If you’re a manufacturer of racing bikes, you can’t just make any bike that you want. There are very strict guidelines. But I’d like to show you what happened when a bike manufacturer named Specialized got sick and tired of those rules. It said, “What if we took that rule book and threw it out the window? Could we create a better bike?”

Let’s check out what it did. [video]

So it created the fUCI bike. Here’s what it did—it’s pretty cool. It made a list of each and every rule on a piece of paper. Next to every rule, it just asked the question “What would happen if we broke the rules?” Here’s the best part. The constraints, the rules themselves, became its source of inspiration. For example, the rules say that wheels must be the same size. Here it said, “Awesome idea. Let’s make the back one bigger; it will create more traction.” The rules say no engines onboard. Here it said, “Awesome. Let’s put a motor in the crank. That will give us a boost when we go uphill.” One by one, it broke every rule and created a better bike. And we can do just the same.

So a quick recap of our third core mind-set of innovation: Change the rules to get the jewels—changing our approach, changing our methodology, changing the underpinnings of the rules in which we operate in order to drive real results in our business.

This brings us to our fourth core mind-set of innovation. This one is about seeking the unexpected. When you show up every day, there’s an expected thing that you’re supposed to do. You look a certain way; you engage in a certain way. But that expected approach doesn’t make history. Doing the opposite is what allows us to truly win.

I found a fun example from right here in LA. Right here in LA, a billboard goes up: “Your move, BMW. The entirely new Audi A4.” I think the whole point was, how could BMW even respond? It’s such a cool, new car. But BMW is an innovative company. BMW knows how to seek the unexpected. Within only one week, in the identical sight lines of this billboard, BMW fired back with this: “Checkmate.” I don’t think that’s what Audi was hoping for.

Well, now it was Audi’s turn. What was it going to do? The expected thing would be to call up its lawyers. The unexpected thing? Two days later, on the very next billboard, Audi responded: “Your pawn is no match for our king.” Well, this launched the billboard wars of LA. Both companies kept running more and more billboards, trying to outdo one another. Frankly, both companies won. Because they both knew how to seek the unexpected. It did get a little weird after a while.

At the end of the day, though, Audi won. And here’s why. The last series of billboards weren’t created by its ad agency. Audi continued to seek the unexpected. And it opened it up on social media, inviting customers to submit ideas. Thousands came in, many of which were turned into live billboards. Think about that. It engaged its customers so much that it got them writing ads. The best part is that Audi didn’t set out to do that at all. It had a whole different idea in mind that completely backfired. But because it knew how to seek the unexpected, it was able to flip a tragedy into a triumph.

Here’s a good technique for you. When we make decisions, even how to behave on a daily basis, the way the mind works is that we narrow the field of choice. We say to ourselves, I could either do A, B, or C, and pick our best option and go. Here’s my suggestion. Instead of choosing the obvious and easy one from A, B, and C, ask yourself, Wait a minute. Is there is a D? Is there an E? Or, as I like to say, Is there an option X? Option X is that unexpected, unorthodox, little creative idea, the idea that makes all the difference in the world.

If you were seated next to your biggest prospect on an airplane, option A: Sit down and sell, sell, sell. For option X: Give the seat to his wife.

Here is another very quick bike example for you. This is called a VanMoof. [visual] It’s not a racing bike; it’s a hybrid electric bike used for city commuting. So if you live in Beijing, if you live in New York, Milan, or Tokyo, you might take one to work. The leaders of the company were facing a problem. These bikes were getting damaged at a very high rate during shipping. They were sent in big cardboard boxes directly to customers and getting all messed up. The leaders of the company all got together and said, “Look, we have to solve this problem. What should we do?” Well, they started brainstorming, and the obvious ideas came first. Someone said, “Well, let’s just use thicker packing materials.” But it costs money. Someone else said, “What if we use one of the fancy, white glove delivery services?” It costs even more money. That’s where most of us stop, at the obvious and easy ideas—the A, B, or C. But they kept going. They wanted something elegant. They wanted an option X.

One of the leaders said, “Time out. Think about a flat screen TV for a minute. Flat screen TVs are about the same size box. It’s about the same weight. How can people ship flat screens every day with no damage, and our bikes are getting all messed up?” This led to a pretty cool idea. They didn’t change the packaging material; they didn’t change the delivery service; they didn’t change a single thing except that they printed a flat screen on the box. That’s it. Same bike. Same box. A little more ink. And here’s what happened. Damage rates were reduced by 70 percent. It’s amazing what happens when we bring those option X ideas to the surface.

TNT, I’m sure you know, is a television network. It wanted to rebrand itself as the TV network of drama, but it couldn’t afford a global rebrand, so it had to seek the unexpected. Let’s check out exactly what it did. [video]

It was great, right? Let’s just do the math here. You want to reach tens of millions of people. Option A: Take out very expensive television advertising. Option X: Hire some actors and a film crew in a little town in Europe. This wasn’t about the 200 people who saw it live on that one day. It’s about the 56 million that have now seen it online. Fifty-six million people now know that TNT is about drama. That’s what happens when we seek the unexpected.

