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When Josh Linkner was growing up, a Lego set included a bunch of blocks that kids could fashion into whatever they imagined. By contrast, today’s Legos are packaged as specialty kits with intricate parts and step-by-step instructions for building one specific construction—such as Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.
To Linkner, a jazz musician, venture capitalist and the founder and chairman of ePrize, an interactive marketing company, this Lego trend reveals a troubling emphasis on teaching people how to follow directions at a time when using your imagination is more important.
“Let’s face it,” he says. “We’re not an economic superpower anymore based on our ability to manufacture things cheaply or our natural resources. The reason we’re economically viable is because of our innovation and creativity. If we don’t reinvest in those things, I think that we could have some long-term problems.”
Drawing on his experience as an accomplished jazz musician, his new book, Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity, offers a fresh perspective on just such a reinvestment in imagination and inspiration.
Here’s a Q&A with Linkner discussing the creativity gap — and how to close it.
Q: What can business owners learn from jazz musicians?
A: More than anything, it’s the ability to improvise. Improvisation in the business world used to be nice to have. It’s gone from a “nice to have” to a “need to have.” The world is now moving so quickly, things are so complex, and our environment is so competitive that there’s no such thing as just following an operating manual—like there used to be—in order to win. Today, people at all levels really need to improvise. I think that jazz musicians by definition are the masters of improvisation.
Q: Can you describe some of the things that are contributing to the need to operate without a manual?
A: One is speed. Complete business cycles that used to take a decade or more are now happening in a matter of months. Look at the speed in which innovation can completely displace the incumbents. Think about Groupon. They grew from nothing to where they are today with hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. That is really taking its toll on other forms of couponing.
Another one is commoditization. Business advantages of the past have largely become commoditized. You used to, for example, control information. That was a business model. Now there’s Google and Wikipedia, and you can’t control information anymore. Everybody has information. You used to be able to control geography, for example. You could be a local jewelry store. Today it’s a worldwide market, and it becomes very difficult. The market has become so efficient that it puts a lot of pressure on inefficient companies.
In addition to speed and commoditization, there is complexity. The world has just become so much more complex. You have the advances in technology, but it’s just the way that commerce is happening today. The complexity has grown exponentially.
Q: How can improvisation and creativity be taught?
A: The good news is that we all have the potential to develop those skills. If you think of it like a muscle, then we haven’t built enough creative muscle mass. There is a way to develop those skills specifically. You can put an actual process or framework around building and nurturing creativity that allows individuals, teams and companies to expand those capabilities.
Q: How can you put something like creativity into a process or framework without killing it?
A: The model that I used was jazz music. In jazz, less than 1 percent of the notes are on the written page. The rest is improvised as you go. With my group, I might play a 10- or 15-minute song and there’s half a page of music there. Even though it’s a very small percentage, that 1 percent is critically important to the creativity happening. It tells you important things. It tells you chord changes, key signature, tempo and things that allow all the musicians to collaborate and create in a meaningful way. Without that 1 percent, the whole thing falls apart. It sounds like a train wreck.
I tried to ask myself, “How can we build a system that is fluid enough to really enable creativity rather than restrict it? Yet at the same time has enough structure or scaffolding that people can rely on in order to exhibit and grow creative capacity?”
Q: Do you have a favorite creativity exercise that you recommend to people or that you’ve found most useful?
A: One that I really like in terms of getting ideas out is “rolestorming.” Rolestorming is very much like brainstorming, but you’re playing a different role as you do it. For example, if you and I were in a brainstorming meeting and were trying to solve some business problem, our own natural fears and inhibitions may get in the way. I might have a really cool idea, but I might say to myself, “What if they don’t like it? How’s my boss going to think about this idea? What if they like this idea and I have to execute it, but I’m wrong? Who’s going to pay for the idea? What is this going to mean for my career?” We’re instantly restrained based on all this cloudy thinking.
On the other hand, if we were in a meeting and said, “This is a meeting, but instead of being Josh in this meeting, I’m going to play the role of Steve Jobs.” Then by playing the role of Steve Jobs, a couple of things happen: First, you’re not afraid to throw out a crazy, wacky idea because you were just “acting” on behalf of Steve. Also, Steve Jobs isn’t going to throw out a little teeny idea. He’s going to throw out a giant, world-changing idea.
You may have 12 people in a meeting that have Steve Jobs-quality ideas, but for whatever reason those ideas are getting blocked. By playing a different role, it helps you look at the world in a different way and gives you the freedom to put your best thinking to work. And that works great with not just Steve Jobs, but any type of historical figure—even bad figures. Someone could play a villain. How would a villain look at this? A villain might look at it in a strange way.
You throw those ideas out on the board and maybe once those ideas are out, even though they’re sinister, you might say, “What if we did just the opposite of that idea and it turned out to be a breakthrough idea?” Rolestorming can work in a very profound, quick way. I’ve seen amazing ideas come to light.
Maya Payne Smart is a Richmond, Va.-based writer who has authored hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines and websites, including CNNMoney.com, Black Enterprise, Essence, and trade and custom publications. She’s also the founder of WritingCoach.com, a professional development resource for writers.
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