Riff with Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, author of "What's Your Problem"?

I riffed with my friend and author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg back in October and examined the art of problem-solving through the lens of his latest book, What's Your Problem? which Eric Schmidt praised by saying “If you want the superpower of solving better problems, read this book.” Today, Thomas joins me to discuss his journey as an author and how he has used the principles in What’s Your Problem?, to cultivate his framework as a writer. I’m in the process of writing my first book (#2020timeonmyhands) and found his advice helpful. If you’re an aspiring author, you don’t want to miss this conversation!


Watch and listen to our conversation below:



RIFF TRANSCRIPT:


Angel Gambino:

Welcome back. Today, we are going to talk to author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg. And I'm not Danish, so he will definitely have to say it much better than I can. But I've known Thomas for many years. And I am really excited about his new book, where he really gets into both the art and science behind problem solving. In this book, What's Your Problem? Which I just love that title, because I feel like so many of us have said that in one context or another, oftentimes within our families, but also in business. We're going to really understand the kind of process that Thomas has used to get his book published by Harvard Business Review Press.


And as most of you will, I'm sure be aware, it's the gold standard of publishing. I think many of us who are working on writing non-fiction books, specifically business books, would dream of having them as a publisher. And so, we are really looking for today for Thomas to give us some advice on writing our next bestselling book, and hopefully finding out different ways that we might want to bring our thoughts, our experiences, our insights into the world that will hopefully have a positive impact in some way.


And recently, while writing my own book, I was working a bit with an author coach. And it was interesting, because we would have these sessions, really to kind of define the book and give it more focus. And he would say, "What's the problem for the reader?" And then, I would say what the problem is. And he'd say, "Well, what's the problem with this?" And the problem that I had just stated. And it was the question over and over and over again, until we could kind of really get to the core, the heart of the way that I want to help people in my writing. So, I'm still midway through. And it's been tough, but I'm getting there. And so, I really respect people like Thomas, who've not just done it once, and have some experience that we can all benefit from. So, I'd like to welcome Thomas.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Amazing, thank you, Angel. And I love your assumption that you're halfway through.


Angel Gambino:

At least a few months ago, I said that. And a few months before that, I said that.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah. That, I've found, can be a moving goalpost, at least in my own writing process. No, I can tell you, when you are more than halfway through, then you have at least one reader who'll be interested, given all the stuff you've been doing.


Angel Gambino:

Thank you. Yeah, that's what the author coach said, "I think you're done." I'm like, "I'm definitely only just getting started. I have got so much more to share."


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah. Amazing.


Angel Gambino:

I love that we're talking today to you as the author, because I don't know if you remember, because I think it might have been 15 years ago, possibly, you bought me three books for my birthday. And I'm going to forget what the third one was, but I read it and loved it. And then, one of them was ... And I don't know if you're going to remember the title, but it was on happiness. It was basically The Science of Happiness.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Oh yeah. Yeah, I think that was Jonathan Haidt's book. Yeah. Exactly, it's really good.


Angel Gambino:

And I love that book. And then, I knew that you just got me as a friend when the third book was something like Suicidal Bunnies. Something like that. It was hilarious. It was darker than Matt Groening's Life in Hell, I remember that. But I just thought it was so funny.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah. I mean, I am from Denmark. And as the television series watchers will know, we have this whole Neo Noir thing. So, we're very happy and sunshiney on the surface. And we have a deep, dark, morbid humor underneath.


Angel Gambino:

Absolutely, which I love. And I guess that's my love of Danes coming through, because I loved that book. And now you're an author. So, I get even better books.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

So, today, I think it would be great just to hear a bit about your journey in becoming an author. And specifically around this book that just came out during the pandemic. I know a lot of, not even just first-time authors, but well-established authors were worried about releasing books during the pandemic and how well they would do because book stores were closed and they couldn't do book tours and things like that. So, I would love to hear a bit about your kind of inspiration and your journey with this particular book and just as an author in general.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah. I was very excited when you suggested this, because when you publish a new book, you talk about the book a lot. And I enjoy doing that. But this is a topic that I've given a lot of thought to as well around, what actually makes a difference in terms of getting your ideas out? And how do you manage to publish? Just so your listeners kind of know what this is based on, I published my first book with Harvard Business Press seven years ago, which is this thing here, Innovation As Usual. I published some stuff online. I published two cover stories for their magazine. And then, of course, the recent book, which you just aired, that came out here in March, globally in English. And it's kind of coming out in eight other languages, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, and Brazilian, and so on.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