Here’s one last quick example for you. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh—who are its customers? Sick kids and their families. The leaders of the hospital wanted to create a better experience for those customers. The expected thing: softer pillows. The unexpected thing? These are the window washers. [visual] So here’s what happened. They dressed up the window washers like superheroes. No productivity was lost. But now, as they repel from the roof, they entertain the kids. Game changer.

It took the attention away from the medical care. Kids looked forward to it for days. They forgot why they were there in the first place. It’s amazing what happens, isn’t it, when we seek the unexpected? And I’ll tell you something. All of us here today, all of us, have these ideas inside of us right now. I like to say that if you’re breathing, you’re creative. It’s our job to bring them to the surface and put them into action if you want to enjoy extraordinary results.

So a quick recap here on point number four. Seeking the unexpected, looking for those option X ideas, doing the bold and unorthodox approach—that’s what will drive the most momentum in our professional and even personal lives.

This brings us to our fifth and final core mind-set of innovation. This one is based on a Zen proverb, which simply says, “Fall seven times, stand eight.”

When you think about innovation, you might think you need a bunch of money. But the truth is, the real building blocks of innovation are internal. Grit. Determination. Tenacity. Resilience. Fighting back with more and more creativity when you have the inevitable setback. Doing more with less. Getting scrappy. This is the reason why start-ups can beat industry giants. You fall seven, stand eight.

In East China, a KFC opened up, and Jack was pretty happy about this. Not because Jack loves chicken. Jack was hoping to get a job. In the couple of months before, Jack had applied to dozens of places for work, but he kept hearing the same thing: “No” and “You have no potential.” He said, “Maybe I could go back to university.” He applied to three. He heard the same thing: “No. No potential.” Twenty-four people applied for work at the new KFC, and 23 got jobs. Everybody except Jack. But Jack believed, in his soul, that you fall seven, you stand eight. And as you rise back up, you get back up with more creativity. And, today, Jack Ma is the wealthiest man in China. As of this morning, his net worth is over $40 billion. For anyone who doesn’t recognize him, he is founder and CEO of Alibaba, the Amazon of China.

Now, we see extraordinary stories like this, but this applies to us as well, us normal folks. Because we’re always going to hit a setback at some point. If you’re not stumbling, you’re not going fast enough. But when you have that inevitable stumble, you rise back up with more creativity instead of staying down on the mat. That’s what allows us to win, year over year, decade over decade.

As mentioned several times, I’m from Detroit. It’s a fascinating story of what happens when you finally rise back up. Over the last 30 to 40 years, our city has struggled greatly. You name a problem, we’ve had it. Our city has crumbled. Bankruptcy, crime, you name it. But, recently—and some of you may know this—our city has been rising from the ashes, and truly great things are happening. And it’s because we are now the community embracing this principle: Fall seven, stand eight. Or, as we like to say, Detroit hustles harder.

Here’s one little example of what we’re doing, and I’m a tiny piece in the puzzle. My partners and I wanted to give back, so we invested in a venture capital fund to back passionate tech entrepreneurs. We said, “Maybe we’ll make some money. More importantly, maybe we’ll make a difference.” We took over this building in 2010. [visual] It had been vacant for 20 years. And we created an environment that nurtured creativity. We started investing in entrepreneurs, giving them money, support, coaching, mentorship access. The building itself was symbolic of what was happening in people’s hearts and people’s minds.

We did some fun stuff. There’s a rooftop deck so that people could work outside in the summer months and even an amphitheater for learning opportunities. Here’s what happened. In 2010, when we opened this fund, there was not one tech start-up in all of downtown Detroit. Think about that. A major US city, and not a single tech start-up. Today, within one square block of our building, there are 70. There are more than 1,000 creative entrepreneurial workers who are eating in local restaurants and buying local apartments. We funded these four guys, called Detroit Labs, a couple of years back. [visual] Today, they employ 150 people in downtown Detroit.

I’m in no way taking credit for Detroit’s turnaround. There are many people doing way more important things than I am. I’m just giving you one little example of “fall seven, stand eight.” And if you keep rising back up with enough imagination, incredible things can occur.

Our fifth principle is fall seven, stand eight—rising back up from adversity with imagination, creativity, and everyday innovation.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, and I know this is fun and an important time being here in LA, but how do we put this into action? How do we bring it back? I’d like to, if I may, bring it all home for you with one final story.

This is a man named Coss Marte. [visual] Coss grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City in terrible conditions. He was raised below the poverty line. He was in a failing school system, with awful peer influences, and ended up getting into some trouble. He tried drugs for the first time at age 11. By age 13, he was selling them. Now, Coss was a pretty enterprising young man. By age 19, he had a $2 million a year business. But then he ran into a regulatory burden. The New York police came on in, shut down Coss’s drug business, and sent him to prison for seven years.

Now, at the time, Coss was overweight. He was in failing health, with high blood pressure, high cholesterol. He ended up getting into a fight with a prison guard and got sent to solitary confinement for three weeks. Here he is in a concrete cage in the worst environment that we can imagine as human beings. [visual] He was feeling hopeless and cold and terrified. Just to pass the time, because he didn’t know what else to do, he started exercising, using his own body weight. It made him feel a little better. It helped him get through those three weeks of hell.

