Punk and innovation – a match made in the mosh pit? Dan Ward, a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and author of the recently released Punk: Prompts and Provocations for Authentic Innovations discusses the book and why a little bit of punk may be just the unexpected angle your problem needs. In Ward’s extensive career as a program manager and innovator, he’s seen the benefit of looking at complex problems from different viewpoints. Whether you’re a fan of punk music or not, the book is worth checking out. From how to channel anger, to why fresh perspectives are often the needed ones, how to make some noise, and use your authentic voice, Punk is a great addition to the innovator’s toolkit.

Lindy Kyzer (00:29):

Hi, this is Lindy Kyzer with ClearanceJobs.com, and welcome to this episode. I had the chance to meet in person for the first time, although I feel like what is, I can’t remember if I’ve met somebody in person sometimes because I’ve had so many calls and video calls with them. So Dan, I feel like I already knew you and I did know you, but it was a delight to meet you in person. Last week I got my actual physical copy of your newest book, Punk and this one stays at my desk. I liked it so much. I still have Lift here. I bought a whole, we had a book club and I bought a whole bunch of copies. So Lift is great. I’m out of the hands for props, but you’ve written many books. This is the latest. And knowing you, Dan, I never know when you write a book, I knew about this title for a while.

I follow you on socials and it said Punk. I actually thought it might just be about punk rock. I mean, wasn’t sure, ‘he’s just really into rock music.’ I thought the whole book might just be about that, but it does kind of follow the line of a lot of your other material where you really talk about innovation, improvement, program management a little bit, but that sounds really too boring for what we’re talking about here, but we have a lot of PMs that we know and love in the clear and contractor space. So I’ll say that. So I wanted to have you on the show to talk a little bit about the book and about your work. So thank you so much for joining me.

Dan Ward (01:35):

Lindy, I’m so delighted to be here. It was terrific to meet you in person finally after so many years of podcasts and following you on all the socials as well. So thanks again for the opportunity to come and have a quick conversation about this crazy new book I just put out.

Lindy Kyzer (01:47):

I’m a total bibliophile, so talking to somebody who has written not just one, but multiple books is a joy and one book is an accomplishment for the record. So no hate. I think we all have a book in us, so it’s delightful to see somebody who takes it all the way to publication. And you talked some about the origin story for this particular book in the book. So can you talk about how it came to be and what prompted you to combine punk and innovation in this book here?

Dan Ward (02:07):

Yeah, yeah, thanks. So I think most books have a lot of different sort of roots and reasons that they came to pass, and this is certainly one of those. I listened to a lot of punk in the eighties when I was a kid growing up. I’m not sure I would describe myself as a punk kid though, and I talked about this in the book that early on, I’m telling a buddy of mine, Hey, I’m writing this book about punk and it’s taking a look at the intersection of punk rock and innovation. And he’s like, oh, were you a punk kid? And I was like, uhoh, maybe not. So we’ll come back to that thought in a moment. But I did listen to a lot of the music and it was kind of as punk as I knew how to be, and there were reasons why I wasn’t fully up to my elbows on the mosh pit.

Then in 2005, I was listening to the radio. I’m just driving down the road and the Ramones come on the radio and it just hits me like a ton of bricks. The Ramones would’ve been terrific as program managers in the DOD. Before the song was even over, I pulled over and I started writing this article that is actually included as an appendix in the punk book. That was kind of my first attempt to begin to merge this concept of punk with innovation with even DOD program management type stuff. Although my new book really doesn’t get into formal program management like you said, but with this book, I really wanted to capture the urgency, the energy, and the simplicity of punk and kind of use it to sort of hold the door open and invite more people to come in. And the tagline I’ve been using a lot lately to make some noise that makes a difference. That’s what this book is really about. So using these punk principles and practices to make some noise that makes a difference in whatever space you’re working in and whatever domain you’re involved.

