John Butman: An interview by Bob Morris

ButmanJohn Butman is founder and principal of the idea and content development firm Idea Platforms, Inc. and author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas (Harvard Business Review Press 2013). He has worked with leading consultancies, CEOs, and senior executives of major companies including members of the Fortune 50, as well as educational institutions, philanthropic organizations, government agencies, and independent professionals, helping them find their fascinations, articulate their ideas, develop books, create idea platforms, and shape their thinking journeys.

Butman’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Financial Times, Forbes, Huffington Post,, Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg, Publishers Weekly, BigThink, 33 voices, The Independent, Times of London, Kirkus Reviews, and the Orlando Sun-Sentinel. He has been involved in the development of more than twenty-five books, which have been translated into some twenty languages, and include New York Times, Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, and Toronto Globe and Mail bestsellers.

He has spoken to many groups around the country and in Canada, including American Bankers Association, American Express, Boston Children’s Hospital, Cornell Club of Boston, Dow Chemical, Google, Harvard Business School Association of Boston, Hult International Business School, New York University, PresenTense, PWC, Starwood, TRW, and many others.

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Morris: Before discussing Breaking Out, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Butman: Ingmar Bergman, the great Swedish film director (1918-2007). Not only was he a brilliant director, he wrote most of his own scripts, and knew a lot about cinematography, too. He worked collaboratively with his cast and crew. He was one of the few filmmakers who cared as much about ideas as he did about story. Not only was he a master of his craft, he also developed theories and held points of view that went beyond practices and methods, which are lucidly expressed in a book of interviews called Bergman on Bergman. In addition to his film work, he directed theater and opera. His life and loves were intimately intertwined with his films. He had an incredibly long and productive career, continuing to invent late in life. When I first began to watch his films, and followed his career over many years, I thought: this is the kind of complete person, expressive and committed, that I would like to be. Haven’t quite achieved that.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Butman: Martin Scorsese. I started out in the film school at NYU (now the Tisch School) and Scorsese was my teacher for production class. He had impact in two ways. First, he was a sharp and insightful critic of our work, both positively and negatively. Second, he probably was instrumental in my not pursuing a career as a professional filmmaker. He was not the kind of person I thought I wanted to be – at the time, at least.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Butman: Not really. My career has been composed of two paths. The path of personal expression, which has involved the writing of fiction and the creation of movies, and the path of professional success and revenue generation. I have found both of them fascinating, frustrating, intriguing, and full of learning. I always think that I would have preferred to have had just one path, but I’m not so sure of that anymore.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Butman: My training in film making focused me on how to create narratives and to write as people speak. I also had a good education in literature and my professors of poetry, particularly M.L. Rosenthal, helped me understand how to concentrate meaning, to create it indirectly, and how to unpack and analyze dense bodies of content.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Butman: I knew absolutely nothing about business when I went to work for the first time, so anything would have been helpful.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Butman: This is going to sound really corny but I am a fan of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, doesn’t even want to be in the family banking business, but he deeply understands its purpose: to make capital available to worthwhile enterprises. He was a double bottom line guy long before the current focus on social purpose. His only problem was that he wasn’t so good on the profit side and he was a little loose on process.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Butman: I’ve learned a lot about how business in the United States works by reading about business in other countries, particularly European countries. Most recently, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy gave me an intriguing view into why Russia operates the way it does today. The United States was essentially founded as a business, while other nations evolved into commerce-conducting societies from their non-business origins.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Butman: It’s hard to argue with Lao-Tzu or add much to this quote. Except to say that not all crowds are always wise and not all crowds can be generative. They can also tear things apart. So the leader has to be generative, get out ahead sometimes, light a fire here and there.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Butman: I don’t believe in an ultimate truth, which is probably what Voltaire means by this – anybody who thinks they have “the answer” is likely to become a tyrant in some way.

Morris: Also, from Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

Butman: It’s amazing to me how worried people are that others will steal their abstract idea. I often hear these concerns from people who don’t want to go through the trials of going public and think that just having an idea is enough. He stole my idea! Still, people do borrow, adapt, synthesize, and otherwise latch on to your work, so you have to be smart about protecting your intellectual property in whatever ways you can. For an abstract idea, the best way to do that is to create an expression that can be copyrighted, such as a book. You also need to present your idea in many different forms of expression, and judiciously repeat phrases, so that you will be associated with the idea in many ways and many places.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Butman: This sounds right, but I’m not sure it is right. Problems are created in all kinds of ways, not just by our own thinking.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Butman: I’d need an example of this. I think there are many kinds of useless things we do, and I’m not sure why Drucker thought that doing a useless thing efficiently is any worse than doing a useless thing inefficiently.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘[begin italics] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘[begin italics] Which [end italics] mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Butman: I don’t know how you plan a mistake.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Butman: I don’t know if this is true. If you read Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign by Phillipe Paul de Segur, about Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia, or read about George Washington and his leadership, or about Steve Jobs and other successful leaders of companies, it wasn’t so much that they were storytellers, but that great stories could be told about them.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Butman: Most of everything fails, especially everything that is meant to make some change to the status quo. However, if you suggest a change that is useful, genuine, thought-through, well-expressed, relevant, timely, and intended to help other people – they are not so likely to resist it. Suggest a change that is self-serving, cynical, poorly-expressed, or not well thought through – I’d resist it, too. Change isn’t always good. Too much change of the wrong kind can destabilize the system. Change is currently considered to be an inherent good, and there is certainly plenty that needs to be changed in the world, but there is plenty that doesn’t need to change.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Breaking Out. When and why did you decide to write it?