And so, of course, during all of those processes, I'd kind of given a good deal of thought to the question, what is it that I do when I figure out what to write about? When I pitch stuff to my publisher, what goes into that? And the only thing I want to highlight before we delve into it is that, this is just my perspective. There's a ton of different ways of doing this. If you talk to other authors, they use other approaches. So, don't look at this as kind of like, here's the guide book. Think of whatever advice I give you as kind of like, this is one approach that worked for me at least. And that might inspire some thinking on your own part.


Angel Gambino:

Sure. Yeah, I gook a writing course through Stanford during quarantine. So, I thought, "Okay, I've got this extra time. And I'd like to learn more about it while I'm doing it or in preparation for the kind of later stages of the book." And I would echo what you're saying, you know? We had publishers, editors, book agents, all sorts of different people come and speak during the course. And I definitely got a lot more clarity around the kind of traditional publishing process and the different people that are involved and the different stages. But I also walked away from it going, "Oh my gosh, there's so many different ways of going about this. I don't know if I'm more informed or more overwhelmed, or both." So, I think talking to people like you, who've been there, done that, at least can hopefully give some of us a guidepost or a methodology that might work for us for ourselves. Different authors have different approaches, regardless of what publishing model they use. So yeah, so I appreciate you kind of walking us through your experience.


Angel Gambino:

And I think it'd be great to hear, because Harvard is so selective about the authors that they work with, kind of how you went about it, in terms of, they obviously have their magazine. And that's another course I took, which was about how you get very friendly with editors of key publications. And I've been interviewed by just about every publication and TV station, radio station under ... At least in this universe. But now that I'm writing and want to get some of my stuff out, I have to look at it in a very different way in terms of the relationship that I'm trying to build with editors, making their jobs easier. So, I would love to hear ... And it's very different when they're interviewing you for their own stories than you wanting to write your story and offer it up and hope to get published. So, I'd love to hear about the magazine versus the book, and at least your perspective or any advice that you can offer to other authors.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, I mean, we can start with talking about the magazine. There's a bit more to it when it comes to the book. But I think the central mistake I see people make if they want to pitch something to HBR that they want to write. The central mistake they make is to focus on the networking part first, because what gets you published in HBR, in my experience at least, is it's 95% the content, the ideas you come with, and 5% kind of making the connections with the editor or whatever it is.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

It can see very tempting when you're moving into this to start with the connection, because you're like, "Well, content. Okay, that could be a lot of work. But maybe the editors can help me. And I know how to network properly, or have some experience with it. So, how do I get close to somebody who can give me an intro? And blah, blah, blah." Really bad way to start, in my experience. And here's why. When you think about editors in general, they are super busy. They are constantly being asked to connect to people. Like, people just want to talk to them. And if I were an editor, I would hate people who want to steal my time, you know?


I think what editors love is people who come to them with really strong content already, kind of it's a good deal of the way there. And they can, in the first pitch they get to that person, they can see something they can potentially turn into an article or whatever it is. So, in my view, whenever somebody comes to me and says, "Hey, can you introduce me to your editor?" I tend to say, "No, not until you are ready with something that's really, really strong. Until then, don't bother." Like, they love getting content that's strong. That's what they live for. And they hate kind of, people want to talk to them. And then it turns out their idea isn't really thought through or it's not good.


So, the core lesson is just forget about the networking for a while. And instead, focus on figuring out how to really hone your ideas and your stories so they are a good fit. And only then, kind of go to the stage of trying to connect.


Angel Gambino:

I think it's great advice, because I think what I found when I started writing more and had more time to write during the lockdown is, at first, I was just reaching out saying, "Okay, what's your process basically for submissions?" And then, I just stopped doing that. And those were the friendly ones, the ones where I already had some preexisting relationship. But then, what I started to do is almost templatize my initial engagement. So, I would put something like, "Hi, this is who I am. I'm reaching out because I read this article in the prior magazine," or just a past editorial that they had, "And I'm writing an article about X, which is kind of adjacent to that prior story. And I think it would resonate with your audience in the following ways. It would inform them about ... You know? And it's basically ready to go, if you're kind of interested."