Lindy Kyzer (03:35):

I love that. Some noise that makes a difference. That is a fantastic analogy, and it is about having the right noise. You give some good prompts and some good discussions and food for thought in here around this. I think music lovers of any capacity would enjoy the book or those who don’t know music at all. There’s no requirement to know anything about music, but you do drop a little shade at pop music, which based on the amount of Taylor Swift, although you did do one shout out to Taylor Swift in there, which all the Swifties appreciated. So I appreciated that you could drop a little shade. I like critical conversations. Anybody who knows me knows that’s in me. So you’re kind of giving some props to punk, no rose colored glasses. If folks read the book, they figure that out. But you do drop whole shade at pop. So what is the pop equivalent in the DOD innovation space? I had to ask you that question,

Dan Ward (04:21):

Right? I love that question. Before I get to it, I just want to say I hope people who punk will read this book and find it useful. I hope people who don’t like punk and have no familiarity with punk will still expose themselves to some of the ideas in this book and kind of help expand their mind and their view for how things could be. I actually listen to a fair amount of pop music. I enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy. I know it’s kind of junk, but it tastes good for a minute. But if I do too much of it, then my tummy feels funny. On the Taylor Swift thing, my barber who is tatted up and he’s like, I thank him in the acknowledgements in the book, he’s my punk rock aficionado, and he gave me a lot of depth of scenes and stories and concerts that he’s been to.

He went to the Taylor Swift concert with his wife and he said, Dan, that was the best concert I’ve ever seen in my whole life. So this blending of interest and blending of genres is something I’m all about. I do think we do want to be a little bit cautious with how pop music can go wrong, just like we should be cautious about how punk can go wrong. And there’s a whole chapter in the book titled, it All Sucks and it takes a look at how punk sucks and not in the good way. It is just terrible in a bad way. But I think there are two sort of warning signs to your question on the pop equivalent of innovation, and that is anybody who claims to have a monopoly or a guarantee, somebody says, this is the only way to do good work, or they promise, if you follow my method, you will definitely get positive outcomes.

You will definitely do good work that typically takes the form of checklists and simple answers. I’ll skip the profanity and the particular song lyric, but there’s a lyric where it says be suspicious of simple answers. So I get very skeptical of that type of stuff, checklist, simple answers, monopolies, and those are the warning signs that I kind of look out for. And we do find that in kind of a hyper polished, over programmed, overplayed songs that like, Hey, we just keep playing the same song that everybody has already heard and we’ll all make a million dollars. I feel like they’re kind of missing the boat there.

Lindy Kyzer (06:13):

Dropping shade on checklist too! So we should be wary of checklists? Tell me more. I’m intrigued.

Dan Ward (06:19):

Sure. So Atul Gawande, the Checklist Manifesto is a brilliant book. It is my least favorite of his books and it’s terrific. Everything he’s ever written are awesome. So I wish I could write the way Atul Gawande writes. So his Checklist Manifesto does a really good job of breaking down or making the case for checklists and why we should adopt checklists. But the challenge, the thing to keep an eye out for is how do we really approach these checklists as a starting point, as a way to not forget the things we really need to make sure we do, or as a top-down, heavy handed dictate every step, every process, and prevent any deviations. Then if we do that, we’re going to over filter the innovations.

Lindy Kyzer (06:56):

You did make a good point. I kind of wanted my son to read this book. He’s 13, he’s getting ready for his science fair at school, but I also felt like I couldn’t have him do it yet. They have such a linear process they have to do for their science fair experiment, right? I don’t think you’re bashing the scientific method. I wasn’t sure though. I was borderline for a little bit. I was like, oh, are we saying there’s different ways we don’t have to follow the scientific method? I could get him in some trouble with a teacher if I show him this book, but when the project’s over and it fails, or maybe he needs to read this like, oh no, go back to the drawing board.