Butman: I began to realize that I was going to write a book, the one that became this book, about five years ago. I wanted to write it because I found that so many people have useful and intriguing ideas and want to make a difference with them, but don’t know how to go about shaping their ideas, expressing them, or taking them public. I have a lot of experience with that and thought my practices could be useful to people – in business, communities, and disciplines.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Butman: My head feels pretty much intact, but I did have a number of changes of attitude during the creation of the book (I say creation because I include the years of thinking and research that came before the actual writing). First, I was a little surprised that, although I know and have seen all the symptoms that besiege writers from writing earlier books and from advising so many other authors, I still went through all the trials and traumas that most authors go through.

My biggest shift of attitude, and it probably qualifies as a revelation, was when I gradually moved away from thinking about what I wanted to express and what I wanted to accomplish to what I thought my readers needed and wanted and what would be helpful and compelling to them. This sounds very obvious, and it should be, but it can take a long time to get there.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Butman: It’s pretty close to what I had in mind.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an “idea entrepreneurial” mindset?

Butman: The idea entrepreneur is driven by an abstract idea that is deeply interwoven with their personal life. They seek to make some kind of change in the world, by influencing thinking or affecting the behavior of others. They are typically outsiders to the status quo, and often outsiders to established organizations. They are usually skilled at expression, willing to reveal their fascinations and motivations, and are in the effort for the long haul. They are not driven by the desire for fame and fortune, although they often achieve both.

Morris: You coined the term “ideaplex.” What differentiates it most significantly from other intellectual communities such as the Golden Age of ancient Greece (500-300 BC), Florence during the Italian Renaissance, and Elizabethan England?

Butman: The obvious differences are that the ideaplex is global, that it embraces many more people (a larger percentage of whom are educated), and it has many more forms of media and channels of distribution. Today’s ideaplex is a massive, complex, worldwide phenomenon of activities and mechanisms for the generation, distribution, and consumption of ideas. There has never been anything like it before.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Breaking Out, what are the essential elements that go into the formulation of an idea?

Butman: An idea is largely formulated through expression. The idea in one’s head may be the central element of the idea, but it isn’t anything until it is expressed — through speaking about it, writing about it, drawing pictures of it, trying it out in practices. Each of those types of expressions adds clarity and richness to the idea. The idea entrepreneur is constantly trying to express the idea in one sentence, which is always difficult to do. And, at the same, wanting to detail it endlessly, with a greater accumulation of material, new examples, and more insights.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant barriers to completing that process? How best to avoid or overcome them?

Butman: The biggest barriers include an unwillingness to reveal yourself personally, a lack of skill at expression, and insufficient will to continue. You can learn to reveal yourself and you can get better at expression. It’s hard to summon the will if you don’t genuinely feel it, although it can happen — as you gain positive responses to your idea, sometimes you gain resolve.

Morris: You focus on a number of idea entrepreneurs who include Maria Madison (co-founder of the Drinking Gourd Project), Cesar Millan (the “dog whisperer”), Blake Mycoskie (founder of TOMS Shoes), Hannah Salwen (author of The Power of Half), and Eckhart Tolle (spiritual teacher and author of The Power of NOW).

However they and other idea entrepreneurs may be different in most respects, what do all of them share in terms of [begin italics] how they break out [end italics] from the generation of an idea to a practical application of it?

Butman: They all are motivated by a personal fascination that sustains them throughout their effort. They create multiple expressions, so that people can learn about their idea in different ways. They show up — that is, they present their idea to the world in person. They talk and listen to people, engage in conversation, and show that they are committed.

Morris: What is a “thinking journey”? Does it have an ultimate destination? Is it possible to have more than one? Please explain.

Butman: The thinking journey is about the long-term development of the idea. How did your idea develop over your lifetime? How does it relate to the ideas of people who came before you and of others who are working now? I asked Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, who inspired him and he said, “Gandhi.” Why? Because of Gandhi’s comment about how the quality of a society can be judged by the way it treats its animals. Gandhi’s practices of “truth firmness” are in line with Millan’s methods of “calm assertiveness.” So Millan fits into a thinking journey that goes back to Buddha, and includes Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and many others.

Morris: I share your high regard for Henry David Thoreau. In your opinion, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from his “thinking journey”?