And then, I would give it a certain amount of time to see if I got a response. And then, I would follow up. And I would typically point out another article that was adjacent, or another article in a competitor magazine saying, "Oh, they're talking about this. I actually think this is a more important topic." And then, I gave them sometimes like a paragraph or a couple paragraphs. This was for magazines primarily, or websites, like Otto News, I did one for, Entrepreneur I did another one for. So, those different publications. So, I agree with you. I think going in showing them, and providing links back to your other writing, right? So that they can see the kind of level of quality, the style, can be really helpful, rather than just saying, "Hey, tell me what you're looking for."


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Exactly. And I think it's very smart what you're doing with referring to existing things. One of the tips is, when books are published, you can very often in the acknowledgements see which editor commissioned it, because the authors will write, "Thanks so much to this person, who believed in my idea enough to get it published." So, from that, you can kind of sense what the editors are interested in, what they've been writing about before and so on. So, I think that's a very good approach to it. I can share a couple thoughts around the content. Like, when we talk about good content, what is that? I think there's some more granularity there to delve into.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, I would love that, because I think part of what creates writer's block for a lot of people is, I have so many ideas that I would like to write about. So yeah, anything that you can share about the content itself, and how to choose amongst all those different ideas, would be really helpful.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah. I mean, when I think about what is strong content, I kind of have a couple of buckets or boxes I wanted to check. The most basic one is just that it is useful for a reader with regards to a problem they have. And that may sound basic, but there are so many people I run into who go like, "I have this great new framework for leadership of the ABGF model." Like, nobody cares. We don't need another model. Before you sell me your solution or your framework, tell me what problem you're going to help me solve. And especially if you can kind of ... Sometimes you can find problems that are a little bit ignored, because they are problems we all know we have, like working from home at the moment. Yeah. I'm sure a billion books are being pitched to that.


But there are also problems that are a little bit more hidden that I think can be really powerful if you can tap into that. So, an example, the first book I wrote, again, Innovation As Usual, there was a very specific pitch, because there are tons of innovation books out there. But we had kind of, through my work, my coauthor and I realized that there was a missing link in a lot of the innovation literature, which was, we always talk about this as if we have no limits, as if we are sitting in a garage in Silicon Valley and just fail our way forward and all that.


The reality of most of the people I work with, they're sitting inside a very big company. They have tons of limits. There's bureaucracy, there's regulations. They have innovation as a ... It's never their first priority. It's kind of like something they also have to get done. And so, that was an interesting problem for me, to go in and say, how do you manage to innovate when you have a day job? And you're not the head of innovation, you are sitting somewhere in a marketing division or procurement or whatever. That was an interesting problem. And I think that was the pitch.


When I asked my editor at the time, [Melinda Marino 00:17:44], I asked, "So, what actually made you fall in love with the book?" And she said, "Well, this pitch you had, how to help other people innovate inside a big organization when you're a leader and you have to drive innovation, how do you do that?" That was a little bit of an unanswered problem that we then dug into. So, the first thing is just like find a good problem that is clear you're helping to solve.


And evidently, secondly, you want something that's very original. Like, if you come out and you say the same thing that's been said 15 times before in 15 other books, well, who cares? Like, you're not contributing. So, you hopefully have something new to share, at least a couple of kind of counterintuitive ideas or whatever it is that kind of upgrades our shared conversation. So, with HBR at least, you're not writing for amateurs. You're not writing for somebody who's never read about innovation or are new to it. You're writing for somebody who has already read a good deal about it, and who will be vastly disappointed if you come in and say, "It's important not to set any limits for innovation." Hello, we've heard that since the 50s. And by the way, it doesn't always work, you know?


So, the usefulness, you want the originality. And then, of course, you want cases. And this sounds really basic. But I think a lot of people think that it's about regurgitating another Steve Jobs or Elon Musk story. And sure, you can write articles about that, but they've been written already. What I've found more powerful is actually when you can come in with new stories, with, you have an idea how to innovate or whatever it is. And then you have a story that hasn't been told before about how somebody used this idea to create results.


