Ask Me Anything (or how to steal the best ideas for making work better)

An excellent book on creativity

An excellent book on creativity

One of the best books I’ve read about being creative is “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon. It’s a short book, more graphic novel than academic text. And it begins with a basic truth about art that can apply to work:

“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before…Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”

Find good ideas, steal them, and build on them.

When it comes to making work more effective and fulfilling, that turns out to be excellent advice. And the place to steal things from, of course, is the Internet.

Here’s an example.

A typical collaboration problem

Almost anyone with a collaboration platform at work will talk about the importance of having senior people use it. Just their presence online, modeling the behaviors they’d like to see in others, is a powerful source of influence. And getting them to recognize people and interact with them can improve overall employee engagement.

But how do you get busy, skeptical, executives to participate? And, even harder, how do you get them to participate in a way that’s personal and avoids the usual corporate-speak?

Ask Me Anything

reddit icon

A solution to this problem can be found on (“the front page of the Internet”). Reddit lets users contribute content and then vote up and down on content and comments as a way to filter what’s interesting. Of the many memes you’ll see on reddit, one of the more popular ones is Ask Me Anything or AMA.

On Reddit, a wide range of people conduct in-depth, open discussions. You might talk to famous people (Arnold Schwarzenegger or Louis CK) or just people with interesting perspectives (an accident victim or astronaut). Then, last August, Barack Obama conducted an AMA.

“Hi, I’m Barack Obama, President of the United States. Ask me anything.”

Over 3 million people viewed the discussion that day. Reddit users of all ages across the world were interacting with the President, asking questions about everything from campaign finance reform to his favorite basketball player (“Jordan – I’m a Bulls guy.”) His last update summed up why participated and why he thought it was important.

“LAST UPDATE: I need to get going so I’m back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating – this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER – if you need to know how to register, go to By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience – NOT BAD!”

If the leader of the free world could engage his audience using social platforms, then even the most senior executive could do it. It showed how you could be personal and serious at the same time while still being purposeful and getting your message out.

Making the idea your own

Most companies have some kind of management Q&A at work, but most are scripted, edited, impersonal and limited to a few participants. One day, though, a manager at work conducted an open, on-line Q&A using our social platform. That sparked an idea.

Someone in another city noticed that the style of the on-line Q&A was just like an AMA. He started to spread the word and wrote up some helpful guidelines, including an AMA website. A few more managers saw that, liked the idea, and held their own AMAs.

The name stuck. Then the Communications teams saw it and institutionalized it, further developing some processes and enlisting yet more managers. Not everyone needed the extra help, but having it available made it easy for many more managers to participate. Within a few months, dozens of managers across 5 different divisions held AMAs and dozens more are planned. There were thousands and thousands of comments and Likes.

And the best part was seeing people tag the conversations with words like #engaging, #human, #authentic, and #genuine. When have you heard word like that used to describe senior management?

Becoming a student of the Internet

To change how executives interact with people at work, we didn’t have to come up with a new idea. We simply stole AMAs, changed the format a bit, and added some helpful guidelines. The innovation wasn’t the idea. It was applying the idea at work.

The same can be true for improving projectstraining, or developing talent. For coming up with new ideas or cutting costs or changing behaviors. For pretty much any problem at work you can think of, there’s a solution on the Internet that can help.

So, as Austin Kleon advises, steal like an artist. If you’re trying to make work better, scour the Internet for good ideas and build on them until you’ve made your own art for you and your firm.


About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Management, Social Business and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Ask Me Anything (or how to steal the best ideas for making work better)

  1. Great post John.

    I love the idea of allowing people to have a voice and I have been trying to convince a charity that I work with to do something similar for the money that they collect by adding a feature on the website that allows people to vote ideas up and down. In fact i will be discussing that further again in less than an hour – fingers crossed we get some traction.

    As for copying (or stealing) – we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

    I haven’t read Steal Like an Artist but I suspect it is very similar to another book that I have read – Borrowing Brilliance: The Six Steps to Business Innovation by Building on the Ideas of Others by David Kord Murray which was excellent.

    I believe it was screenwriter Wilson Mizner who said “If you copy from one, it’s plagiarism; if you copy from two, it’s research.”

    And…along those lines…I’m reblogging this post 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Houldsworth's Random Ramblings and commented:
    Letting people have a personal voice in decisions can be hugely powerful!

  3. Nick Milton says:

    John, I know what you are getting at, and appreciate the thrust of your article, but personally I really don’t like to use the “steal” metaphor. People don’t mind you re-using their ideas – with acknowledgement and thanks. People hate you stealing their ideas and passing them off as your own. I’ve got to the point where I now never use the “stealing” metaphor, as I feel it is just too negative. I explain more here

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Nick! When Picasso said “Art is theft” I’m sure he, too, appreciated your point. But “Reuse & reference like an artist” isn’t as catchy. Nor “Art is appropriate use and attribution”! 🙂

      Stealing is indeed bad. So the examples I try to find and promote are about openness, discovery, and improvement and not truly stealing. I trust people who read blogs like this will know and respect the difference.

  4. gamblesam says:

    Hey John that AMA is really useful, and a neat trick to “institutionalize it”!
    The usage of “steal” is not my favourite either and I don’t use it but as John points out readers of this blog I’m sure are all familiar with the convention… A book title with Steal rather than Re-use as the first word probably sells more copies!

  5. SheriO says:

    Hi John, Theft figures into the Promethean myth for world creation in the West Prometheus steals fire-making from the Gods.. he gets punished..but he makes things better. Now that you’ve got ama for your org, will you be punished by people complaining too much to follow…In the west unintended consequences result in the myths anyway…I wish you well with ama and thanks

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you. Hopefully I will not suffer the same fate as Prometheus. (Having my liver eaten by an eagle each day is *not* an appealing future.)

      I hope to bring about change without purposefully irritating the gods. If anything, I think I can bring them along for the ride. 🙂

  6. moyramackie says:

    I dream of writing a book that has a controversial title like that. Well, I dream of writing a book… But enough about me.
    I think it’s interesting how people can worry about others “passing off” work as their own – and something that touches on the reluctance of some to work out loud?
    But for me the whole phrase is important “Stealing Like An Artist”. This is not forgery or fraud, but a recognition that the idea is one thing, implementing it quite another. Thanks for the post, John, and for another recommendation to add to my list!

  7. Great idea John

    The reality is very lttle is truly new in life, but there is so much out there in reality no one can have all the answers, but by using this type of a forum you can find answers and tap into the real assets any businesses has its people.

  8. Natalia Levina says:

    Great idea! If instead of “stealing” the author said “transferring” or “knowledge brokering,” this approach to organizational innovation would be easier to legitimize.

  9. Pingback: 7 questions you’ll face as you modernize your company | johnstepper

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