Breaking Out: A book review by Bob Morris

Brdeaking OutBreaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas
John Butman
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)

How the idea entrepreneur goes public, breaks out, and achieves influence (and how you can, too) is the subject of this book.”

The title I originally formulated for this review was this: “How and why ‘the entrepreneur who speaks for us, rather than at us, is the one who achieves perpetual, wide exposure, longevity, and influence.’” Too many words. So I selected John Butman’s explanation of his purpose, in the first chapter, and now quote a portion of his explanation of what he examines in his book: “The essential elements that go into forming an idea. What is needed to take an idea public. How ideas and idea entrepreneurs fare in the ideaplex [a term he coined]. How and why ideas break out from others. How they influence thinking and affect behavior. How ideas and their creators fit into larger societal thinking streams.” That’s a lot of ground to cover, isn’t it? Frankly, I was astonished to find that Butman covers all of it and a great deal more. Also, remarkably, this book is as entertaining as it is informative and frequently thought-provoking as well. I regretted reaching its conclusion even as I began to shift my attention to this review and then to the next break out in my own life. Meanwhile, first things first.

As Butman carefully explains, he set out to determine by what process have the most successful “cultural players” or “idea entrepreneurs” achieved their goals, whatever they may have been? More specifically, how did they make effective use of various strategies and tactics to leverage their influence, persuasion, and personal example? He studied dozens of them. “Their tools? Themselves. The stuff of their lives. Their expressions and actions.. They would write, speak, engage in conversations and – very important – show how their ideas could be put to practical use. They were prepared to devote their energoiies to these methods, center their lifework around their idea, and even create an enterprise to carry on the work after their active period had come to an end.”

I was especially interested in what Butman has to say about these “idea entrepeneurs,” listed in alpha order: Benjamin Franklin, Mireille Guiliano, Cesar Millan, Blake Mycoskie, Roger Nierenberg, Hannah Salwer, Martha Stewart, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Henry David Thoreau, Eckart Tolle, and Edward Tufte. If many (if not most) of these names are unfamiliar, read this book because Butman will introduce them to you and explain why each is, in unique and substantial ways, a “cultural player” of major significance. Here’s a value-added benefit for many readers: Getting to know them and others featured in the book will enable them to learn something about themselves that they did not know before.

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of Butman’s coverage.

o Genesis of an Idea (Pages 5-10)
o Henry David Thoreau: Model for Idea Generation (10-15)
o The Thinking Journey (18-20)
o Necessary Ingredients for Audience Engagement (48-52)
o Starting at the Top (65-69)
o Effective Talking (84-92)
o Convergence – in Time and in Content — with Zeitgeist (115-120)
o Effective Listening (124-131)
o Structures for Enterprise Building (138-143)
o Truth Firmness (181-184)
o Mythologizing (189-198)
o Ideas about Ideas (199203)
o Feedback: The Test of Effect (206-212)
o About the Collaboration That Produced This Book (219-220)

When concluding his brilliant book, Butman observes: “Who knows where this idea, or any idea for that matter, might lead – what feelings it might hand on to others, what minds it might plant itself into, what infecting it might do, how it might influence thinking and behavior, what change it could bring, what difference it might make, what good it could do for the world?”

There is much to learned from the information, insights, and suggestions provided in this book about the process by which an idea proceeds from birth (“genesis”) to eventual entry into what John Butman characterizes as an immensely competitive “ideaplex.” After that, who knows? But there is another point to be made, offered by Howard Aiken in response to concern about protecting intellectual property: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

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