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Disciplined dreaming: five organisational creativity tips for successful innovation

Scale-stage startups and large organisations will benefit from the frameworks and examples in this compelling book on business innovation.

Disciplined dreaming: five organisational creativity tips for successful innovation

Tuesday January 07, 2020 , 15 min Read

Innovation and competition are advancing at increasingly dizzying speeds, and new ideas of today are the commodities of tomorrow. Creativity for innovation and productivity are the key concerns of entrepreneurs and leaders today as we move from the Industrial Age and Information Age into the Age of Creativity.


Creativity insights and practices from a range of businesses are provided in the compelling book by Josh Linkner, Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity. The 230-page book is packed with tips, exercises, and checklists, and makes for a stimulating and informative read.

Josh Linkner is a serial entrepreneur, investor, mentor, and jazz musician. He is the founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners, and was the Founder and CEO of digital promotions agency ePrize. His earlier bestseller is The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation (see my book review here).

Creativity is the source of human and business fulfilment, and is the only sustainable competitive advantage, Josh begins. A spirit of experimentation and creative problem-solving are the need of the hour, but many organisations are fearful or hesitant to systematically analyse, build, nurture, and manage creativity.

In the quest for cost-cutting, risk management, and efficiency gains, many companies are becoming “creatively bankrupt”, Josh begins. “Creativity is what will separate the winners from the also-rans in the emerging world of business – and in life,” he explains. This extends to professions, industries, and countries as well.

The book offers a five-step creativity framework in this regard – ask, prepare, discover, ignite, and launch. The steps are offered as scaffolding and not rigid rules. They combine the author’s experience along with insights from 200 interviews with business leaders, musicians, founders, and artists.

Here are my five key clusters of takeaways from the book, summarised below. See also my reviews of the related titles Igniting Innovation, The Innovation Formula, Dual Transformation, Do Better with Less, InGenius, The Creative Curve, and Complete Co-Creation.


Though the author does not offer his own definition of creativity, he draws on a range of other descriptions. They include originality, new perspectives, building something from nothing, finding new directions, problem-solving, connections building on other things, and adaptation.

There are three types of creativity in organisations: everyday creativity (eg. better meetings), high-value changes (eg. new production processes), and breakthrough innovation (legendary industry game-changers, eg. iPod, Google, electric guitar).

Each of these types of creativity has different implications for the elements of creative muscle: awareness, curiosity, imagination, synthesis and memory. Creative thinking requires tolerance of ambiguity, focus on open-ended questions, ability and willingness to listen, fluidity, and access to diverse inputs. Over time, these mindsets and practices build “creative confidence”.

Josh shows how over the years, many people and companies have broken the mould in their respective fields, such as Red Bull, Michael Dell, and Charlie Parker. On the other hand, “playing it safe” can be the riskiest move, as seen in General Motors (bankrupt) and Maxwell House (supplanted by Starbucks).

Typical blocks to creativity are self-doubt, lack of curiosity, complacency, resistance, bureaucracy, political in-fighting, aversion to risk, and fear of failure or of looking foolish. But it is an organisation’s creative muscle that will help it thrive in the marketplace.

“The creative process is messy, non-linear and abstract,” Josh explains. Messy workspaces, half-finished projects, time-wasting toys and scattered tools are actually “fertile playgrounds” for improvisation and generation of ideas.

Many companies do have innovation processes, but they tend to be too rule-driven, formal, and restrictive, Josh cautions. They may have been creative in their early stages, but this spirit has faded over the years.

The author offers a useful 30-question survey to help companies assess their organisational creativity. The questions measure creative readiness, vision, ability to find ideas, environmental preparation, idea generation, and implementation.

Jazz as a creative metaphor

The book draws heavily on the author’s experience as guitarist with a jazz band. Jazz involves spontaneous creativity in real-time, and builds on passion, skill, and pressure. There is a blend of 99 percent improvisation and one percent structure, along with an array of patterns and techniques as building blocks.

