Ep. 243 - Josh Linkner, Author of Big Little Breakthroughs on Taking Action and Being More Creative and Innovative Every Day

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Josh Linkner, Author of the upcoming book, Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results. Josh gives us a sneak peek of his new book, shares some of his research and stories about how you can take action and be more creative and innovative every day. Let's get started.

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Interview Transcript with Josh Linkner, Author of Big Little Breakthroughs

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today with us is Josh Linkner. He is a creative troublemaker, jazz guitarist, founder of five tech companies, keynote speaker. I think you've done over a thousand keynotes. And you've written a new book that's coming out called Big Little Breakthroughs. Welcome to the show Josh. 

Josh Linkner: Thanks so much for having me. Pleasure to be with you. 

Brian Ardinger: Hey, I'm so excited to have you on the show. And I'm excited to have you because you have a brand-new book coming out. You're an author and have written a lot of stuff out there. What made you decide to start in another book and what's it all about? 

Josh Linkner: Well, so Brian, you and I share the passion and love for human creativity in all its forms. And bringing that to life and in the business sense. And that's really been my whole career again. I started as a jazz guitarist and I built and sold several companies.

I've been involved in a launch of about a hundred startups. But what happened is that to me, Innovation, I think is so misunderstood. And even though I've written three other books on the topic, I really said, could we flip it upside down? Now, most often we think of innovation as these massive change the world things.

But in that context, that's not for most people. You know, most people aren't wearing a hoodie or a lab coat. And so, I tried to make this like Innovation for the rest of us. It's really focused on helping everyday people become everyday innovators. So, I tried to demystify the creative process, lots of fresh research.

I spent over a thousand hours in research and interviews with people all over the world. And what we came up with is this notion of big little breakthroughs, which are small everyday acts of creativity that add up to big stuff. It's sort of like the little baby steps of creativity, but when you think about it, in terms of high velocity, lots of little approaches, it's way less risky.

It's way more accessible. It's way more fun. And they can all add up to great things, while we're developing the skills. So I think that most people have Innovation backwards. It's not swinging for the fences. It's actually going after it. One little, teeny idea at a time. 

Brian Ardinger: Well, and I think that's so important. You know, the work that I do with companies and that. A lot of the times, first thing we have to do is kind of level set of what innovation means. And I think you're right. A lot of people think that innovation has to be, you know, I've got to create the next Uber or the next Facebook or whatever the case may be. 

And a lot of the real value is created at that iterative approach almost. Where it's like, how do I spot problems in my workplace or in my life? And how do I solve those? And it can be something, you know, fairly simple or small. But those things add up over time and it's good to have that level set of what innovation means. 

Josh Linkner: By the way real quickly. So new research out of Harvard shows that, you know, we think that our economy is driven by Elon Musk, inventing some new spaceship or whatever, and yes, that grabs the media attention.

But a new study from Harvard shows that 72% of our gross domestic product here in the United States is driven not by crazy giant ideas. It's by the little ones. And yet sometimes they show up as incremental. Sometimes there's just little things that don't capture the media attention, but maybe you make a tweak in the way you pitch your product or service, and your sales go up 11%. Or maybe you hit your factory floor. You, you find a new way to be more efficient and those little things are less glamorous, but they're absolutely impactful. 

Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. What holds people back from taking these creative steps and that. You know, is this something that's found in every one of us or what holds people back from creativity?

Josh Linkner: Absolutely in every one of us. And the research here and I've been studying human creativity now for 20 plus years is crystal clear. That all human beings have enormous reservoirs of creative capacity. Much of it is dormant, but we all have that capacity. Our hardware's there. Like your brain and Picasso's brain are pretty darn similar.

You know, we all can be creative. Now, we don't all develop those skills, which is kind of sad, but we all have the capability to do so. That level set number one. What holds most people back is not natural talent, it's fear. So, fear is that poison of course that robs us of our best thinking. And you know we've all done it.

You're in a meeting and you have a crazy cool idea. But instead of sharing that one, you share your safe idea. Because you don't want to look foolish or be embarrassed or whatever. And it's a totally natural thing, but fear and creativity cannot coexist. 

So, we've developed, and I share in the book a number of systems and processes, and even techniques. Think of them as like idea extraction techniques that are way more fun than brainstorming, way more effective than brainstorming, but they essentially help people cut through the fear to get their best thinking forward.