I think people sometimes think, "Well, this will be internationally published, so I should probably write about Facebook or Cisco or big names." That could be helpful. But what I've found is, it can be equally powerful to write about a small team in a weird country, like Denmark, that did something interesting. As long as the core idea is there, it doesn't necessarily matter that much. And I think every time you read a new article about what Steve Jobs said about innovation, it's kind of like, not again, you know? So, I think those three things in their ... You know what problem you're solving, maybe even an overlooked one. You have original insights around them. And you have original cases to support. Those are, I think, the three key elements that really makes a difference in terms of having good enough content to get in.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. And especially now that you're on your second book, do you have more confidence now? What has changed from how you went about writing the first book into writing the second book? Because you clearly nailed it the first time. But you're not a one hit wonder. You've managed to kind of come back and do it again. So, what was different or similar in terms of how you approached going into the first book? And maybe the process that you used throughout your writing? And were there any similarities or differences in the second book?


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, I'd say there are probably two big differences or learnings from my first book. And the first one, the most fundamental one was the need, like with a startup, for that matter, you want to iterate quickly with your customers. Like, with the first book, I put myself in the writing dungeons and I sat and churned out the manuscript. And then it was done, it was there. And then, Harvard has a peer review process, where it's ready by five anonymous reviewers. And it was torn apart, and righteously so, because I had just been sitting in my own little bubble.


And so, that added at least another, I think half a year to the process, just rewriting it to make sure it was actually really useful. So, what made a big difference for me with my second book is that I constantly tested it on people. I had some friends who are authors that I convinced to kind of read bits and bobs of it and kind of give back to me. But even those friends who weren't authors, I gave them the book, a rough printout of it. And then I said, "Here's a red highlighter and a green highlighter. Use the red one whenever you're bored or you don't understand. Use the green one whenever you are excited or think this is fun." Super helpful. Like, suddenly you just find, "I'm using language that people don't understand, or I'm getting stuck in the mud on a weird topic." Just that process of putting your rough drafts out there. A friend of mind calls it the shitty first draft.


Angel Gambino:

Yes. Yeah.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

And the shitty second draft.


Angel Gambino:

I was going to say, I've got multiple shitty drafts, not just the first one.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah. So, I would say, use your network of friends and authors as much as possible to try to convince them to read a chapter, give you feedback on it, and so on. The more you do that early in the process, the faster you will actually get the book out and make it good.


Angel Gambino:

Yes, I love that advice around the ... Did you say red and green?


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

Yes, I love that, because I have a few people that I've been consulting with throughout the different stages of writing. And I kind of left it open in terms of how they wanted to give the feedback. And some people I did these phone calls with, some people would give me a kind of overview of feedback in different ways. But I love that approach, because I think I had one where I had multiple different Google Doc versions. And I'm like, "Okay, you can comment." And then I'd go, "Okay, well I don't want that person to see those comments, because then that's going to influence what they think." And I was trying to ... So, I think that's a really useful piece of advice.


And then, I also think, to your point around using your own real world, personal examples, whether that's memoir style or a business context, because one of the things that I observe is that, I think you're right, there's way too much repetition in terms of what Steve Jobs or lots of other people, luminaries that we can name. And we've heard a lot of those stories before. And I also think it's dangerous to build up these people into iconic status when there's so many people around them that contribute to these stories that you don't hear so much about.


But I think, in terms of really learning, a lot of times we learn more from ... I have a few friends during quarantine who are, I would say where I would like to be in maybe a year to two years from a physical fitness standpoint. And so, I'm doing my boot camps and I'm doing Peloton. I'm doing all these other things. But my kind of go-tos are those people that are a few steps ahead of me. And so, there are people that I've met, for example on community forums. Like, I did this Anita Herbert boot camp. And she's just this extraordinary fitness pro. But there are a couple of people who have done her program who are in this Facebook group. And I end up really going to them and looking at their posts for guiding me, because it's great that she's got this program out there. But in 10 years, I would have to stop being a mom, stop working and everything to look like her.