“Jazz musicians are a curious breed. They study for years to master the rules, only to break them as quickly as possible,” Josh jokes. Their notes seem to blend harmony with dissonance as the musicians embrace risk-taking and keep their music fast, fluid, and creative.

“Like the leader of a jazz combo, you need to give everyone a solo – a chance to shine in the spotlight and take joy in pushing his or her creativity to the limit,” Josh explains. Jazz techniques like harmonic substitution can also extend to the business world through product or component substitution.

Josh lists other jazz techniques also that lend themselves well to sparking creativity in business. They include trading fours (handover to others for buildup), substitution (swaps of materials, roles), contrasts (peaks and troughs, role-playing), mixing it up (styles, genres, instruments, routines), and building on the work of masters.

“Jazz, this fluid, improvisational art form, is all about taking risks and trying new things. Going out on a limb can be scary, but it is where the magic happens,” Josh affirms. Jazz is about pushing yourself but also about listening to others, to the audience, and to the inner voice.

Jazz musician and author Michael Gold captures these principles in the framework called APRIL. The acronym refers to autonomy, passion, risk, innovation, and listening.

Ask – Creativity Challenge

The first step is to prepare a Creative Brief, which is a standard protocol in fields like advertising. It consists of an overview, history, prior solutions, objectives, metrics, deliverables, target audience, timeline, client decision-makers, and budget.

Steps to tackle the Creativity Challenge include restating the problem and solution in diverse ways, unearthing assumptions, mapping the status quo, understanding the urgency, and identifying obstacles. The use of metaphors, analogies, ecosystem maps, and insights from other industries are helpful in this regard.

The three “magic questions” to ask here include Why, What if, and Why not. When asked frequently and in multiple settings, they unearth assumptions about constraints and challenge conventional wisdom.

Asking the ‘Five Whys’ also help drill down into root causes. The author recommends zooming in/out, tuning in (empathy), outside perspectives, and an “idea periscope” approach to look beyond. Such “curiosity drivers” improve your “creativity chops” and help unearth overlooked insights right under your nose, and classify solutions into incremental and breakthrough.

Unfortunately, many employees spend most of their time in “heads down” mode (focussed on delivery, on the right now) and not enough in “heads up” mode (focused on possibilities, welcoming new influences). It takes guts and determination to challenge embedded but outdated or constrained processes in organisations.

Companies that have successfully executed on their creative vision include Pixar. Its drive to reinvent the motion picture industry through computer-generated animation led to a string of successes and eventual acquisition by Disney.

Arielle Eckstut launched Little MissMatched with sets of odd-numbered socks that were not exact matches. This successfully met the needs of people who wanted an alternative to boring matched socks.

Prepare – set the stage for mind and environment

Creative minds thrive in creative cultures, Josh emphasises. “Open, fun and creative cultures allow team members to express themselves, and leave their fingerprints on the organisation,” he adds.

Josh lists seven elements of creative culture – passion, celebration, autonomy, encouragement, agility, diversity, and learning from failure. A sense of purpose spurs passion. Being nimble, hungry, and entrepreneurial are regarded as keys to success in companies like ITW, a manufacturer more than a hundred years old.

Creative acts involve preparatory warm-up exercises, as seen in motivational speaker Tony Robbins (trampoline exercises before a speech), cellist Yo-Yo Ma (checking in with the conductor), and boxer Lennox Lewis (listening to jazz before a match).

The author offers a range of quirky activities that help stimulate imagination and creativity such as improv (“passing on” a sentence to be completed), practice challenges (eg. five ways to reduce crime in the city), drawing one’s neighbour (and asking others to guess who it is), magazine story (telling a story about a random picture), inspirational quotes (pick and explain your favourite from a collection), and coming up with the most outrageous idea (instead of safe and feasible).

The author flags off a range of “creativity killers” also, such as groupthink, lack of focus, and moving too quickly into editor or implementation mode. This can lead to ideas becoming too watered down (by fear) or complicated (by consensus building).

