"Stop competing on price and start competing on imagination," Josh Linkner told attendees at the Inc. Leadership conference in Miami on June 8. Linkner, who founded online promotions company ePrize and is CEO of Detroit Venture Partners, is no stranger to out-there tactics: He once dreamed up a fictional competitor (called "Slither") that forever beat his company to new clients and sales goals. The threat of Slither forced it to cook up new ways to evolve its products and increase business.
At the conference, Linkner shared a few ways entrepreneurs can boost their teams' creativity, and use big ideas to beat out big competition:
- Get Curious. Ask three questions again and again: "Why?" "What if?" and "Why not?" "It forces you to challenge conventional wisdom, and imagine what can be, rather than what is," Linkner said. He has his team ask "The Five Why's," an exercise where they starts with a question facing their business, answer it, and then questions the reason for that answer. It's akin to a five-year-old's questions about the blue sky, he says. It can lead to finding insights that are hiding in plain sight.
- Encourage Courage. When an employee presents a bad idea, don't immediately reject it—question it. Responses like, "'tell me more about that idea," "What led you to that idea?," " Is there something more you could add to that idea?," and "Where do you see it going?'" encourage them to keep thinking big. "The next nine ideas they come up with may stink, but because I've encouraged them, that 10th might be gem. "
- Challenge Assumptions. Have your team spend 15 minutes brainstorming systems and processes that are only in place because of tradition, or because they maybe only made sense in the past. "At the end of 15 minutes, you'll have a road map of opportunity right in front of you," Linkner said.
- Think Small. Memorable experiences don't demand big budgets. A few years ago, ePrize only had enough profit to give each employee a $200 bonus, Linkner said. Rather than write checks for the piddling sum, he "kidnapped the company," and took everyone to a nearby Best Buy, where he gave them all $200 gift cards, and told them they had to spend it then and there. "They're still talking about the day we kidnapped the company," he said. "Instead of money or resources, throw creativity at it, and you'll be amazed at what you can do."
- Shatter Conventional Wisdom. Identify widely accepted practices in your industry, and see if there's a way to take a product or marketing plan in the opposite direction. As examples, Linkner mentioned Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," where the soap brand criticized the beauty industry's tendency to airbrush models, and a doctor who took an MRI machine, which is typically a scary contraption for children, and turned it to an adventure by painting it like a pirate ship.
Linkner also suggested a few exercises to get your team's creative juices flowing:
Make a Movie Scene. Find a photo from a magazine or online, and ask people to imagine what's happening if it were a snapshot of a scene in a movie. At the conference, he showed attendees a photo of a woman, cell phone in hand, looking back from the driver's seat of her car at something behind her. Is she being followed? Or telling her kids to be quiet? Starting with a just-for-fun exercise like this, "really brings up the energy in the room," he said.
Role-storming. Grab nametags, and tell each member of the team to pick a character—it can be Steve Jobs, Kim Kardashian, or a character from a book or film. "I like movie villains best," Linkner said. Then have them brainstorm ideas as if they were that person. "All of the sudden they're thinking in a radically different way," he says—and that liberates staff to come up with inventive ideas without hesitation.