Brian Ardinger: So, talk a little bit about that. Like how do you generate the best ideas and actually take something small that you may think is meaningless at the time, and then create something of value from it?

Josh Linkner: Well, I've studied this a lot, you know. If the premise is that we all have dormant creative capacity and by the way, mine's dormant to. I still have, you know, extra capacity, we all do. Then the question is like, how do you extract it? What's the best technique to get it out into the surface and drive the outcomes that matter most to all of us. 

And so, what I've learned is that brainstorming, which is the technique that most people well use, is just awful. Like it was started in 1958. I mean, a lot of things have changed since 1958. And furthermore, it’s actually a good tool if you want to generate mediocre ideas. Because again, you know, fear creeps in, right. Just not a good technique. So, over the years I've developed a toolkit of like 13 way more effective and way more fun techniques that help people get that creativity really flowing.

Just a couple of quick examples. One of them Brian is called role storming. So instead of brainstorming as you, you're brainstorming in character. So, let's say we're on a meeting together and instead of you having to be responsible for every idea, let's say you're now playing the role of Steve Jobs. Well, nobody's going to laugh at Steve for coming up with a big idea. They might laugh at Steve for coming up with a small one. 

So now you, in this case are liberated. You can say anything you want. There's no fear of retribution. So, the simple way it works is you take on an actual real-world problem, but you pretend that you're someone else. You could be a movie star; you could be a sports hero. You could be a villain; you could be Bart Simpson. And you pretend that you are that person solving the problem. And I'm telling you that the results are dramatically. People's creativity starts to soar. Just a couple other, really fast. One of them that we do is called the bad idea brainstorm. 

So presumably you're brainstorming to come up with good ideas, but there's all this pressure. And like, we get uptight about it. So, there's a two-step process. Step number one is set a timer like 10 minutes, and everybody brainstorms. What's the worst idea you could come up with? What's a bad idea. What's an awful idea. What's an illegal idea. What's an immoral or unethical idea. And you write all the bad ideas on the board

First of all, it's hysterically funny. Everyone gets really into it. Your juices start flowing. Then, part two, an important part two, is you don't do the bad ideas. You then examine them and ask yourself, okay, is there something in there? Is there a nugget? Is there a kernel that we could give it like a legit flip and turn that bad idea into a good one?

So instead of being bound by the incremental gravity of traditional approaches, this pushes your thinking way to the edge and yes, you have to ratchet it back to reality afterward, but you're better off starting far and then reeling it back in later on. 

Brian Ardinger: Yeah, I like that approach. And especially in the corporate realm, obviously a lot of startups have different constraints in that, but in the corporate realm, where you have a set of teams and a set of business models that you are optimizing and trying to build, and you know how to do that.

It's very difficult to change and flip that switch to get out of that mindset and get out of the competitive framework that you're working in and think differently. So, I like, I love the idea of even putting a different role on it. Just to change your own framework of how you look at a problem and deal with it.

Josh Linkner: Yeah, couldn't agree more. You know, one thing that also happens is that we very often commingled two distinct parts of the process. In other words, there's the ideation part. Where you're coming up with ideas. And then there is the execution part, where you're executing the ideas. And we've developed skills. Most of us, we're masters at that, but our idea generation skills might be a little bit underdeveloped.

So, what happens and we've all done it, you know, you're in a meeting, someone comes up with an idea, Oh, what if we did this? And then everyone else in the meeting becomes a self-appointed, idea police. And they tell you all the reasons why the ideal won't work and you know, there's not going to fit in the PowerPoint and Doug, the boss, isn't going to like it and all this.

And so, you extinguish the ideas too quickly. The problem is that we then lose the potency of those ideas and we lose the idea that leads to the idea that leads to the idea. So, my suggestion is let's bifurcate those. Let's have separate distinct meetings. Meeting number one, it's all about idea jamming.

It's about getting the great ideas as messy and scrappy and raw they may be. Let's get those sparks out. Meeting number two, we can then evaluate those ideas, sort of the good ones from the bad ones, decide which ones merit further exploration. And we can use our executional skills all day long. Well, let's not mix those two together because when you do that, you actually pollute the innovative process.