Creative leaders offer public and private praise for innovative employees. Broad-based idea challenges send out the message that creativity is valued and that ideas can come from all employees. Great innovators don’t let setbacks extinguish their curiosity or imagination, Josh emphasises.

For example, Zappos supports creativity through educational and training programmes, coaches, and an annual yearbook in which team members reflect on the culture. The company even offers a $2,000 bonus if people want to quit; only the right people choose to stay.

Josh’s ePrize agency has monthly full-company huddles, Halloween activities, annual themes, and free yoga. On occasion, the leadership team shows up early and cooks breakfast for the whole company. The company also took all employees to Best Buy, and gave them a $200 gift card each; it was remembered as a better creative activity for the whole team than a regular bonus.

They have even designed personas to signify who the company is not. These personas have hilarious and self-explanatory names such as Dee Fensiv, Nora Sponse, and Lou Polle. The company also made up an imaginary nemesis, with a name (‘Slither’), logo, and competitive moves. “A made-up enemy is not only a lot of fun but can be a powerful tool to ignite free-thinking,” Josh explains.

Pixar’s core principles include freedom to communicate, safety to offer ideas, and connection to innovations from academia. Its ‘Brain Trust’ of eight directors receive critical feedback based on trust and respect. There is a daily sharing of activities and progress on all works.

Building a sustainable creative organisation requires acceptance of uncertainty and discomfort, according to Pixar Co-founder Ed Catmull. BMW’s goal is to create the Ultimate Driving Machine. Nike invites design ideas from all employees. Hour Media creates a “beehive of creativity” through freedom to explore ideas.

James Dyson had to go through over 5,000 prototypes of his vacuum cleaner before finding success. Netflix encourages employees to take creative risks without fear, and offer suggestions even if they may seem controversial.

Josh cites examples of companies which give Failure of the Year awards and I Screwed Up cards. There are no penalties attached, and the focus is on learning and experimentation.

Workspaces should be inspiring and colourful, and stimulate fun, games, experimentation, chance encounters, and forming spontaneous groups. Natural light, whiteboards, and movable art, and furniture help.

“A creative environment also is an incredible recruiting and retention tool,” Josh emphasises. Unfortunately, many corporate offices look like “sensory deprivation chambers”, he jokes.

Off-site activities can help if they have clear objectives and ground rules, clever introductions and endings, sprints and breakouts, stimulating games, and insightful guest speakers. Field trips can be a great creativity boost, such as visits to museums, concerts, parks, and even malls. At the same time, regular practices like sitting in a “thinking chair” have helped inventors like Thomas Edison.

Google’s GooglePlex feels like an energetic college campus, with funky artwork, Segues, and games. Pulse 220 has bottles of water labelled as “creativity juice”.

“Innovation rotation” involves having employees spend some time in different roles to find fresh connections, perspectives, and solutions. Simpler versions involve seat shuffles. For example, Groupon Co-founder Eric Lefkwoski regularly reassigns seating in the company. IDEO encourages immersion in customer settings.

Discover – surface creative ideas

Putting on different hats and assuming different roles help develop fresh perspectives. Creative techniques here include assuming the roles of political or business leaders, reading publications from a completely different industry, and turning the problem upside down (eg. designing a product for the opposite end of the market).

Spotting and connecting inflexion points, identifying pain points, and getting ideas from outside also help. “The ability to recognise and use patterns has long meant the difference between success and failure, and has long been a source of creativity and innovation,” Josh emphasises.

Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert strongly encourages all employees to challenge everything and everyone. Jon Citrin, Founder of the Citrin Group, selects a member of his team to play the role of a ‘blocker’ and criticise every move.

Nature has spurred ideas that led to a number of inventions, such as Velcro. Howard Schultz got the idea for Starbucks while sitting in a quaint Italian café.

SoftSoap blocked off competition by buying up the world supply of plastic pumps for liquid soap. This builds on techniques described by Sun Tzu in The Art of War, such as cutting off enemy supplies rather than confronting them head-on.

