Idea: Detroit

EPrize's Josh Linkner: Get Creative or Imagine a World Without Your Business

Detroit Replaced Innovation With Bureaucracy

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It used to be that a good idea could carry a business through 200 years. But today, upsets are coming faster and more forcefully than ever before, ePrize founder and Chairman Josh Linkner told attendees today at the Idea: Detroit conference.

Take the story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It dominated the information field until Microsoft launched its Encarta encyclopedia in 2004. Fifteen years later, Encarta is finished, displaced itself by Wikipedia.

"Microsoft has more money than most small countries, and the smartest people in the world, but it couldn't hold on to leadership position," Mr. Linkner said. "The forces of change are wreaking havoc on the complacent incumbents. ... It took over 200 years for Britannica to fall and only 15 years for Microsoft."

It's as if a storm is always coming, Mr. Linkner said. But most businesses are too focused on day-to-day operations to watch the horizon.

It's because, he said, of a decline in creativity. Mr. Linkner said that decline has been bred, in part, by a culture of instant gratification and a regimented school and play structure for children.

The remedy, he said, is to bring an element of creativity to the business world, akin to the improvisation valued in jazz -- injecting the idea of play into the world of work.

That begins by awakening your curiosity.

"Curiosity is the building block of creativity," said Mr. Linkner, whose company offers interactive promotions and loyalty solutions to brands and is based near Detroit. And it starts with three questions: Why? What if? Why not?

Mr. Linkner cited as examples the unconventional stuffed animals known as Uglydolls, created by Pretty Ugly, and Little Mismatched, a line of socks for young girls that don't match and come in odd numbers.

Mr. Linkner advocates the use of the "five whys" -- the idea that if you question the assumption behind each assumption, you'll get to a fresh idea.

But creativity doesn't have to come in a big, game-changing package, he said. Little creative ideas can be just as valuable and can be sparked by the ideas and spaces around us -- like the Detroit Institute of Arts.

We're all holding ourselves back from reaching our creative potential because of imaginary barriers, he said, such as thinking you didn't go to the right college or don't have the right skills.

Another important idea is that it's OK to make mistakes, that it's necessary to try a few ideas that don't work to find one that does.

All of this, Mr. Linkner said, is necessary to revitalize Detroit.

The city's roots are in innovation and entrepreneurship -- its first chapter. In chapter two, the city got bogged down in bureaucracy, Mr. Linkner said -- "a whole bunch of B.S." Chapter three, he said, is just beginning.

For more Idea: Detroit coverage, go here.

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Nancy Kaffer is a reporter for Crain's Detroit Business.

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