Brian Ardinger: Yeah, there is almost two different types of brain functionality that you're looking at from that perspective. So, we're living in a world, COVID obviously has shaken up the entire world. And, and I think as you and I've been in this space talking about disruption and talking about innovation, and yelling from our top of our lungs that, Hey, you know, you should start preparing for this. I think this year has kind of made that a lot easier to make that case. 

People now realize, oh yeah, that disruption thing, I probably should start thinking differently and that. What have you seen in the marketplace in this last year, that's changed the way people view innovation and creativity and what are companies doing about it?

Josh Linkner: You're exactly right, that this crisis, and obviously that's not a good crisis, but it has been sort of an accelerant. In other words, people who said, Oh, I might someday get around to doing things differently. I feel like the whole entire world has hit a giant reset button. And so, we're resetting the way that we interact, and eat, and live, and sleep and we're interacting and changing the way our relationships, and we're changing the way our loyalties are to brands and business partners.

And so that's creating a real opportunity for people to try something new. And I think that this moment in time is not going to happen again very soon. So, I would hate for us to squander that opportunity, as opposed to seize it. 

Brian Ardinger: And so, what are you looking forward to over the next six to 18 months? What are the trends or what are you seeing out in the marketplace that's either getting you excited or scared about what's going on? 

Josh Linkner: Well, one thing I don't think we should do is over-correct. You know, sometimes you swing the pendulum too far the other way. And then that creates a whole new set of problems. It's like that whack-a-mole game, you know, solve one problem, and another problem pops up. So, I don't think we should do that. 

I think we should be deliberate. And I think we should really anchor our Innovation primarily around service. I think if we can anchor innovation on how you can extract more dollars, it's just never a good outcome. But if you can say, how can I use my creativity to better serve others?

Whether it's a customer or a team member or a partner, those are the ones that, that really push the boundaries. The other thing I think we should do is focus more on what makes us different than what makes us the same. So, there's another technique that I love sharing. I call it the judo flip. 

So, let's say you're trying to solve a problem or sees an opportunity. Well, first thing we do is take an inventory. Like how would you ordinarily solve that? What are the typical approaches? What does everybody else in the industry do? What's conventional wisdom? And then like draw a line down the page and ask yourself what's the polar opposite. What's the opposite of each of those entries?

And by forcing yourself to push the creative boundaries in a totally different direction, it actually can be very liberating. And I think that now more than ever is a wonderful time because the market is craving freshness. It's craving new approaches, craving new solutions. 

Brian Ardinger: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, I think we have to start thinking about different solutions and it gives us a great opportunity. I mean, if you look at the different industries out there and what's actually disrupted, you know, it's oftentimes not the key competitor you've been fighting against in the battles beforehand. It's something that came out of nowhere because of this crisis or other things that have made you think about the business differently.

Josh Linkner: There's also, you know, so many macro trends that are just opening wide opportunities. I know you have a lot of entrepreneurs on the show. Interviewed all these amazing people for this book, man. I'm so excited about it. One of them I interviewed was I got a Nicholas Horbaczewski who invented the drone racing league.

So, he figured out drone racing. And it was like this cottage thing, and people were using like pool noodles. And he started the entire professional league. Like he built the technology underneath it. Now they have all these drone races that are like these, it's almost like you're inside the Star Wars Phantom Menace Movie.

And it's amazing. Like people wear goggles, the fans get the same stream as the pilots. It's just the coolest thing ever. But I think again, there's opportunity like that, when you look at some of the macro trends and technologies that are opening things wide for entrepreneurs. One other funny example, I interviewed a guy named Tarus Krawcheck. He likes motorcycles. 

Well, I guess who doesn't, but you know, when you think about Tesla and their success with an electric car, well, who's the Tesla of motorcycles. Guess what? It's not Harley Davidson. It's not Suzuki. It's not Ducati. It's not Honda. It's Tarform. And Tarform started in a guy's Brooklyn, little greasy garage. And he like figured it out. 

He found people on Craigslist and in record time and only 18 months, he built the first production, fully electric, unbelievable cool motorcycle. That's like the Tesla of bikes. And he's now achieving like incredible results. But again, these macro trends, whether it's electric vehicles or whether it's drones or other activities, they open up a huge amount of opportunity for those that are willing to explore it.

