John Sweeney aka “Jiggly Boy” frolics at a Timberwolves game.

Breaking Old Ideas

Innovators share their secrets on how you can be more creative

By Kevyn Burger
Friday, March 25, 2016

John Sweeney’s physique may be more familiar than his face.

Accurately calling himself “Jiggly Boy,” Sweeney was known as the shirtless dude who repeatedly danced with abandon at Timberwolves games. The bit gained international attention on the night Kevin Garnett returned to Target Center. With the big screen camera trained on him, Sweeney, seated in the stands, ripped off his Wolves jersey and boogied in all his portly glory, to the crowd’s — and KG’s — amused delight.

“The team put it online and it had over 5,000 views by the next morning,” he recalls. “Within 36 hours it hit a million. I said, now we have to do something. How can we multiply this opportunity through innovation to help others?”

Within days, Sweeney’s Jiggly Boy website had a portal for donations for Minneapolis-based Smile Network International, an organization that brings medical missions, particularly cleft palate surgeries, to the developing world.

“Now we’ve funded 130 surgeries,” he says, noting that he’s more proud of that than he is of the 163 million viral views of his dance.
Sweeney is practicing what he preaches. The improv comedian and current Brave New Workshop owner today devotes much of his time to delivering speeches and workshops on innovation to corporate America; he’s authored four books on the topic, including 2015’s The Innovative Mindset: 5 Behaviors for Accelerating Breakthroughs.

“A new idea, product or leader can give you these rare moments. If you have a mindset of discovery, if you practice innovative behaviors, you will see these opportunities and you can pounce on them,” he explains.

Champions needed

Innovation has never been more prized by business, and many companies are seeking ways to enhance this elusive practice.

“These skills are critical. It’s easy for organizations to say they want their people to think and be innovative, but to create a culture of innovation is trickier,” says Jacqueline Byrd, Ph.D., a Minnesota-based consultant and coach who refined the Creatrix assessment tool; it’s used internationally by hundreds of businesses to identify and leverage the innovative power within their organizations.

Byrd finds that often, innovation skills need to be learned and remembered.

“We were all innovators at one time in our life. Recapture your own childlike voice,” she urges. “Think back to the way you thought before you had to color in the lines. When kids play, they’re willing to ask questions, come up with ideas, put things together in unique ways.”
But Byrd warns that innovators, for all their vision and energy, can be difficult to manage and often challenge a company’s traditional structures and expectations. She’s found that a receptive boss is a key variable in the way an organization regards its creative risk-takers.
“If you don’t have a leader that’s championing innovation, it won’t happen,” she says flatly. “It doesn’t have to be the CEO, but it better be someone in senior management, someone who reports to the CEO.”

Ideas on demand

Companies look to idea whiz Glenn Karwoski to rally their efforts to be more creative. The managing director of Minneapolis PR firm Karwoski & Courage is an instructor at the University of St. Thomas, where he teaches business innovation to undergrad and MBA students. Karwoski is also the founder of The Business of Ideas, an innovation practice.

He encourages his clients to commit to the discipline of exploring new possibilities.

“A common problem is that people don’t give brainstorming enough time. In a one hour session, you’ve gotten the surface ideas and that’s when most of them stop. What you want to do is dig deeper for the novel ones,” he says. “Suspend judgment and entertain lots of ideas, some of them wild. The more you have, the more combinations you will see, so go for quantity. You never know when you will come up with a crazy combination that will be revolutionary.”

Karwoski cites an example of how a simple recalibration was the first step in the innovation process for one of his clients.

“I was working [as a consultant] for a large retailer that wanted to make their children’s clothing department more interesting for kids,” he says. “I took a group of employees to one of their stores and opened a duffel bag and handed out kneepads. The light bulb went off when they literally looked at the store from the perspective of a child.”

He also encourages his clients to shake up their personal and professional circles.

“The ability to change your perspective is key. If you want to think about your challenges differently, you have to look at them differently,” he says. “Be a collector of interesting friends and acquaintances. The way that problems look will shift.”

Resilient Dreams

That perspectival shift is something that Vikas Narula has learned. Born to Indian immigrants, Narula holds an MBA from Duke and is the creator and co-founder of Keyhubs, a software and management consulting service.

He also teaches a course on entrepreneurship at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where his diverse student population has reframed his outlook.

“They demonstrate resilience, resourcefulness and grit, more than in any group I’ve ever seen,” Narula says. “My impression is that many of my students at MCTC come from difficult, even harrowing situations, some because of upbringing and some because their own choices set them back.”

In their coursework, Narula requires his students — many of them first generation immigrants or the first in their family to attend college — to dream up a business. A few of them have turned the assignment into an opportunity.

“They see what their community needs and are positioned to innovate there,” he says. “They create their own jobs and create jobs for others because they spot things that someone who’s advanced thought the traditional route would miss. We all bring our experiences to our work and our ventures.”

Holding back on drawing conclusions — on people and their ideas — is also a hallmark of the creative process.

In his book and innovation seminars, John Sweeney teaches what he calls the Big 5 — the five core behaviors for cultivating an innovative mindset. They include listening, declaring, deferring judgment, reframing, and jumping in.

He identifies the last of those behaviors as what’s often the most difficult to master.

“In the workplace, so many people are hesitant to jump in, to come forth with their ideas. They’re too hard on themselves, too afraid of looking foolish,” says Sweeney, who does more than talk the talk — his shirtless shimmy proves that jumping in can have its benefits.

“If you work in a culture that’s safe, people jump in more. Ideas get out there faster. We have to be willing to live innovative behaviors to find great solutions.”