Author Talks: Josh Linkner on how everyday people can become everyday innovators

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Raju Narisetti chats with Josh Linkner about his new book, Big Little Breakthroughs (Post Hill Press, 2021). The founder and CEO of five tech companies—and professional-level jazz guitarist—discusses what holds us back from unlocking our creative prowess and provides an approach that leaders and everyday people can use to innovate for a better company, career, and life. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What problem are you trying to solve with this book?

Innovation, generally, is looked at as an exclusive club for a select few. We think of innovation as these giant product breakthroughs or it only counts if it’s a billion-dollar idea. And in that context, it’s only people wearing a lab coat or a hoodie that get to be creative.

I set out to make a book that helps everyday people become everyday innovators. It’s sort of like innovation for the rest of us. What I was trying to do is democratize creativity and innovation. And give people a practical toolkit, as well as some inspirational mindsets, so they can go on to unlock their own creative potential—ultimately, to achieve the outcomes that they care about the most.

Creativity takes courage

What is it that holds us back?

I saw a study that 72 percent of our gross domestic product here in the United States doesn’t come from the breakthrough ideas that we see in the media; it comes from everyday innovation—people building their small businesses, say. I’ve researched human creativity now for a couple decades, and the research is crystal clear that all of us, and I mean all of us, have enormous reservoirs of dormant creative capacity. So your hardware is there, and so then the question is what’s holding us back? There are a couple things. The biggest one is fear. Turns out that fear, not a lack of natural talent, is the biggest blocker of creativity.

Josh Linkner
Josh Linkner
Josh Linkner

Truthfully, fear and creativity cannot coexist. If there’s fear in the room or in the building, your creativity is going to suffer. The best thing that we can do for ourselves and our teams is create a safe environment where all ideas are celebrated—the good, the bad, and the ugly—because sometimes it takes a bad idea to get to the good ones.

The other thing that’s missing is more updated and modern technology. Here’s what I mean. In 1958, there were a number of new technologies that came on the field. There was the Rolodex for keeping track of your contacts. There was magnetic tape for storage. And a technology came on the scene for idea extraction, called “brainstorming.” Fast-forward to 2021. We can store the Library of Congress on a thumb drive. We use LinkedIn for our contacts. Yet we’re still using the same outdated, ineffective technology for idea extraction, called brainstorming.

The best thing that we can do for ourselves and our teams is create a safe environment where all ideas are celebrated—the good, the bad, and the ugly—because sometimes it takes a bad idea to get to the good ones.

So over the last couple decades, and certainly in the book, I share some very practical, fun, much more modern approaches, techniques, to bring our best ideas forward.

Tell us about your notion of role-storming.

Brainstorming is a great exercise to yield mediocre ideas. Role-storming is a simple technique that completely removes the fear. Here’s how it works. Basically, everyone takes on the same real-world challenge that you were working on to begin with. But now each person chooses a character, and you’re basically brainstorming in character.

So you might be playing the role of Steve Jobs. When you start brainstorming, nobody’s going to criticize Steve for coming up with a big idea. They might criticize Steve for coming up with a small one. So now you, a.k.a. Steve, are liberated. You can say anything you want, with no fear of retribution. And I know it sounds a little playful, but all you need to do is pick. You can be a sports figure, you can be a movie star, a musician, a literary figure, a villain, and you pretend that you’re that person. And I’ve just seen incredible transformations when this type of exercise has been deployed.

Embrace the innovative mindset

How do organizations go about turning this anticreative bias into something that can spur more creativity?

We need to talk about how do we get those ideas out of people’s brains. If you have a 10,000-person organization, how do you get everybody being creative? Unfortunately, so often it looks like this: there are 16 people that have permission to be creative, and all these other amazing people, who, by the way, we hired for their creativity, but then we shut it down and don’t let them use it. So for leaders running organizations, frankly, of any size, I think it’s one of the most important jobs—to create a systemized approach to cultivating and harnessing and deploying that resource.

If you had an organization and there was an oil well on the property, you’d do everything you could to extract that natural resource and deploy it for your growth. We have the proverbial oil well inside all of our people, and what a shame if we don’t let them use it.

First of all, it’s embracing the mindset of innovation. In the book, I cover eight core mindsets of everyday innovators. These are things that don’t require years of study; they don’t require millions of dollars of investment. But when we embrace these mindsets, it tends to unlock the creativity capacity of the team.