Dan Ward (07:23):

I love that question. And I think to a certain extent, this book Punk is all about the scientific method. It’s all about posing some questions, collecting some validated data. One of my favorite approaches is make a real thing and put it in front of real people. Stand on a stage, make some noise, and see how the audience responds. There’s nothing more scientific than that. Where the scientific method goes wrong is don’t ask the interesting questions. Don’t ask the hard questions, just sort of recreate somebody else’s previous experiment. Where the scientific method pays off is when we have mental freedom and intellectual freedom to explore and ask questions that haven’t been asked before. The most punk rock thing you can do with a question is ask it. So this book is full of questions. Each chapter sets up a series of two to three to five questions that I want the reader to live with, to kind of ponder and wrestle with. I don’t care if you answer them or not. I want those questions rattling around in your head persistently. And then don’t come up with a simple answer and immediate answer. Have a more nuanced, thoughtful approach to these questions, reframe the questions and then use those to lead to action to do more experiments to set you up for the next question.

Lindy Kyzer (08:28):

I love that. So asking questions is essential and so is empathy, which I think was surprising. One of my favorite lines was empathy isn’t optional. And I feel like I love that because at clearance jobs we have this weird, we live in this weird space. We’re trying to help people find careers and find jobs, but also provide information about this very cumbersome security clearance process. And I find one of the things that we just have to do, even for companies to be empathetic, I think is just important now or to listen or to, we were at Nat at Girls Squad conference last week, I feel like to be in spaces where we can be a listener and a learner and a collaborator and not like we have all of the ideas. So I just loved thinking about that idea of empathy and how that applies to innovation and especially for in a book about punk kind of a surprising concept. So can you talk about how empathy played into this?

Dan Ward (09:13):

Yeah, I think that chapter titled Empathy is Not Optional. It’s one of my favorite chapters in the whole book because one of the fundamental principles that set up that chapter is when you have an innovation that doesn’t help people, it’s not an innovation. Innovation is one of those words that gets used more often than it gets defined. People, sort of a lot of vague hand wavy when we talk about innovation, but the definition I like to use for innovation is novelty with impact. So something different that makes a difference back to the whole, makes some noise that makes a difference idea. If we define novelty or innovation as novelty with impact, that impact piece, that making a difference, solving a problem, creating some value is really the core of whether something is innovative or not. In order to have an impact, we need to sort of care about the people we’re having an impact for.

We need to care about the people we’re providing a solution for creating value for or helping what you all do with ClearenceJobs. And so within the context of punk, there’s really two primary emotions that you will find in punk rock. And those two emotions are anger and empathy or rage and compassion. If we want to use the more elevated, the stronger version of these terms. And these two emotions are so tightly connected. Punk is pissed off music and they’re pissed off because people are being hurt, people are being mistreated, people are being left out. And then punk expresses compassion or empathy and expresses that by building a scene where people who have been left out, where the weirdos and the misfits can come together and be ourselves and we can fit in. And so innovation does the same thing. It sees some harm, gets upset about it, gets angry about it, and then cares enough about it to use that anger and the compassion, the rage and the empathy to do the work to address whatever the harm is that we’re seeing happen in some way. And it really starts though with caring about the people around you recognizing that they have some need and you can step in and do something to help.

Lindy Kyzer (11:00):

I think I’m a punk girl now, Dan. I mean the pink hair would, but I actually didn’t grow up. I did go to a Green Day concert in high school, so maybe I was already punk. Are they punk? We’re not sure. But this is actually my life mantra. One of a pastor, a friend of mine once said, I hug hard, I hit hard. I feel like that’s my mantra for life. So he’s turns out I’m going to tell him that he’s actually punk. Like that is that dichotomy of those two emotions coming. We have anger that turns to empathy. I love those because sometimes you can look at certain emotions are as bad or taking emotion out of a business process too.

Dan Ward (11:36):

Oh my gosh, you said two really important things there, thinking that certain emotions are bad or invalid. You’re not allowed to express those emotions in these spaces. And punk says these are valid emotions that we can and should express in these spaces and these professional spaces and use them to shape our behavior or then to take out emotion entirely. And that gets back to my comments about checklists, that bloodless emotionless checklist that nobody cares about, but we comply with it because somebody said it wasn’t important and I’m going to get in trouble if I don’t do it. In a situation like that, the primary emotion seems to be fear, right? And fear as a primary motivator is rough. I don’t want anybody to be primarily motivated by fear, motivated by rage and compassion, both. Not just one, but both. Boy, that’s a really powerful combination. I’ll take that over fear any day. No,

Lindy Kyzer (12:21):

I love that. And so a lot of this comes down to the unexpected innovators too, to speak to that I loved, you had a little kind of nugget in there about a nurse who had attended one of your training sessions. I don’t know why I’m here. And I love it when you have unexpected people show up in places and you find out, no, you actually, you were meant to be here. So can you kind of speak to that? Sometimes the folks who don’t think that maybe they’re in a position to innovate or they’re the person to do it, or they’re not creative, they’re not a problem solver. How do you speak to those groups?

