Josh Linkner on Reinvention

The entrepreneur and Detroit native will present a Convene-sponsored keynote at the DMAI Annual Convention this month — rooted in the comeback story of his hometown.

The entrepreneur and Detroit native will present a Convene-sponsored keynote at the DMAI Annual Convention this month — rooted in the comeback story of his hometown.

Innovation” may be an overused, watered-down buzzword. “But it doesn’t mean that it’s not an important one,” Josh Linkner said in a recent interview. He would know. A tech entrepreneur and founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners, he’s written two books on the art of taking things apart and putting them back together — Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity and The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation.

At DMAI’s 2015 Annual Convention in Austin this month, he’ll present an opening general session sponsored by Convene that will be rooted in the comeback story of Motor City, his beloved hometown, where Detroit Venture Partners is working to encourage entrepreneurial investment. “I really roll up the sleeves and get deep into the trenches,” Linker told Convene, “and say, ‘All right, here’s some practical examples. Here’s what’s happening in the city of Detroit.’ Or, ‘Here’s another city that used destination marketing in a very different and highly effective way.’ … Because to me, just talking about [innovation] is one thing, but applying creativity is a very different thing.”

Since you’re such a passionate destination evangelist for your hometown, is there a particularly special connection that you feel to a group like DMAI?

There is to a certain degree. I’m very passionate about my hometown of Detroit, as you mentioned. I’m a multi-generation Detroiter. I was born in the city, along with my parents and grandparents. Resurgence is underway, and any chance that we can play a small role in it is terrific. And honestly, I think that Detroit represents a really interesting venue for events. In fact, ASAE is doing their big annual conference here in Detroit [next month] for the first time ever, which is super-cool.

But that being said, I’m passionate about more than just Detroit. I think about the concept of events in general. I think that even in this age of technology — and I’ve been a tech guy my whole life — the idea of bringing people together to share ideas, to challenge each other’s thinking, to share best practices and such, I think it’s really important. And anything I can do industry-wide to leave an impact, to create a positive impact, is an honor.

What sort of role do meetings and other events play in helping a destination like Detroit revitalize itself?

It’s an important role, especially when you have a brand like Detroit that really is in need of reinvention. One hundred years ago, Detroit was the Silicon Valley of our country. This was a very sexy town to be associated with. We were known as the Paris of the Midwest. But then what happened is we had all kinds of decay and problems. I know you know the story, but we’ve really been a punchline for the last couple of decades. But now that Detroit is coming back, how do you change the story?

It’s one thing for a person who’s here to communicate that one on one, to say, “Oh, well, when you walk through Detroit, instead of getting mugged, you have great lunches, go to an art gallery, walk through a beautifully renovated park and hear live music, and walk along the riverfront.” But for most people, that’s not the story they think of in their mind when they think about Detroit. So to the extent that people come here and use this as a new playground for meetings and events, I think it’s important for Detroit, because it gives people a very different experience than what perhaps may be lurking in their mind.

Are there other lessons that any destination — or really any organization — can learn from Detroit’s comeback?

Gosh, so many. I actually dedicated, in my most recent book [The Road to Reinvention], quite a lot to that topic. I think one is, we see how poisonous complacency can become. As I mentioned, we were a very vibrant and super-successful city, and then we thought we could do no wrong. We thought we were untouchable. We built this horrible sense of entitlement and built these stifling bureaucracies and became immersed with finger-pointing, protectionism, and blame. Success can be a terrible feature, because it lures smart people into believing that they can do no wrong. And I think that’s exactly what happened to Detroit.

So the first lesson would be from a position of strength. When things are going well is the time you want to reinvent, as opposed to waiting to have to fight back from adversity. Had Detroit, back in the ’50s when we were jamming, started thinking about, Hey, what would happen if foreign cars came in here? Maybe we should care more about design. Maybe safety matters — we would have been very different.

The other thing is that at some point, you gotta shed the past. One of the reasons that Detroit is finally now getting its energy back is not because we’re saying, “Let’s go rebuild the old Detroit.” The reason we’re moving forward is, people are finally letting go of what Detroit was in favor of what it can be. And so instead of just investing in the manufacturing sector, there are vibrant tech startups. There’s alternative energy happening. There’s biotech. And so in the same way that our industries are diversifying, even people’s perceptions about the city and our future have really changed.

What will you be talking to your DMAI audience about?

I think it’s going to be a mix of all that — relevant and specific examples of destination marketing in action. But also, I’m going to zoom out and talk about what I’ve been studying and writing about for years, which is innovation, and applying innovation not only to crafting new products. People often think, Oh, well, innovation only applies to people in R&D, or maybe people in an ad agency. But I’m interested in applying the principles of innovation and disruptive thinking to all aspects of people’s communities and businesses.

So, how could you apply innovation to an old-school HR policy? Or how could you apply innovation to a sales pitch? Or to a production process? Trying to challenge people to, like we did in Detroit, let go of the past in favor of what the possibilities are. Defying tradition and tapping into the possibilities of what creativity can do throughout all aspects of both our business and our personal lives.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.