Eventually, he got out into the regular prison population. He kept at it. He kept exercising. He went to the prison library and learned all about fitness and nutrition. He ended up, over the next six months, losing 70 pounds. When the other inmates saw the transformation, they asked for his help. So Coss actually spent the rest of his time in prison helping other inmates take care of themselves to get in physical condition and build self-control.

When he finally got out, he was now facing another problem. He had paid his debt to society. He wanted to do the right thing, but try getting a job as a convicted felon. He applied to all the places he knew, but no one would even give him a call back. At this point, he was running out of options and running out of time. But he was not running out of creativity.

He turned to the five mind-sets of innovators. You see, these don’t only apply to tech nerds from Detroit. They apply to all of us, personally and professionally. Here’s what Coss did. First, he believed that every barrier can be penetrated. He didn’t waste time saying it couldn’t be done; he kept going forward and doing it. Video killed the radio star. He knew a traditional approach wasn’t going to cut it, so he had to come up with something new. He had to give it a judo flip. He had to change the rules to get the jewels. When you leave prison, you’re told that there’s only so many things you can do. Coss disregarded that advice. He had to seek the unexpected. He had to push the creative boundaries, doing the bold and creative option X‒type ideas. He kept falling down, but he kept getting back up.

So Coss was thinking one day, When I was in prison helping people get in shape, I felt like I mattered. Maybe I could start my own gym. Sounds good. But what landlord is going to give this guy a key to a building? Again, he turned to the core mind-sets. He begged landlords all up and down the city, but he kept at it. Fall seven, stand eight. Until one said yes, ironically, at the same corner in lower Manhattan where he used to deal drugs.

Now he’s got his space, but he said, “How do I compete? How do I compete with the giant gym?” He turned to the mind-sets. “I’m going to seek the unexpected,” he said. So instead of opening up one like the 700 look-alike gyms, Koss opened up the very first gym of its kind—the world’s first prison-themed gym. Welcome to ConBody. Do the time. So here’s what happened. You could see the prison block. You go through the gate, and now you’re training in the yard. There’s no fancy equipment. It’s the same body-weight exercises that Coss developed while in prison. And not only do the folks here get a great workout, but they have some fun with it. In fact, the members of the gym aren’t called members at all; they’re called inmates. And the inmates not only get some great exercise but even get to take pictures like this and post them online. [visual] Every aspect of the gym is creative and nontraditional, even his workforce. Instead of hiring people from the industry of fitness and nutrition, every employee at ConBody was previously incarcerated, from the front desk greeter to the personal trainers. Because this gym is authentic and bold and creative, it took off.

I spoke to Coss about a month ago, and he told me that he’s now up to 10,000 paying customers in New York City. When people around the world heard about it, they said that they wanted in on the fun too. Now he streams his courses online for a fee and has paying customers in 22 countries.

When he opened up the second location of ConBody, instead of opening up in some dingy old building, he actually opened up inside Saks Fifth Avenue, a luxury retailer in New York. Think about this. Coss went from the lowest place on Earth to unimaginable levels of success by embracing these core mind-sets. This is what Coss did in his darkest hour. Think what we can do in our finest.

So to continue this journey and the ideas of embracing innovation and driving it deep into your personal and professional lives, I put something together for you. Over the next 21 days, if you choose, you’re going to get an email once a day with a story, a technique, an idea to help fuel your creative journey. To do that, all you’ve got to do is text the word innovate to 345345. It’s not a sales pitch; there’s nothing to buy. But it will give you a fresh dose of inspiration for the next 21 days. They say that it takes 21 days to form a habit, and I hope that you form the habit of innovation and creativity. Everyday innovation. So, again, just text the word innovate to 345345.

I’d like to leave you with one final thought, an innovation challenge on behalf of MDRT. In the next seven days, while these ideas are still fresh in your mind, see if you can uncover just one idea for creative disruption. It doesn’t have to be big. It can be the difference in the way you send an email or the way you answer the phone. But if you give yourself permission to bring one idea to the surface, here’s what’s going to happen.

Ideas are contagious. One idea becomes six ideas becomes eleven ideas. And this new creative vibe will spill over to those around you. When you bring just one idea to the surface next week, you create momentum. And that momentum becomes unstoppable.

The world we’re in is very, very different from what it was when my dad was in the field back in the 1980s. Today, the stakes have never been higher; the threats have never been greater; the competition has never been fiercer. But I really believe the opportunities have never been more profound. Let’s seize them. Let’s make today our jumping off point. Now is the time. Now is the time to get behind this creative gift that all of us have. Now is the time to push the boundaries and seek the unexpected. If we fall down seven times, let’s get back up eight. And if we can do that, together as an MDRT family, we will seize enormous opportunities waiting just outside those doors.

Linkner

Josh Linkner has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, which sold for a combined value of more than USD 200 million. He authored two New York Times bestselling books and is the founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners. Linkner has twice been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and is a regular columnist for Forbes, the Detroit Free Press, and Inc. magazine. His work on innovation has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review and CNN.

 

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