Josh Linkner: An interview by Bob Morris

Josh Linkner is the New York Times bestselling author of Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity, named one of the top 30 business books of 2011. He is the CEO and Managing Partner of Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm rebuilding urban areas through technology and entrepreneurship. Josh is also an Adjunct Professor of Applied Creativity at the University of Michigan.

Josh is the Founder, Chairman and former CEO of ePrize, the largest interactive promotion agency in the world providing digital marketing services for 74 of the top 100 brands.

Prior to ePrize, Josh was the founder and CEO of three other successful technology companies. He has been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, the Automation Alley CEO of the Year, and the Detroit Executive of the Year. Josh’s writings are published frequently by Fast Company and Forbes and he’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, and on CNBC. Josh is also a professional jazz guitarist performing regularly in jazz clubs throughout the United States.

Most importantly, Josh in on a mission to make the world more creative.

Morris: Before discussing Disciplined Dreaming, a few general questions. First, which of the skills you have developed for playing jazz have proven to be most valuable to your business initiatives? Please explain.

Linkner: Business today is all about improvisation, which is the essence of jazz.  Perhaps in the past we could just follow the operating manual and do what we were told, but today the world is too complex and fast.  Today it’s all about real-time innovation and creativity.  Individuals may get hired based on their resumes, but they’ll get promoted and reach their dreams based on their ability to create.  In that context, being a jazz musician was the best MBA I could have ever receive

Morris: When and why did you found ePrize?

Linkner: I launched ePrize in 1999.  At the time, the whole world was focused on internet ADVERTISING (Yahoo, Google, etc).  Meanwhile, the category of promotions was a large part of the marketing mix but largely dormant online.  Rather than following the herd and launch yet another online advertising company, I decided to zig where others zagged.  I decided to break free from conventional wisdom, and launched the first internet promotion company in the world.

Morris: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Linkner: That mistakes aren’t fatal; they are merely the portals of discovery.  Also, it’s better to over-pay for A-level talent early on (even if you can’t afford it).  They will drive exponential value and help you win faster.

Morris: What prompted you to found GlobalLink New Media in 1995?

Linkner: I had a degree in Advertising, was a life-long tech geek, and loved design.  When I first saw the internet, I knew I found my home.  I realized that while only 2% of companies had a website at that time, it wouldn’t be long before EVERY company had one.  Someone needed to design, built, and host them so I seized that opportunity.

Morris: Years ago while interviewing Andy Grove (then Intel CEO and author of Only the Paranoid Survive), he convinced me that C-level executives should lead their organization as if it were in a turnaround mode, whatever its age, size, and nature may be. What do you think?

Linkner: I’m a big fan of Andy’s.  His point is that winning companies must always be in a state of reinvention and growth.  They must always stay hungry and foster urgency and innovation.  Couldn’t agree more

Morris: Presumably you are constantly interacting with business executives who are with client companies, who comprise an audience to which you speak, and who contact you with feedback. Here’s my question: To what extent (if any) have their greatest concerns changed during – let’s say – the last 3-5 years?

Linkner: In 2008 we suffered an economic catastrophe, and the rules of the game fundamentally changed forever.  A few years ago, you might hear a leader talking about doing things “the way we’ve always done it.”  No more.  Today, nearly every industry is in the midst of massive upheaval.  Today, we live in a world of dizzying speed, exponential complexity, and ruthless competition.  Leaders today realize they need to innovate, and their chief concerns now focus on fostering creative and innovation within their organizations.

Morris: As you reflect back on your life thus far, who have had the greatest impact on your personal growth and professional development?

Linkner: I admire mold-breakers.  People that bust free from traditional thinking and change the game completely.  Steve Jobs.  Charlie Parker (jazz saxophonist).  The Groupon guys.  Seth Godin (author). People who dare to be different and end up creating something truly different and remarkable.