Dan Ward (12:48):

Yeah, so I was teaching this two day class on innovation and this nurse showed up and she kind of apologized for being there. It sort of broke my heart a little bit. She apologized for her presence. She says, I’m not really an innovator and I don’t do 3D printing and that’s why I’m not an innovator. And we see that happen so often where people feel left out, people feel excluded in conversations around innovation because I’m not a coder. I don’t work at a startup. I don’t live in Silicon Valley. The truth is that innovation can happen anywhere and innovation is something like we need it to happen everywhere. So back to that definition of novelty with impact, we need novel solutions that aren’t just technology solutions, some new widget, but we need new processes like for the security clearances process that needs an overhaul to go faster and be fairer and more equitable, all of the things that you all are doing.

So we need innovation in our processes, novel technologies, novel organizational structures, novel return to office policies. That’s a hot topic these days. We need to be creative about these things. And so there’s room for innovation across the board. So that story is actually in a chapter called Just Punk Enough. And that chapter basically makes the point that punk isn’t about what you do with your hair. Punk is not about how you dress, but punk is about your attitude. So you can be punk even if you don’t have a mohawk, and you can be an innovator even if you don’t do 3D printing. And so the challenge or the invitation is to kind of decide how punk do you want to be? Being as punk as you want to be, not more, not less. That’s the most punk thing you could do. And same with innovation. When we focus on doing stuff that we care about on having an impact in the spaces and the people and the organizations that matter to us, that’s when innovation really is powerful. And so be as punk as you want to be, as much of an innovator as you want be. And you don’t have to go buy a 3D printer, you don’t have to dye your hair green or anything. But just making that choice and expressing your authentic self is really the secret for both punky and innovation. And

Lindy Kyzer (14:41):

You talk in the book, I love it when people work through a problem. So you talked about that problem said a little bit, but one of the chapters that was the more difficult one for you to write. Why was that the case and what made that the case? Maybe what are some of those benefits for powering through a hard thing?

Dan Ward (14:53):

And people often ask me, was it hard to write a book? And I never quite know how to answer that question because it was effortful. It took time and discipline, but I enjoy it so much. It’s such a fun thing. I don’t think of it as hard typically, but there was one chapter in this punk book that was just hard to write, and that’s the chapter on anger. I’m generally not an angry guy. I don’t think of myself as an angry guy. I don’t present as an angry guy. When I mentioned to my wife, I’m like, Hey, I’m going to write a chapter about punk is angry music. She kind of laughed. She’s like, what do you possibly have to say about anger? And I mean fair? What did I have to say? And so I kind of had to do some soul searching and some research and some reading, and I did discover that along with my deep well of chill, that is kind of my dominant way of showing up in the world, that there is this sort of parallel deep well of anger that the world’s not better than it is, that it could be better, that people get hurt in ways that I would like to see them not get hurt.

And so anger that the world should be better is one of the driving factors in my work as an innovator. And one thing that really helped that me understand this and work through this and help write this chapter was an essay by a poet named David White where he says, anger is the highest form of care. Anger is the highest form of care for a person who is about to be harmed. And he goes on in some depth about that. And I thought, oh, that’s a definition I could get behind. And this gets back to the whole rage and compassion, anger and empathy combination. Those two things do really go well together. And actually, that chapter has a really funny story about Mr. Rogers and the time that Mr. Rogers got angry. Oh my goodness, if Mr. Rogers is allowed to get angry, okay, I think I can do this too, right? Well,

Lindy Kyzer (16:37):