Cold Stone Creamery builds on the business pattern of customisation. Josh’s ePrize agency harnessed Sun Tzu’s principles of territory by creating an industry-wide conference on interactive promotions, where their clients, and competitors where invited.

Ignite – generate creative sparks

Creative ideas generally begin as sparks rather than lightning bolts, Josh explains. “Creative projects of all sizes tend to bounce around, morph, and change directions along the way to their final state,” he adds.

The creative process is non-linear, free-flowing and even sloppy, and can be sparked off by names (for an author), diagrams (inventor), campaigns (advertiser) or ingredients (chef). Start off with a variety of small sparks and don’t be quick in extinguishing them – treat them with care and nurturing, Josh advises.

Identifying pain points, having diversity in peer groups, coming up with provocative statements, and even doodling are good ways to spark creativity. The “hot potato” technique for spontaneous group creativity involves passing around ideas randomly and having them built up quickly.

Successful ideas don’t always begin at ‘page one’, as seen in the world of music, where the first idea may be a catchy phrase, tune, or even the ending. It may also help to list out what may not work, which will generate new ideas as well as laughs, Josh explains.

The “Hemingway Bridge” technique involves developing a hint of the next phase while the current phase or sub-task is being wrapped up. The use of detailed personas helps flesh out roles, perspectives and use cases, eg. Technical Tommy, RoI Ronnie, Investor Ivan.

Josh describes how the identification of pain points led to the founding of a number of successful companies. These include building collections (Pierre Omidyar and eBay), sending overnight packages (Frederick Smith and FedEx), and withdrawing money outside banking hours (Don Wetzel and the ATM).

An outstanding chapter in the book lists techniques to spark organisational creativity. Josh lists eight commandments for ideation – do not judge, comment, edit, execute, worry, look back, lose focus, or sap energy. Ring a bell or bang a drum when these commandments are violated, Josh urges.

He suggests a range of exercises such as EdgeStorming (take brainstormed ideas to their extreme; used by Cirque du Soleil), The Long List (push yourself to generate hundreds of ideas, beyond the obvious ones), RoleStorming (what would Edison, Jobs or Bond say), The Opposite (flip existing industry models, eg. ZipCar), Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (combination, eg. SUV, La-Z-Boy), and The Blindfold (guessing what the proposed innovation is).

BrainWriting involves the ideation by writing down ideas on paper instead of verbalising them. Variations including having everyone write down ideas before discussing them, passing them around (‘Successive Integration’), or pasting them on a wall for discussion, development and selection. The ‘StepLadder’ method involves cumulatively increasing the side of an ideation group to invite new proposals on an existing idea.

Alex Osborn of BBDO, who coined the term brainstorming, also came up with a useful technique called SCAMPER for product development. It stands for substitute, combine, adapt, magnify/minimise, put to another use, eliminate, and rearrange/reverse. This is seen in the creation of different kinds of cereal flakes.

Launch – metrics for selection and launch

Once a wealth of ideas is generated, the final stage is evaluating each one along with a set of criteria. This can be captured in the form of a matrix, and letting people vote on them using methods like poker chips (eg. 10 votes per person), trial by jury (pitches and expert evaluation), and value mapping.

For example, boardgame maker Cranium uses the CHIFF framework for evaluating new game ideas (clever, high quality, innovative, friendly, fun). Virgin’s values for assessing new businesses to launch are irreverent, edgy, funny, clever, youthful, and energetic.

Prototyping, modelling, simulation, mock-ups, demos, skits, and role-play can be used to test the selections; videotaping can expand the test audience. Market interest can be gauged by proposing product ideas even before developing them. Budgets, timelines, competitive pressures, and regulatory risks should also be factored in here.

The author wraps up by debunking a number of creativity myths – it is only needed at the top, it is only for certain jobs or roles, and it cannot be cultivated or managed.

In sum, this is a valuable book for bridging the gap between individual creativity and organisational innovation, and is a must-read for entrepreneurs and changemakers in large organisations.

(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)