Butman: HDT was unusually skilled at observing what was in front of him and talking about it with great clarity and with his agenda and point of view clearly expressed, but in a way that makes you trust his vision. There are a number of lessons to be learned from Thoreau. He had a tremendous accumulation of material – more than a million words in his journals. He constantly linked his ideas to those of others. He lived his ideas as few others have. He was highly aware of the meta story of the development of his ideas – always able to talk about how his ideas had developed and were developing, rather than just telling us what they were.

Morris: Why is fascination so important to idea generation?

Butman: Because if the person is not fascinated with his/her own idea why should we be?

Morris: What are the most valuable lessons to be learned from Mireille Guiliano’s “thinking journey”?

Butman: She waited a long time to go public. She spent decades accumulating material and developing her ideas. She resisted going public until her friends convinced her that it was for the public good, not for personal gain. When she did go public, she had enough resources behind her that she didn’t have to make a lot of money right away to keep her afloat. The other model is to start very young, also when you don’t need to make money and you can take your time. I have worked with too many people who want to gain influence fast, get a best-seller, become known. It doesn’t work for many reasons, the most obvious being that people are not stupid: they recognize what’s going on.

Morris: Here’s one of several dozen passages in the book that caught my eye: “The simplest, most direct, and usually most powerful form of current presence is showing up – in person – and engaging with live audiences, in large or small groups – just as Kiran Bedi showed up for her most essential audience, the prison population.” Please explain what her experiences reveal about [begin italics] respiration [end italics].

Butman: People often think that all they need to do is produce an expression, such as a book or talk, and that people will understand it and act upon it, but they need to directly engage with their audiences if they want the idea to take on a life of its own.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a skilled listener? Why specifically is this skill so important to idea entrepreneurship?

Butman: Most important, the listener has to care what the other person is saying, to want to know what they think. Then you have to be willing to consider your own ideas in light of what you have heard. Should something be adjusted?

Morris: What are the most valuable lessons to be learned from Martha Stewart insofar as revenue streaming is concerned?

Butman: Don’t get too focused on money. Martha began as an idea entrepreneur, focusing on books and magazines and practices, and gradually built an enterprise that was focused on merchandise and growth. Compare Martha’s path to Mireille Guiliano’s — Mireille has turned down many offers to create merchandise that she believes would go against her ideas. However, Martha’s enterprise is still fundamentally idea-driven and people still respond to her as they do to other idea entrepreneurs — she influences how they think and behave. This is very different from just buying a pan or snagging a recipe from a good chef, like Bobby Flay or Rachel Ray.

Morris: What do you mean by “cadence”?

Butman: Cadence refers to the rhythm of expressions – how many, how often, how much time between them. Deepak Chopra, for example, has published some 65 books over a period of 25 years, while Jim Collins has published 4 books (as well as a monograph and a handbook) in the past two decades. Cadence makes a difference in how people understand you and your ideas. Chopra’s work all kind of blends into one, and his personality and presence are what’s most important about him now, I think. Collins’ books are more distinct and specific and he is less of a personality of the ideaplex.

Morris: What specifically is the relevance of [begin italics] satyagraha [end italics] (i.e. “truth firmness”) to the development of an idea over time, through the participation of many people?

Butman: The world wants to channel any new idea, or new expression of an idea, into something it already knows. The idea entrepreneur has to be careful to be firm about what his or her idea is and is not, without becoming supercilious or bossy about it.

Morris: By which process can truth firmness be established and then sustained?

Butman: This is a matter of personal mastery and I think each idea entrepreneur has to figure out for herself. A lot of practice helps — doing a lot of talks, engaging in a lot of conversations, corresponding with many people. Gradually, the conceptions and misconceptions about your idea become clear and you get better at explaining and making distinctions.

Morris: Here’s another passage that caught my eye: “I believe it was Proust who said that a middle-distance view works best for writers. Not close to present distracting details. Not so gorgeous as to overshadow the interior one.” Can the same be same for the idea entrepreneur? Please explain.

Butman: I think it’s true for the idea entrepreneur. They are not abstract thinkers, who take the very long view. Nor are they solely practitioners who are mostly about method. They combine the idea with practice, which you could define as the middle distance.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Breaking Out and is now determined to generate more and better ideas at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Butman: Keep the three aspects of the idea entrepreneur’s method in mind: fascination, expression, respiration. Respiration is particularly important in the setting of the enterprise. You need to get other people taking the idea on board — talking about it, including it in their own expressions, developing their own practices around it.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Breaking Out, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Butman: The personal narrative. Entrepreneurs are not always highly introspective and, like many, don’t fully recognize their motivations and their effect. Ideally, they’ll be able to describe their own fascinations, relate their own narrative, and reveal their motivations. Otherwise, others will do it for them.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Butman: Are you kidding? I’m exhausted!

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John cordially invite(s) you to check out the resources at these websites:

Idea Platform/Breaking Out link

John’s blog link

Amazon link

Twitter link

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