Morris: You have asserted that creativity “is what will separate the winners from the also-rans in the emerging world of business – and life.” How so?

Linkner: Today, nearly every competitive advantage of the past has been commoditized.  Creativity is the one thing that can’t be outsourced.  The one thing that can separate a company, team, or individual from the competitive set.  Today, precision execution is merely the ante to play.  Sustained differentiation can only come from breakthrough creativity.

Morris: Here’s a two-part question: To what extent are creativity and innovation different? What do they share in common?

Linkner: Innovation is a subset of creativity.  Innovation often deals with product launches and is often relegated to the C-suite or to heads of R&D departments.  Innovation requires creativity, but creativity is something that is much more broad.  It applies to people at all levels of an organization.  Today, we all are responsible for delivering “everyday creativity”.  Small creative acts that add up to big things.

Morris: In your opinion, what will be the single greatest challenge that business leaders will have to face during (let’s say) the next 3-5 years? Any advice to offer?

Linkner: Building creative cultures, and working with purpose to unleash the creativity of their teams.  Creativity is the most valuable natural resource in any organization, yet it is often a resource that is largely untapped.  The leaders that prioritize and invest in creative cultures will be the wall street darlings of tomorrow.  In fact, they’re the darlings of today (Facebook, Groupon, LinkedIn, etc)

Morris: Years ago during dinner in San Francisco with a prominent venture capitalist, I asked him how he decided which executive summaries and proposals to consider and which to eliminate? He replied that he always had three questions in mind: Who are you? What do you do? and then what he called “the killer question,” Why should I care? My own opinion is that C-level executives should ask the same questions about their own companies. Your own thoughts about all this?

Linkner: I don’t love his answer, because it is too focused on himself.  To me, leadership is about first defining purpose.  Why does a company exist and what problem does it solve for customers?  How is it different than everyone else, and what difference do they plan to make in the world?  Companies (and people) should be measured based on the impact they make in the world.  If the purpose and solution are solid, the money will follow.

Morris: Speaking of dinner parties, here’s a question I like to ask because the responses are always so interesting. Let’s say you are hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people throughout history. Who would they be? Please explain your selections.

Linkner: Charlie Parker, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  They all broke the rules, followed their hearts, and lived for a cause bigger than themselves.  I hope the food is served VERY slowly so I can soak it all in!

Morris: Of all the primary sources you consulted during the research, which proved to be most valuable? How so?

Linkner: I had the opportunity to interview over 200 thought leaders.  CEO’s, musicians, artists, billionaires, military leaders, educators, and entrepreneurs.  Their personal stories and best practices on creativity were invaluable.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Disciplined Dreaming and explain both the meaning and significance of its title and subtitle. They seem especially appropriate as well as intriguing.

Linkner: You don’t often see the words “Discipline” and “Dreaming” in the same sentence.  But I believe this duality is critically important to win in both business and life.  Dreaming without discipline is fantasy land.  Discipline without dreaming creates rigid and stifling bureaucracies.  Having a process to enable the creative process will help liberate the creativity that lives within every organization and individual.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain the “Disciplined Dreaming System.”

Linkner: The book offers a five-part process to unleash creative potential.  In the business world, there are systems and processes for just about everything else.  Yet creativity and innovation, arguably THE most important aspects of progress, are often left to happen by chance.  The system provides a scaffolding for creative support and exploration, yet is open enough to avoid curbing creativity or outputting cookie-cutter solutions.

Morris: What is a “creativity challenge” and why focus on such challenges one at a time?

Linkner: There’s an old saying – you’ll never hit a target you can’t see.  Defining a Creative Challenge is an important step in focusing your creativity toward a specific problem or opportunity.  A Creative Challenge can be something big such as a revolutionary new product or a cure for disease.  However, it can also be much smaller such as a new package design or an efficiency gain in a manufacturing process.  It starts with clearly defining the challenge and desired outcome.

Morris: What drives creativity and awareness?