Brian Ardinger: We oftentimes think about innovation and creativity from an individual perspective, you know, can I be creative and that? What role do you see teams and other people playing and making these big little breakthroughs? 

Josh Linkner: Yeah. Awesome question. It is often misunderstood. You think of Hemingway isolated in a cabin penning the great American novel. And there are times certainly to be individually creative, but I'm more a fan of the collaborative. Again, my background is as a jazz musician and in the way jazz works. It's sort of like a conversation like you and I didn't script our conversation today. We're kind of like riffing off of each other. And in jazz, less than 1% of the notes are on the written page. The rest of you make up as you go. 

There's like a cultural thing in jazz where if you play it safe, you just play the same thing over and over. You get kind of like laughed off the stage. No one wants you back. But if you take a risk and you screw something up, it's okay. You just call it art. Everything's fine.

So the cultural elements supports creative risk-taking and it supports collaboration. Here's what I mean by that. Let's say I'm playing a jazz gig and I play a little something on the guitar that's kind of cool, but it wasn't great. But the bass player hears it and is like, Oh, that gives me an idea. And it takes it and plays around with a little bit more.

And then the drummer says, Oh, you know what I heard a little rhythm in there that was cool. And picks that up on his solo and then the sax player takes it and rips this amazing solo to the delight of a standing ovation crowd. But who came up with the idea? I mean, yeah, it was a sax player solo, but we all sort of had our hands in it.

And I think that innovation and creativity is like that. That when you have small teams that there's safety, that there's trust, and you can rip it and play off of each other's creativity, then you get this collaborative dynamic process that ultimately yields far better creative output than the lone wolf in a log cabin.

Brian Ardinger: Yeah. I love that example. Well, what else can we expect with this new book Big Little Breakthroughs. Are there particular stories? What's your favorite nuggets that you want to share with the audience? 

Josh Linkner: So, again, I'm really proud of this. I spent over a thousand hours in research and interviews here. So we reveal a whole bunch of interesting new scientific research in academic research, brain MRIs. We debunk the myth of left brain, right brain. There's all this fascinating new scientific research, but it's not a scientific book. It's a book for normal people like you and me. 

So the bulk of the book covers eight core obsessions of everyday innovators. These are the patterns that I discovered from talking to everyone from Grammy award-winning musicians to billionaires, but all the way down to everyday people.

And it's how do they think and act. And so they're fun and surprising. One of them is the notion of start before you're ready, which is, you know, don't wait for permission or directive, but getting after it. 

There's some fun ones in there. There's one called don't forget the dinner mint. Which is essentially saying, okay, before you ship a piece of work product, is there a little creative flourish, a little way you can plus it up just less than 5% extra creative effort that ultimately transforms the work output altogether.

And there's one around resilience called fall seven times stand eight. And it's how do you overcome adversity? Not just with dogged persistence, but with the intersection of creativity and resilience. All of these are backed up by, you know, a lot of rich storytelling from all over the globe. 

And it's not the story of Apple and Netflix, cause we already know they're innovative. These are stories of the guy who came up with the first electric bike and, you know, the person that you've never heard of before. So it's fun. There's a lot of really rich details, surprising stories, but essentially it does this, it arms normal people to become innovators and to drive the outcomes that matter most.

And if that outcome is a business outcome, great. If it's a family outcome, if it's a community outcome, if it's something with your kids, it allows us to use the principles of everyday innovation to drive anything in our lives that we care about.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: I know its coming out soon. If people want to find more about yourself or about the book, what's the best way to do that.

Josh Linkner: Yeah, actually just visit  biglittlebreakthroughs.com. It is available for pre-order, but even if you don't buy it, there's tons of free resources there. There's a free assessment tool. That's kind of cool. There's downloadable worksheets. There's all kinds of toolkits. So if this is a topic that resonates to you, whether or not you buy the book, I hope you do, but if you don't, that's okay too. 

Check out big little breakthroughs because again, there's a whole bunch of goodies there that I think can be helpful and it can be sort of as an accelerant for you to become and develop your innovative skills. 

Brian Ardinger: Awesome. Well, Josh, I do appreciate you coming on Inside Outside Innovation. Give us a little sneak peek of what's going on and hope to have you back on soon and keep in touch.

Josh Linkner: Thanks brother. Keep doing the great work you're doing as well. Thank you. I really appreciate it. 

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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