Episode 234 – Being Less Zombie with Elvin Turner

Elvin Turner“Being open to the journey of innovation of your own book is really important…”

Someone told Elvin Turner as he prepared to write his first book to expect two things: first, that he would have a ton of new ideas, and second, that as he forced those ideas onto the page, they would simplify, and simplify, and simplify. 

Turns out they were right, and Elvin revelled in the ‘IP generator’ that his book Be Less Zombie turned out to be. 

In this fascinating conversation we talk about zombie companies and the importance of embedding innovation, but also about how that process plays out in writing. And we also muse on just how late a manuscript has to be before it’s REALLY late…  


Be Less Zombie site: https://www.belesszombie.com/

Elvin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/elvinturner

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The EBBC Summer Reading List 2020: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/34626998-alison-jones?shelf=ebbc-summer-reading-list-2020

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

Virtual Writing Retreat wait list: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/virtual-writing-retreat/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Elvin Turner, who is an award winning innovation expert and Associate Professor of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Marketing for MBA and executive education programmes. His clients include some of the world’s most innovative organizations in the finance, technology, music, drinks, and publishing industries.

And his new book is Be Less Zombie: How great organizations create dynamic innovation, fearless leadership and passionate people. Welcome to the show, Elvin.

Elvin Turner: Thank you. Great to be here.

Alison Jones: Great to have you here. What a cracking title. Tell me a little bit about that.

Elvin Turner: Yes, well, do you know what? I had a bit of a crisis of confidence halfway through the writing process about the title, but I’ll come to that. I mean, the title came about from a workshop that I was running for Henley Business School a couple of years ago. It was about innovation and we were looking at, at the time, the idea of a unicorn company. So a unicorn company is one that is worth a billion dollars or more, but it’s still kind of figuring out, does it even make sense? Is there a longterm business? And it’s in scale mode, we were thinking, well, how can we teach the principles of unicorn ways of working to. ..  What’s the opposite of a unicorn? So we came up with this idea of a zombie company that is running out of road, running out of relevance, you know, scavenging for its next meal. So we set it up as unicorns versus zombies.

Alison Jones: And have you licensed the game rights for this?

Elvin Turner: I know, we probably should have done, but it was just a bit of fun really, but in the process of writing the materials for the workshop I was creating these Be Less Zom Zombie principles. And as I was, you know, making the slides, I was thinking Be Less Zombie, Be Less Zombie, there’s a book there. I’m sure there is. And it kind of went from there really. But as I say that the little crisis of confidence was: is anybody really going to want to self identify as a zombie?

Because it kind of assumes that if you’re buying the book, then you do want to be less Zombie, which, which is something we’ll find out, I guess, over the lifetime of the book.

Alison Jones: it’s a tricky one. Isn’t it? Because you want to dangle the promise in front of your readers, but you don’t necessarily want to imply that they are, you know, well, dead, frankly.

Elvin Turner: It’s everybody else. We all have a friend who needs to be less zombie, perhaps.

Alison Jones: That’s right. It’s not for me. I’m buying it for a CEO. I know. Yes.

Elvin Turner: Actually that has happened. A couple of people have asked me to send a copy of the book to their CEO. We’ll see what happens.

Alison Jones: I just wonder if it was in response to Be More Pirate, you know, the Sam Coniffe Allende book, which is…

Elvin Turner: Yes, a few people have said that and people who have read his book have said that this is a good complement to it. Actually. They’re not, they’re not looking at exactly the same thing, but it’s the same sort of vibe I think,

Alison Jones: It is, you’ve got a very similar, very direct engaging, no nonsense sort of writing style that I have to say. I really enjoyed. So yes, I can see that. And actually, another thing that is similar to his book is that it’s very practical, not just that the book is practical, but the book works alongside workshops, it works alongside a course and so on. And one thing that I noticed when I was doing my research for this was that you you’ve got a course that accompanies the book which you have made free during the Covid pandemic. So just tell me a little bit about that and how that works.