Linkner: Curiosity is a key building block.  The more curious you are, the more creativity you will unleash.  A great way to do that is to ask the three “magic questions” again and again… those questions are simply, “Why”, “What if?”, and “Why not?”.  Asking these questions constantly focused you on the possibilities and away from how things are at the moment.

Morris: What can diminish creativity and/or awareness?

Linkner: FEAR.  The single biggest blocker of creativity.  The book offers up many suggestions on how to conquer fear, which in turn will geometrically expand your creative output.

Morris: Which is your personal favorite among the “top ten creativity warm-up moves” you discuss in Chapter 5? Why?

Linkner: I like selecting random pictures from the internet or magazines, and then asking the team to describe what could be happening in them.  If the picture was snapshot from a movie, what’s the back story?  How are people feeling?  This is a quick and fun way to warm up your “creativity muscles”.

Morris: Can passion be “promoted” in almost any workplace? If so, how?

Linkner: Absolutely!  If organizations are focused on a purpose, something that will make the world a better place and leave a big impact, people can rally behind that mission.  If a company is only about making money, it’s hard to unleash passion.  If there’s a big WHY that the company is working to solve, passion will flow like the amazon.

Morris: In Chapter 8, you identify and discuss 12 ways to “strike sparks of creativity.” In your opinion, what prevents them from being struck in many (most?) work environments?

Linkner: One issue is that most people believe a new idea must be fully baked and ready-for-primetime.  That is like saying a newborn child should have a college degree and be self-sustaining on day one.  Like children, new ideas need to be nurtured, shaped, and protected.  People often hold back ideas since they are not ready to defend sharp criticism.  Companies that celebrate “creative sparks” and reserve judgment while ideas mature are the ones that enjoy significantly more creativity and innovation.

Morris: I was especially interested in your discussion of the eight “commandments of ideation” (or ignition) because they help to explain how difficult the process is to introduce, nurture, and protect high-quality (albeit under-developed, hence not as yet validated) ideas. Here’s my question: What specifically can senior-level executives and especially line supervisors do to encourage, support, and if necessary, defend the creative process?

Linkner: Separate out the creative act from the act of editing and execution.  Make it a two-step process.  First, let ideas flow and encourage EVERY idea to make it to the whiteboard.  Don’t criticize, judge, edit, budget, or worry.  An idea on the wall can’t hurt anyone, so let them rip without restriction.  After any and all ideas have the opportunity to “come out to play”, only then should you apply your analytical and logical side to the effort.  Don’t mix the creative process with the editing process or you’ll kill your ideas before they even get a fighting chance.

Morris: What is “the power of one”? From where and how is it generated?

Linkner: The idea is that ONE idea can be transformative.  One idea can change your career, your life, your community, your family, and even the world.  I truly believe that each of us have at least one special game-changing idea inside us right now.  The trick is, how do we get it out?  That’s the reason I wrote the book – to offer a roadmap to unleash breakthrough creativity.

Morris: Of all the myths you discuss in the Appendix, which seems to have caused the most serious problems, at least insofar as driving breakthrough creativity is concerned? Please explain.

Linkner: Labeling.  People equate job titles to levels of creativity.  We think that musicians are creative while accountants are not.  Job title has nothing to do with human creativity.  In fact, we all have enormous creative potential.  Even those that often state with authority that “I’m not creative.”  With a systematic approach to building creative capacity, we all have the opportunity to create and leave a mark on the world.

*     *     *

Josh Linkner cordially invites you to check out the resources at




Posted in


  1. Internet marketing on March 30, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Its like you read my thoughts! You seem to grasp so much about this, such as you wrote the e-book in it or something. I believe that you simply could do with some percent to drive the message house a little bit, however other than that, this is great blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

  2. Josh Linkner on “Why saying NO is so easy” on January 22, 2013 at 7:00 am

    […] To read my interview of Josh, please click here. […]

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.