But these other people look incredible. And it's not just the vanity of how it looks, it's like you can only look that way if you get to a certain level of physical performance and eating well and all the rest of it. And so, I look at their stories as inspiration and guideposts for my own, as opposed to these people who have these amazing brand platforms around physical fitness, right? Or health or whatever. I still follow them. But I think if we can package and write our stories well, and give those kind of more micro-level examples, I feel like they're somehow more accessible or more tangible for people.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Exactly. I find there is this ... The good stuff resides in the overlap between an interesting high level idea, and then a very tangible example of how that idea plays out. And you have to have both, because if you just have an example, it's like, "That's a fun story. But what does it mean? And how do I use it in my world?" Inversely, if you just have the idea, it remains fantasy for people. Like, you need a specific example to say ... Quick example, in my first book, one of the core insights is, you don't actually necessarily want to give people freedom when you want good ideas from them. You may want to focus the search for innovation. So, that's a general rule. And then you have a couple of stories of leaders that did that successfully. What did they actually say to people? And how did that work out? So, both of those are, in my experience, necessary, the abstract idea and the tangible examples of how that idea looks like in reality.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

But I mentioned, I said before there are two things I learned. I don't want to deprive-


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, sorry. Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, the other thing is just around making it more inviting, because I felt like the first book, what was that? That was a pretty standard 200 page ... Like, here's the text, you know? And here's, by the way, some more text, you know? And that did well. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "What makes a book much more inviting?" And so, with the second one, I went in a very different direction, which is like, as you know, you have the book, I use a ton of illustrations along the way to kind of make it just ... I found that having these small little, weird scribbles that I was sitting and doing on an iPad basically, really, really helps people absorb the ideas in a way that you don't do if you are reading just like 200 pages of text.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

So, I kind of want to show as well, I have a specific screenshot of what my apartment looked like when I was writing. I'll see if I can share that right now here. Give me one second. Here we go. Can you see it?


Angel Gambino:

Oh yeah. Yeah.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, so I mean, that's a very tangible-


Angel Gambino:

A war room.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, it's the war room. Like, that's a very tangible example of, I found it very difficult to keep 200 pages in your mind or a laptop. And so, just printing out pages, kind of working off of them, it really helped me just keep an overview of everything that was going on in the book. It also looked completely insane. So, that was here. Yeah. So, I think people who were first time visitors to my apartment at that time, they were like, "Okay. Is this guy ... What is he on?"


Angel Gambino:

[inaudible 00:30:10].


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, exactly.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, it's interesting, because I haven't had guests inside my home for obvious reasons, as we all know. So, I took one wall and I took down artwork, just so I would have more room for post-its. And so, at first, I got the big boards that you can kind of put up. And then I put the post-its on there. And so, I think yeah, because if that wall was my mind, those post-it notes would be all over, and I wouldn't be organized at all. But there is something in the visualization, in being able to structure those thoughts that make it kind of ... That build the narrative along the way. Yeah.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, it really, really helps.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, and it helps if you don't have guests that walk into your home with all these ... So, writing during quarantine is actually a good thing.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

You don't have to worry about your friends thinking that you've lost the plot. It looks a little bit like those crime shows when the detectives are trying to-


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, I've heard that, like Homeland and similar. And I've heard the comparison to A Beautiful Mind, right before John Nash goes crazy.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah. That's probably better to be compared to a genius than a murderer, maybe.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, I'd take that. It's got to be.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, fine line. Fine line.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

So, in terms of your process, that was part of your process in terms of structuring those different thoughts and really building out what the purpose of each chapter is, and kind of weaving them all together. What else can you share about the process of writing this particular book that might be helpful to others? I love that example of the red and green. Are there any other tips in terms of how to kind of structure the writing process? Did you block a certain amount of time every day? Or did you just say, "I'm not doing any other work for these several months while I write." How did you go about it?


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

I think it's so different for ... I know a lot of authors, I've asked them about the same thing. And people do wildly different things. Whatever fits into your life. So, I would almost go back and look at, if you're writing, what has worked for you before when you had to do focused work? Is it getting up early in the early morning hours? Is it setting aside two days really focused every two weeks? I don't know what the answer is.


I have a weird life where I don't have a real job. So, I have great freedom in terms of structuring my time. I don't think most people have that. The good news is, we don't need that. It's more a question of figuring out what habit works for you. I'd say, I'm jumping a little bit here, but I think there's one other element we didn't quite touch on in terms of the books, besides ... I spoke a little bit about articles. I think when it comes to books, there's one more element, which is the platform.