Elvin Turner: Yeah, well, I’m under no illusions that even though I really believe that the, the content of the book is helpful to many people, not everybody’s going to see it. You know, most people will die not having read Be Less Zombie…

Alison Jones: Which is a horrible thought…

Elvin Turner: I know, terrible, terrible thought, but, you know, the, the tools and the techniques that I’ve put in the book, I know they work and they can work.

It’s not just about innovation. It’s about high-performing teams in any area of an organization. So given that I know that not everybody likes to read business books, I was thinking, well, how else can we help this to show up in ways that people can consume and use usefully? However, Be Less Zombie was launched right at the beginning of the Covid crisis.

So all of the bookshops closed and I’m sure many of your guests have had the same experience. And I thought, well, I don’t want that to be a constraint on people getting access to this. and you know, everything that I’ve just said. So at least for the period of COVID, I’m not quite sure. When that ends, I haven’t quite figured that one out…

Alison Jones: yes, it had a very clear start, but a very fuzzy end.

Elvin Turner: What’s the half life of a COVID crisis? But, anyway, for now, I mean, I was seeing learning and development budgets being cut, I was seeing innovation budgets being cut at the time where we need more people to be more capable in innovation. So as a kind of response to the situation, I thought, well, the least I can do is put some stuff out there for free, then if people are interested, then they can go on and they can learn some of the tools and the approaches that are in the book.

And it’s been very well received and a lot of people around the world have used it. So that’s good. I’m going to take it down eventually because it’s part of a product set that I’m developing out of the book, but for now it’s certainly up there for free.

Alison Jones: So what kind of response have you had when you say… so how are companies using the book and the course together? And as you say in these extraordinary times, you know, has that impacted on things?

Elvin Turner: I don’t know. I mean, I’m told business books are down 60% at the moment. I always had a long-game view for the book anyway, and I guess the feedback has been, it’s been quite surprising actually. I mean, it’s generally written for people wanting to increase innovation performance inside organizations.

And I’d say the majority of people who have got back in touch with me or give me feedback probably fall into that camp in one area or another, but I’ve also had people contacting me saying ‘I’ve lost my job, I need some fresh ideas to take to interviews, I need to be able to go with suggestions on how my potential employer could think differently about how they go to market or how they organize… it’s really helped me.’

I had a really random email two weeks ago from a Mexican Catholic priest seminary, which apparently has a head of innovation and they are using the course and the book to help them rethink what the future of training Catholic priests looks like, which I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams, but just goes to show, you never know in whose hands your, your book is going to land.

Alison Jones: That is absolutely extraordinary. How funny! And I mean, so you wrote the book pre COVID, obviously, it came out with spectacular timing right at the start of the pandemic. How has that context shaped the way that it’s been received, do you think? Would you have done anything differently had you known what was about to happen?

Elvin Turner: I don’t think I would have done, I’ve been asked this question a few times and the way I’ve tried to write the book is to lay out some principles that are kind of true whatever is going on around you. And, you know, the premise of the book is how can we create higher performance by increasing innovation, making our leaders more fearless and our people more passionate, and the underlying dynamics, all of it, those things are more or less true, regardless of circumstances. Of course if you were to lay all of the things out in a graphic equalizer, under circumstances where there’s very little change going on, some would be less important than others, more important.

And you know, it’s all about the context. So, I don’t think I would have written it any differently. And I think, you know, with, with any book, really any business book, it’s all about the application and the context. So I deliberately wrote it to be generally applicable, but very, I guess more specifically applicable, but you have to do a little bit of work to tune it into your own environment.

Alison Jones: it’s a good lesson, isn’t it, in how… because books have a long shelf life. Well, hopefully, hopefully they do. And focusing on principles and not dating your book unnecessarily is quite a significant part of it, isn’t it? Which is quite different say from a course, for example, where you can use really topical examples because you can change them tomorrow.

