IHRSA 2018 Keynote Wants to Help Gym Operators Get Creative

Entrepreneur and jazz virtuoso Josh Linkner will explore the connection between improvisation and innovation in his IHRSA 2018 keynote address.

“Every human being has tremendous creative capacity,” says IHRSA 2018 keynote speaker Josh Linkner, whose mission is to help others tap the wellspring of innovation. Linkner has capitalized on originality as an entrepreneur, investor, author, and jazz musician, and will discuss how others can do so in “Harnessing Innovation: Turning Raw Ideas into Positive Results,” sponsored by Matrix Fitness.

Club Business International spoke to Linkner about his business endeavors, how he leverages creativity, and his advice to stay inspired.

Article image

CBI: We’ve heard that, in addition to being a successful management consultant, you’re also a professional jazz guitarist. Can we expect a bit of pizzazz when you speak at IHRSA 2018 next month?

JOSH LINKNER: There’ll be tons of energy and, as you say, pizzazz! I’ll reference music for sure, and provide tons of entertaining and inspiring stories that apply directly to the topics of growth and success.

CBI: According to your bio, you seem drawn to creative types in general—musicians, entrepreneurs, and even hackers.

JL: Yes, indeed. I’m drawn to them because these are the people who change the world, the ones who make history. That said, I believe that all of us are creative. Every human being has tremendous creative capacity; the research supports this. I’m passionate about helping people connect to that capacity, and harness it for productive uses.

CBI: And, of course, you’re also the founder of four high-tech companies and an active investor. So what’s the core message of the keynote address that you’ll be delivering in San Diego?

JL: I’ll share some simple, yet very powerful, ideas and techniques to drive “everyday innovation” that are based on my own experience and tons of research. I’ll challenge the audience to get creative in every aspect of their work, to serve better, and to achieve more. Together, we’ll go on a journey to analyze and understand the mindsets and approaches of some of the most innovative people on the planet, and, then, connect the dots in order to apply those skills directly to our daily work.

CBI: Imagine that we’re having a cup of coffee. Grab a napkin, and provide me with a little sketch of your consulting practice, The Institute for Applied Creativity—its activities, clients, scope, major accomplishments.

JL: We help organizations foster and facilitate creativity and innovation from within. As we tackle specific business challenges, we do so by cultivating ideas from the team that’s in place, and by helping them develop relevant and rewarding approaches and skills for future use. Simply put, I’m on a mission to help organizations harness, and master, creativity and innovation so they achieve more in these highly competitive and rapidly changing times.

CBI: No doubt, many of the young companies you’ve invested in have come along with lots of enthusiasm, ideas, and innovative notions. Why do some break through, and others fail? Are there some common denominators?

JL: Yes! Companies have to strike a balance between dreaming and discipline, between innovation and execution. Often, firms falter, or fall short, because they lack one of these components. Another pitfall I see is organizations being either too short-sighted or too long-sighted, when, clearly, a balance is required for sustainable success.

CBI: What is it about a startup that makes it so appealing and, well, sexy, that people jump at the opportunity to take the risk? How can health club operators keep that sort of seductive energy alive as their business matures?

JL: I think the appeal lies in being able to imagine what’s possible. Club operators can certainly endorse, embrace, and maintain startup thinking long after the doors of their facility have opened. What it takes is continuous learning, growth, and reinvention.

“Companies have to strike a balance between dreaming and discipline, between innovation and execution.”

CBI: How can you inspire a team at a more mature company to dream, and, in the process, increase its creative output? How do you keep it fun?

JL: Injecting play into the process can be a big win. Progress isn’t always serious. In fact, our creative faculties perform better in supportive, fun, and, even, funny environments. If you want to jump-start innovation, take off the grumpy goggles, and get some laughter going.

CBI: What do you do to stay fresh and inspired?

JL: Playing jazz guitar does it for me. It never gets old, since most of the music is improvised—created, composed, as you go along. Music, for me, is a never-ending source of inspiration.

CBI: Would you suggest that club operators turn to their favorite music for inspiration?

JL: Club owners should do whatever inspires them. It could be music, art, sports, drama, nature—or anything else. They should go with whatever makes their heart thump. And, then, do more of it!

CBI: How else do you move the needle on your own personal-development gauge? You’ve observed that, “Professional athletes achieve at the highest levels by spending 90% of their time training, and 10% of their time performing.”

JL: Yeah, it’s something like that. I read constantly—at least 12 books a year, plus tons of magazines and blogs—and I listen to podcasts. But I also push myself to learn and improve daily by staying fresh, trying new things, and observing others. Physical activity is another critical key. I try to get in 30 minutes of exercise a day to keep my mind and body sharp.

The more you learn and train—the more you prosper.

