Josh Linkner

Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Josh Linkner challenged William Blair staff to tap into their creative “superpowers,” cultivating small ideas to drive better business outcomes for clients and their careers during the firm’s second Courageous Conversations talk of the year on April 13.

Too often, we think a creative idea must change the world in a big way or have a billion-dollar value to work, Linkner says. Instead, he encourages people to think about creativity as little micro doses of creativity.

“It’s way less risky. It’s way more accessible to us all,” Linkner says. “Those small things add up to big things and we are building meaningful skills in the process.”

In citing a recent Harvard study, Linkner notes that 72% of the U.S. gross domestic product comes not from big innovations but from the small ones: "those daily acts of creativity, from big little breakthroughs.” 

Courageous Conversations series

Courageous Conversations, sponsored by William Blair’s Alliance Board, was launched in 2018 as a series of inspirational talks to expand perspectives and nurture an inclusive workplace. Luke Williams, director of the W.R. Berkley Innovation Labs at New York University, kicked off the 2021 talks.

Linkner, a passionate Detroiter, has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies that sold for a combined value of over $200 million. He has invested in and mentored over 100 start-ups and is a founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners. Today, Linkner serves as chairman and co-founder of Platypus Labs, an innovation, research, training and consulting firm.

Superman becomes a window washer

His talk was filled with amazing examples of everyday innovators using their gift of human creativity to make a meaningful difference in the outcomes that matter most.

One example was the inventor of Ballot Bin, Trewin Restorick, who grew tired of cigarette butts littering the streets of London. He created glowing yellow boxes that lined the city and invited users to cast their vote on a specific topic—such as what’s your “favorite food, hamburgers or pizza?”—by inserting their cigarette butt into one of two chambers. The novel idea has reduced cigarette litter by up to 80% in the London area, Linker says. And the idea became so popular, they are in 27 countries today.

Another was the leaders of the University of Pittsburg children’s hospital. They wanted to better serve their customers—sick kids and their families—and came up with the idea to dress up the window washers as Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman as they cleaned the windows, entertaining the kids as they go.

“It was an absolute game-changer,” Linkner says. “It takes the attention away from the medical care; the kids look forward to it for days.

“I just love celebrating these ideas that are within the grasp of all of us when we deploy everyday innovation,” he adds. “Herein lies the opportunity for us to continue to improve, to continue to advance, and to continue to bring our creativity forward.”

Myth busters

Linkner emphasized that the key to advancing our creativity is busting through some common myths.

Only some people are creative. We are inherently creative as human beings and each of us can express this in our own way. Human beings are hard-wired to be creative; it’s our natural state.

Break it to fix it. Everyday innovators have a willingness to break a process to fix it instead of accepting things as they are. It’s a proactive willingness to confront even systems and approaches that might be working just fine, deconstruct them, and imagine a better way.

Do more with less. Use resource-constraint situations as an opportunity to unlock more creativity rather than as a setback.

Reach for the weird. Instead of gravitating only to the tried-and-true ideas, challenge yourself to look for the unexpected ones. Those unorthodox surprising solutions, sometimes the most bizarre ideas, are the ones that yield the best results.

Fall seven times, stand eight. Innovators have not only a dogged persistence to succeed, but also a  recognition that setbacks are part of the process. In other words, try something slightly different each time to ultimately carry the day—fall seven times, stand eight.

“We don’t need to be wearing a hoodie or lab coat to be innovative,” Linkner says. “Every one of us can bring our creativity to the game and in turn drive our organization to the next level.”