Elvin Turner: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, one of my favourite parts of the book is I want you to come up with, or at least try and find some metrics that you could put in place inside your organization that make innovation less of an argument, which is often what it is and more of an inevitability. So because of the way we work, we are innovative and we have the right metrics in place to make sure that we are following the right track and  3M, who are famously listed as one of the, you know, the case study companies when it comes to innovation, it came up with a metric back in the 1930s, Which is as applicable today as it ever was then.

So I like to find things that have, you know, they’ve, they stood the test of time and they will continue to, because they’re really focused on how do we help ourselves to lean into the pursuit of profitable relevance, whether that’s today in five years, in a hundred years,

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. And you’ve done that I think really nicely, as I say, I was really impressed by your writing style. I’d love to know, do those sentences come out of you fully formed? Have you got those subheadings? There’s lots of subheadings. I do like a good subheading. It’s good at signposting, you know, you can scan it and zip in. And I love that. How does that come out of your brain onto the page?

Elvin Turner: Wow. Well, it, over time…

Alison Jones: Slowly.

Elvin Turner: Well, I started out a long, long time ago I started out as a speech writer and a copywriter, a ghostwriter, I guess, for magazine articles. So I kind of knew a bit about how to write, but I probably had a 20 year gap between then and what I’m doing now. And one of the things that I’m always on teams’ and companies’ case about is the user experience that you create for people. What is the user experience that people need in order to make the progress you’re hoping they’ll make? And I knew from a bit of research and my own feedback from things in the past that people don’t like to look…

Well people don’t like business books in general because they think they’re going to be boring and not practical. Lots of theory, lots of nice stories, but what do I do with that? But also just the prospect of opening a book and being confronted with lots of texts just is really not very inspiring.

So I deliberately had the user interface, if you could want to call it that, in mind. And I deliberately wrote mostly very short chapters. There’s 50 chapters. Some are a page long, some are probably more like 30, but they average out at sort of five or six pages. So you can just pick it up and quickly grab an idea that you can do something with, but the sub-headings were really to break up the text to provide navigation and just to try and break that, problem which people have with looking at a book and thinking, Oh…

Alison Jones: I just can’t  face it. Yes. And of course, you’ve got those brilliant illustrations by Richard Johnston as well, which, which goes with it well and a lovely illustrative guide to where you are in the book at any stage, which I really like, a visual kind of progress tool – ‘You are here’. How was that process of working with an illustrator? Did you sit down right at the beginning and decide where they were going to go ? Was it sort of first draft stage? How did that to and fro go?

Elvin Turner: Well, Richard and I have worked together for a long, long time. He, I mean, he is a genius. He used to work in Hollywood. He’s a model designer, a sculptor and an artist. He does all kinds of things. So we’ve kind of got a feel for how one another work, so I can suggest to him an idea for a metaphor or something, and he’ll come back with some early sketches and we’ll go backwards and forwards until we’re happy with it.

But I had to be very careful because I didn’t want to take up too much of his time in the process. And I, I mean my… if anyone listening to this ever thinks, Oh, I’d like to write a book with him, please don’t, I would be just a terrible person to work with, I think, because I’m always changing my mind and iterating around ideas.

And I knew that I couldn’t work with Richard like that because it would drive the poor guy crazy. So I had to just wait and wait and wait and work on the idea myself before I handed it over. And we’ve learned to do that over the years anyway, but, I definitely wanted some pictures in the book.

I wanted many more really, but, lots of lessons learned in the first, first time of writing a book, which I think I know do definitely next time.

Alison Jones: Well, we know we have to follow up on that. What would you do differently next time? Don’t just leave it there.

Elvin Turner: Well, I think. I really like books, one of the, so in my early days of doing copywriting and I did some work in advertising for awhile, I, I love the process of creating simplicity and I probably am a frustrated Sun or Daily Mirror sub editor in me, there’s one bursting to get out. I love the genius of simplification. Great big ideas down into one simple statement or image. And I think I would love to have written a book and maybe the next one would be more like this, where you can just open a page. There’s hardly any words, but there is an absolute genius picture that just tells you everything you need to know. And there’s little bit of help around it.