If you had an organization and there was an oil well on the property, you’d do everything you could to extract that natural resource and deploy it for your growth. We have the proverbial oil well inside all of our people, and what a shame if we don’t let them use it.

The second thing I think is important to do is reinforce those mindsets with rituals and rewards. In other words, build it into the system. Take one organization—it’s not a big company, it only has 50 people, but it has a ritual every Friday. The ritual is called “F-Up Fridays.” The F-Up Friday ritual is they have a big brown-bag lunch, and they go around the room, and each person shares what they f-upped that week and what they learned from it. By the way, these f-ups are shared with pride, and people clap and cheer. They’re not shunned or sent to corporate time out. When they get to someone that didn’t f-something up, they’re, like, “Well, why not? What are you going to try next week?” And so this little ritual makes it safe and comfortable for people to take responsible risks, and, again, they sort of institutionalized that in their organization.

A much larger organization did something kind of cool. Any time an idea came in through their idea-capture system—company-wide, thousands of employees—here’s what they did. They took these four-feet-tall glass jars and put them in their corporate headquarters. Any idea that came in, a white marble went into the jar. Any time an idea was embraced and was put into action, they put a red marble in the jar. And they filled up all these jars over the years, and it’s in this high-visibility area. So when people walk past this hall—thousands of people a day—they see a whole sea of white with little specks of red, which becomes a visual cue that it takes a lot of white marbles to get to a red one, and keep those white ones coming because eventually we’re going to land on a red one.

So I think there’s a lot of fun, practical ways that we can institutionalize, especially in larger organizations, the notion that creativity matters, that responsible risk taking is part of the job.

Let the sparks fly

What’s the difference between an idea and a spark?

If you think of an idea as a molecule, what’s inside the molecule? Stick it under the microscope and let’s take a look. So I tried to look at the anatomy of an idea. And in fact, what I recommend people do is when you’re just kicking around new ideas, don’t even call them ideas, because an idea itself, in theory, is ready for scrutiny.

Instead, you should first generate ideas and think of them as a spark. It’s like a little beginning of an idea; it’s not finished work product. And that’s a much easier way to deal with it because if you’re sharing a spark, you’re not sort of getting behind it and endorsing it. You’re just saying, “Hey, it’s a possibility.” And often it’s the spark that leads to the spark that leads to the spark that becomes the great idea. Too often, people extinguish those sparks prematurely, without giving them the time and space to really breathe.

There’s another little step in that process, called audition. So once you have a couple sparks that might merit some exploration, let’s try them out. How can you quickly prototype this spark to see if it even deserves to be elevated up to the next level of scrutiny? It’s a fairly scientific approach to idea extraction and idea cultivation at sort of the molecular level.

What surprised you in researching the book?

The old model was that it’s a right-brain, left-brain thing; your right brain’s the creative one, your left brain is the suit-and-tie one. But what we’ve now learned, through incredible experiments—they literally put jazz musicians’ brains in an MRI machine, and they sort of made it so the musicians could, using mirrors, still improvise. And they were really studying what’s firing in the human brain when improvising, when coming up with creativity. And what they learned is that it’s not actually a left-brain, right-brain thing. It’s more of an integrated thing, and there are different regions of the brain that work in concert with one another to create ideas.

And here’s the one—just as a jazz guy—that blew my mind. When jazz musicians improvise, as opposed to just playing written music, that does light up. But more fascinating to me was there’s another part of the brain that shuts down. It’s the part of the brain that’s like our filter, so we don’t say the stupid thing that we regret later at the cocktail party. But, basically, jazz musicians have trained their brains to light up one section and almost shut down completely another section to allow them the freedom to take various risks.

It’s funny—in jazz, if you play it safe, you get laughed off the stage. If you play a terrible note, just play it twice more and call it art. Everything is fine. But the notion that the brain is functioning at a much more integrated manner, to me, was supercool. And it also deeply reinforced my core belief that there are seven billion people walking around on this planet with dormant creative capacity. Me included.

If I were to summarize it—the old face of innovation—who do we think of? We think of Elon Musk or Thomas Edison. But it’s very difficult for most of us to really relate to them. It’s hard to see ourselves in them. But when we see everyday people solving difficult problems in really creative ways, it’s so inspiring because that means it’s within the grasp of all of us. And, truly, it can be the great equalizer if we cultivate these skills and put them into practice.

Author Talks

Visit Author Talks to see the full series.

Explore a career with us