They do go together. We talked about earlier about the empathy. There is something about seeing somebody else hurt or harmed and what that prompts in you and that, I mean, your anger can actually be an encouragement to them. Sometimes we fail to be angry on our own behalf. Sometimes with issues we see them. But when other people come alongside us, I find that’s powerful, both at work and in personal life things, when somebody does that. So you’re encapsulating that, well, that kind of anger that shows concern for others, I think we kind of tend to look, I don’t know, we’re so individualistic as Americans, so it’s surprising, but then there’s emotions that are attached to ourselves. We can kind of put into those good or bad categories. But there is something about making a collective emotion and caring for one another that I think is super powerful and also very needed.

Dan Ward (17:18):

That’s how Mr. Rogers described it. So the story is the KKK had been using a Mr. Rogers soundalike to make robocalls and saying horrible, racist, homophobic things in these calls. And he said, when I heard them doing this and using a voice that sounds like mine to hurt people, he said, I just saw red. So he successfully sued the KKK and forced them to take those robocalls down. But he did that because he was angry about the harm that they were doing with his voice in his name, essentially. And that idea of anger as the ultimate form of care, the way David White put it, and that combination of anger and empathy. I think he encapsulated that so beautifully.

Lindy Kyzer (17:57):

So kind of bringing it full circle, punk innovation, federal government, how do we bring all of these topics together into one cohesive thought here? How did that come about?

Dan Ward (18:06):

Yeah, yeah. So it’s a match made in the mosh pit, right? I think punk is a necessary genre. I think the world needed punk to come on the scene when it did, and needs punk to continue to stay alive and be that sort of counterpoint to a lot of the standardized conformity, top-down control type approach to making decisions and solving problems. So I think punk brings a level of energy and initiative. Punk is very much a do it yourself type of music that so much of the federal space needs if we’re going to be solving hard problems and serving the people that the federal government is here to serve. So I mean, like we said before, I don’t think the book, it makes almost no mention of defense acquisitions, which is kind of my primary skillset, my main area, the intelligence community, the federal government, national security. These are not big themes in the book at all, but that is my background. And although it’s not what the book is about, I desperately hope that people in all of those fields will read and use and benefit from this book because the questions that each chapter poses are questions that we should all be asking ourselves and wrestling with and experimenting with independent of where we work.

Lindy Kyzer (19:16):

No, I love that. And that it’s definitely worth bringing up as working in the federal government space. You read a book like this and you see all of the opportunities where pockets within the federal government where a little bit of punk, a little dose of punk could go a long way, a little bit of innovation to bring that case. But if you’re even in the commercial sector, I think that’s one of the things I do try to do the shout out too. I’ve worked in the commercial sector. Sometimes we look at that and think that that’s going to solve all of our problems, but the commercial sector has a problem with this too. So wherever you’re at, again, a little bit of punk and a little bit of innovation goes a long way, Dan, it’s such a delight. You’re such a pleasure. And again, I appreciate the positivity and the attitude and the giving back to the community, and I think you do that through your books. I mean, you do that through the talks that you give and things like that. So certainly appreciate your being on the show. Again, appreciate your work in the space and appreciate a little punk.

Dan Ward (20:04):

Awesome. Well, I so appreciate the chance to come and talk about this type of stuff with you. Always a blast to spend some time with you. I should mention that punk is not available on Amazon at the moment. It feels very punk rock. I’m doing a minor boycott of Amazon. The C in 17 states have sued them last fall with an antitrust suit. So if I can figure out a way to kind of opt out of that monolithic, monopolistic, anti-competitive ecosystem, I would like to, so with this book, I was able to opt out of that ecosystem, so you can find it@lulu.com. That’s LUL u.com, but not at Amazon.

Lindy Kyzer (20:37):

Punk move. Punk Move right there, Dan. Go to lulu.com and go find punk. Thank you so much.

Dan Ward (20:43):

Awesome. Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

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Lindy Kyzer is the director of content at ClearanceJobs.com. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email lindy.kyzer@clearancejobs.com. Interested in writing for ClearanceJobs.com? Learn more here.. @LindyKyzer