And it’s more of a visual, but I mean, I don’t know if anybody who’s listening has come across the books written by Alex Osterwalder.

Alison Jones: Yes, the business canvas guy.

Elvin Turner: Yes. And you know, he’s really moved in that direction for the same reasons that I, I talked about just now around the user interface, but it’s all about visual. And I just think there’s given us the time that people have to read these days.

And we’re so much a visual culture these days. It makes sense to give, serve people what they need to make the progress that they want to make in the, you know, the ways that that are most easily consumed. And I personally think that’s more visual, less words, but that’s a, it’s a bigger creative job to do that I think was certainly for me. Anyway.

Alison Jones: It is. And, you know, I do agree that visual is a huge part of how we consume and particularly remember information because we remember visual things, I think more clearly than text. And I think we process them more quickly, you can see the whole picture. But I often find when you’re looking at a picture, I want somebody in my ear explaining it to me as well, so that the picture is great once you’ve got the concepts, but there’s nothing… it’s very hard in a picture to convey the whole backstory, isn’t it. So the two together go really well.

Elvin Turner: I think so, yes. You need a bit of both, I guess. Where I’m coming from, and I’m talking about writing nonfiction business books here, is the need for the end user to be able to say, how can I translate this into something immediately in my work? Oh, I can sketch that on the board. And we can have a conversation about that. Or if I know if I take a picture of this and put it up on the screen or email that around, people will instinctively be able to do something with it. But I haven’t got time to read that interesting story about blah. I mean, I have to manage that balance though, because I’ve learned to really love writing.

I loved writing this book and it’s definitely made me want to write more. So I think I would find it hard not to have some balance there because some of the work is crafting the words, that is just a joy to me now to do that. And I would really feel like the book was shortchanged if it didn’t have a good balance of both

Alison Jones: And I can absolutely see, actually, I’m just looking through the table of contents now, how much you enjoyed crafting those headings. I can see that you know, that you are the Sun headline writer in you. I can see that there. And I have to say one of the things that… if you didn’t say this as your tip, I was going to say it for you, so I’m going to say it now. You’ve got, you’ve got a chapter called ‘If you only read one chapter’, which I immediately turned to, which I thought was just genius. It’s like, you know what, there’s lots of stuff here, but here’s the shortcut.

Elvin Turner: Funnily enough, that chapter doesn’t appear on the Amazon preview. It’s such a shame for people wanting to get to that chapter.

Alison Jones: But the teaser does, right? The table of contents.

Elvin Turner: yeah. Yeah.

Alison Jones: That’s really, really smart. Should we tell them it’s about MVPs and stuff or shall we just keep that away?

Elvin Turner: No, I don’t mind. I’m I’m very happy to no, no. It’s, I mean, it’s all about, for me, one of the most powerful things that’s happened in innovation thinking in the last 10 years is the emergence of running tiny experiments to test the assumptions behind your ideas and most ideas fail because we failed to test the assumptions which they’re founded on.

We assume that everything will work fine, only to find we built the thing that no one really wanted or wanted enough. So that chapter is all about how do you create a culture of experimentation in your team with some really practical proven tools that you can turn on? And I, you know, when I’m doing innovation consulting, if there’s, if I can only leave one thing behind with a team it’s the stuff that’s in that chapter, because I just know the power that it has. I’ve seen it happen time and time and time again. So that’s the reason I called it that, but because I also know that there will be people who skim the book and they’ll go in for that chapter and they’ll think that’s enough.

I know that very few people will read it, cover to cover. So it’s being…

Alison Jones: Podcast hosts, for example, are known for this sort of behaviour.

Elvin Turner: Yes. Well, I did wonder whether Wiley would let me leave that in, but they did. So I’m glad they have, and I, I did put out a straw poll to say, if I was to turn one of these into an audio chapter, just as a, in another form of content, which one would it be? And most people said that chapter, but it’s too long. I can’t pick that one.