CBI: What, in addition to attending IHRSA 2018, do you think club operators can do to keep sharp?

JL: They should make a point of regularly reviewing, and challenging, traditions and key assumptions. ... They also should carve out some time for raw creativity. If you think of creativity as a muscle, then, just like your biceps, it needs to be developed. Even two 15-minute creative bursts a week
can go a long way. These can take the form of music, brainstorming, doodling, asking questions, or any other form
of creative expression.

CBI: In your presentations, you’ve also made use of an Abraham Lincoln quote: “If I had eight hours to cut down a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening my saw.” Staff training is vital, but some regard it as a chore. How do you make it scintillating?

JL: Make it a game. Create challenges and competitions. Make it interactive and participatory. Get rid of the old model—one teacher in the front of the class with a chalkboard—and concentrate more on fresh, fun, and interactive exercises.

CBI: We understand that you’ve been a professional jazz guitarist since you were 13. What have you learned from that experience? And what do musicians have in common with entrepreneurs?

JL: I’ve learned that musicians relish taking creative risks—just like entrepreneurs. Both are inherently curious, constantly questioning the way that things are right now, and speculating about what might be. Both also engage in “improvisational thinking”—in real time—about what’s possible, rather than continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done.

Today, most of us really need to be able to innovate constantly in real time. The world is too complex and moving too fast to expect that an operating manual will carry the day. Instead, we need to be able to adapt quickly, and make decisions without any notes or rules in front of us.

Right now, the best leaders don’t enforce policies—they create guidelines and provide resources so that people can perform their particular art—which might mean anything from running a club, to being a lawyer, to constructing artisan furniture.

CBI: Coming back to music:
how can you make a company jazzy—funky, hip, vibrant, bold, flamboyant, and exciting?

JL: One approach—borrow from a wide variety of fields and industries. Instead of visiting other health clubs, for instance, study outstanding hotels, restaurants, coffee houses, art galleries, entertainment venues, etc. ... You can discover lots of great creative ideas that are being used by other businesses, which you can “steal,” and bring back to your club, to make a big difference.

“Progress isn’t always serious. In fact, our creative faculties perform better in supportive, fun, and, even, funny environments.”

CBI: One of the truly unusual things you’ve done to educate yourself is descend into the underworld of hackers, and, subsequently, document the experience in Hacking Innovation, your latest book. Describe the hacker’s mindset.

JL: What hacking is all about is finding creative, unorthodox ways to solve some very complex problems.

CBI: What was the strangest experience you had while exploring that lifestyle?

JL: There were quite a few. Just recently, for example, I had to hack my way into
a locked hotel room, at 1:33 a.m., in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The hacker/ renegade mindset is relevant to club operators in that they should aspire to break free from the competitive mindset, and strive to provide a member experience that’s profoundly different.

CBI: You’re a native of Detroit, which, for years, was the homeof the auto industry and the world of music, but the city is suffering now. Are there any lessons to be learned from its experience?

JL: We became obsessed with our own success. Complacency set in, and we felt we were entitled to endless prosperity. We lost our creative, entrepreneurial mindset, which precipitated many, many problems.

CBI: You were the founding partner and CEO of Detroit Venture Partners (DVP), and have been honored for your efforts to help the city rebound. A little progress report?

JL: I spent four years at the firm. I no longer have an active role, but my partners continue to invest in entrepreneurs, providing a platform for social change and urban revitalization. I’m deeply proud of the impact the fund is having on the city and its people.

Fortunately, today, Detroit is on the rise in a big way. We’ll soar, once more, because, today, we’re imagining, innovating, and creating again.

CBI: How do you go about convincing Detroiters about the power of possibility? When things are way, way down, how do you create positive momentum?

JL: Far beyond me and DVP, our city is rising from the ashes with passion, grit, and determination. We’re fueled by a common purpose—to reestablish Detroit as a beacon of hope, opportunity, and innovation. That grand vision has generated unstoppable momentum.

CBI: As the result of your work, you twice were named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and received President Barack Obama’s Champion of Change Award. Did you go to the White House? If so, what was it like to accept an award from a U.S. president?

JL: Yes, I was so lucky to visit the White House to accept the award. It was a great honor to meet President Obama, and to hear his enthusiasm about the work we’ve done with respect to innovation in Detroit. I was star-struck for sure! Whether or not you agree with his politics, Obama is a charismatic, well-intentioned, whip-smart, and amazing person.

CBI: Like Detroit, Americansare facing what seems to be an intractable problem—the inactivity and obesity crisis. People in our industry are passionate about solving it. Any suggestions?

JL: I urge you to get creative. I urge you to explore nontraditional approaches and find radically new models to tackle this important challenge. I urge you to improvise!

Patricia Amend

Patricia Amend is a contributor to Club Business International.