Alison Jones: It is great though. So I I’m sorry I have queered the pitch here because I think that is such a great tip too. We can’t all do it obviously, but it was, it was very smart. But if, if I were to ask you for one tip, Elvin, for an author who is longing to be where you are now, you know, the other side of publication, but they’re still sort of in the trenches, what would it be?

Elvin Turner: I think it would be, be open to writing a better book than the one you think you’re writing because I, and certainly this is based on my own experience. I thought that the content, the journey I was going on was pretty clear. But if I’d stuck to my guns and written the book that I thought I needed to write, it wouldn’t have come out as good as I think it has come out, let’s say that. But I think there are two, two thoughts on that. One is the content: someone told me, right at the beginning of the process, that when you start writing two things will happen. One is you’re going to have a ton of new ideas because you’re immediately confronted with what you believe.

And in my line of work, I can get away in a workshop if I have to with a bit of bluster and nodding my head. If I can tell that people aren’t really getting something I can kind of push my way through and we’ll get onto the next section and pretend the last section never happened. It doesn’t happen very often, but, but through sheer force of will and charisma, you can make it happen.

You can’t do that with a book. People will just get lost or they’ll get the wrong end of the stick and whatever else. So he said, you’ll have a ton of new ideas. and you need to be open to that. And the second is, as you confront those ideas and force them down onto a page, into a certain number of words, they will simplify and simplify and simplify.

And I thought I really liked the sound of both of those things because it’s, it’s a free IP generator, really. It’s only going to make my work better. And it’s exactly what happened. And as a result,  I didn’t rewrite it three times, but I reframed it three times. I think the first month was utter drivel.

The first month was so discouraging. I’d completely forgotten how to write. And I flushed almost everything that I wrote in the first month of writing. And then I kind of got into my stride, but it was that getting to an epiphany where I thought, Oh, I see, no, this is not the way to frame this book. This is not the thing that’s going to really help people navigate through, make the progress, it’s this.

And then 4,000 new post-it notes on my wall and, you know, bits of string and everything else. That happened three times, which were both painful, but gratifying at the same time, because to hit that new epiphany of, ‘No is not that bit, it’s this!’ and the crystallization of it was just great fun for me, but had I not been open to that and stuck to my deadline, I would have delivered a book which I would have been less happy with, I think.

So I think being open to the journey, I guess the journey of innovation of your own book, is really important. And I guess the other thing for me, you’ve already hit on it, is allow time to go back and improve your writing, which sounds obvious. But there were many chapters I could have thought that’s okay, they’re good enough. But I couldn’t let it lie. I just thought, no, there’s a better way of saying that. And I don’t know what it is today and I might not know tomorrow, but if I come back in a week, I think I can improve on that. And usually I did, but building in time for the craft, I guess… but I guess my first draft was, get it down; the second and third, fourth drafts were more about, okay, now make it really good as best as I can. Anyway…

Alison Jones: And I’m imagining a great email that you have crafted to your editor saying. So the bad news is it’s late, but the good news is it’s much, much better, which we’ve all had…

Elvin Turner: The funny thing is I bumped into somebody at a workshop, as I was about to miss my deadline, who worked with a publisher. And I said, Oh, I’m feeling really bad. I’m going to miss the deadline. And then he said, Oh, how late are you? And I said, Well, I’m going to ask for an extra month. And he just burst out laughing.

He couldn’t stop laughing for about a minute. And I said, what’s, What’s up? He said, That’s not late, six months is starting to be late. And I thought, Oh, okay.

Alison Jones: Okay. If there’s any Practical Inspiration authors listening, please ignore that. I do remember working when I was working at Oxford University Press one author came in with his manuscript in three big boxes, him and his wife and his son, and it was 20 years late and he hadn’t given us any indication that it was coming, so it was, it was quite a day.

Elvin Turner: Oh my goodness. Wow.

Alison Jones: So, yeah, that’s not late, that’s pathetic – one month?!

Elvin Turner: I’ll try harder.

Alison Jones: I liked what you said about you didn’t rewrite, you reframed. Just tell me what that distinction means.

Elvin Turner: Well, I think rewriting would have mean would have meant a lot of changing the words around literally, you know, the paragraphs and the pages and the text. It wasn’t so much about that. It was finding that laying out the seven ideas could actually be folded into five ideas, but that meant I would need to change the structure somewhat.

And that meant I might need to change, I mean, in some ways what the book is about, even though I said, when I reframed it, it didn’t actually change the subject of the book. It kind of did a little bit, but it was a better overall framing, I guess it simplified what I was actually going after. And I guess so, the reframe for me was more, another level of simplification around the ideas and then what the knock-on effect of that was to the structure. And then what I actually called the book and what it was about. So  it was a continual, I know this might be worst practice, to be honest, Alison, I really don’t know, but it’s how it worked for me.

Alison Jones: No, it makes absolute sense. And actually, I was just thinking that when you, when you have it in that granular way, you’ve broken it in down into small chapters, and you’ve got the subheadings in, that kind of reframing becomes a lot easier, doesn’t it? Because you’re just handling smaller units. It’s more granular so you can do more with it, which is an interesting side effect as well.

Elvin Turner: And sometimes it was the opposite. It was taking a bigger idea and saying that’s too big to eat in one chapter that actually needs three short chapters. Not, not that there’s any more words, but they just need some space so that they’re separated.

Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. Do you know, you’ve got, you packed about 10 tips in there, Elvin, so nice work. That was brilliant. And I’m going to ask you as well. I mean, obviously, obviously everybody should go and read Be Less Zombie, but as well as that, is there a book that you would recommend? I mean, you know, I say a business book, frankly, it can be any kind of book that a business person you think should, should read in today’s world.

Elvin Turner: I guess I’ve got two answers. One is a bit counter intuitive, which is the Bible, which I’m going through at the moment and finding so many gems in Proverbs. The book of Proverbs, it’s all in there. It’s all we need in there.

Alison Jones: Proverbs is amazing. Isn’t it? The whole, you know, the soft answer turning away wrath, there’s so much in there that that actually is very 21st century psychology.

Elvin Turner: Absolutely. There’s a book in there, a book about the book of Proverbs, but I guess for a business book, I would say hands down The Lean Startup, which transformed the way I think about innovation and is all about the approach to testing assumptions before we start built spending tons of money and resource and creating politics and fear around big ideas.

So how do we move more into disruptive innovation by is dreaming big, starting small. so that, that’s my number one favorite business book on that. It’s at least in terms of the impact that it can have.

Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. And actually, now I can’t stop thinking about books of the Bible. That would be great. I mean Ecclesiastes would be a good one right now, wouldn’t it?

Elvin Turner: Oh my goodness. Yes, yes, yes.

Alison Jones: It’s an Ecclesiastical sort of time. Yes. Anyway, brilliant, thank you. And sorry. Now I’m thinking Oh, what else would be useful ? But Elvin, where should people go to find out more about you and more about Be Less Zombie?

Elvin Turner: Well, probably go to belesszombie.com because there it’s got all of the stuff about the story of the book to some extent, there’s a free chapter. There’s some free resources that I’ve put there. There’s the link to the free course that we mentioned. So I would suggest that that’s probably the best place to go, www.belesszombie.com.

Alison Jones: Which is pretty memorable, let’s face it. I don’t think I’m going to need to, but I will put that link up on the show, extraordinarybusiness books.com, even though it’s actually more memorable than my link. I love it. Thank you so much for your time today Elvin, that was just fascinating and, and hearing somebody who is so aware of what they’re doing as they write is such a pleasure as well, because you’re able to share in a way that will really help people who are listening. So thank you for that.

Elvin Turner: Thanks. Alison, thank you for inviting me on.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.