And the platform is kind of publishing shorthand for your ability to sell books on your own, because of course, a good publisher will help you sell it. But they also expect their authors to carry a good deal of their work with selling. So, really basic thing like, do you have 10,000 subscriber newsletter? Do you teach at a specific place? Are you part of a consulting firm that can pitch this? Because publishers are, of course, in the business of selling books, not just in the business of getting good ideas out there. And so, when it comes to books, which is a high risk kind of investment to make for a publisher, they are naturally enough looking for your ability to sell copies as well.


And very simple piece of advice here, maybe you have it already, great. But maybe you don't. Maybe you're new to the scene, maybe you don't have a following yet. Maybe you don't really have institutions that you're part of and so on. In that case, a coauthor also can help. I think one of the reasons I managed to published my first book with them was that I co-wrote it with one of my professors, who had an institutional basis, who had like a client base and so on. And that's just a really simple function that a coauthor can have there. If you have no platform and you want to publish a book, that it might be a worthwhile consideration. There's more to that than picking a coauthor, but that's probably one of the things I would look for. You should also look, like in a marriage, you should look for compatibility and many other things too. But that's one very specific element.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, I think that's a really important point, because in that Stanford course that I took, and also just my experience as a media and entertainment exec, a lot of artists now can be incredibly talented. But they're not going to get that recording contract unless they've already got a massive fan base that they can bring to show that they can, themselves, market the music. And I was interested to learn more about that through this course that I took. They talked al to about building up your platform as an author, and that being one of the kind of aspects of your profile as a new author that traditional publishers will look at to see. So, you can de-risk that investment for them, so that they can see that if 2% or 10% of your Instagram followers buy the book, that means the publisher is going to make X, you know? Or if you've got an email list of, like you say 10,000, what percentage of that are you likely to convert? And do you have any data that you can show them about your ability to convert those audiences into book buyers?


So, I think a lot of people who are interested in writing books aren't really aware of that component. And it's something that you can kind of do while you're writing, right? There's ways to really kind of help build your platform. A lot of what I've started to do is different snippets throughout the book, even though it's maybe or maybe not halfway done. I at least have enough decent quality writing, where I can convert that into tweets and LinkedIn posts and other things like that, and in my newsletter, so that I can hopefully grow that platform that will ... And also help me segment amongst the people who follow me on social media or subscribe to my newsletter, who amongst that wide and varied audience are interested in this particular topic, because you can have a lot of people who are interested in you as a person. But if they're not interested in that particular topic, your ability to convert them into book buyers is [crosstalk 00:37:57].


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, I think you're touching on something fundamental here, because in a sense, when I think about where I get my ideas for what to write about, it comes from the interaction with the real world. Like, it's not that you sit in a dungeon and read a lot of books and then suddenly have this breakthrough insight. Both of my books arose from me working inside big companies or startups or whatever, running around and teaching them stuff about something. And sometimes just doing research on what they were doing. And suddenly, you see something. You're like, "Wait a minute. We give this advice about innovation being a very, let's put on a Hawaii shirt thing and go really crazy." And then you see a company in which the people who actually succeed, they do the inverse of that. They don't go flamboyant, because their company culture is not like that. They are very stealthy.


First article I put in HBR was The Case for Stealth Innovation, where I just had seen a number of people, including our mutual friend Henrik [Vertalin 00:39:02], when he worked at MTV. The way they got their ideas carried out was not by trying to sell it to the CEO in the first instance, but by working under the radar, getting stuff done, until they suddenly had a case that was really strong and they could push that. Like, Henrik, as you know, he secretly did a broadcast of a new program that he had come up with, with a couple of other people. He did it from a closet at 2:00 at night. He was just like, "Okay, let's try this." And he was told in no uncertain terms, "Don't ever do that again. But by the way, we like the show. And let's do it."


Angel Gambino:

Right. Yeah. I agree completely, and that's totally Henrik. I remember having ... I was working on the game strategy at the BBC when I was an exec there. And it applied to everything from new game TV show formats, through to online gaming, to mobile gaming, you name it. How you could take key BBC properties, brands, TV shows, and both commercialize them through BBC worldwide, or just make them more interactive and engaging through text to screen in different ways? And I remember when it got to the stage ... So, I did a bunch of skunk works and a bunch of innovations.


Digital was considered the ugly stepchild at that stage, so unless you were the controller of BBC One, pretty much, people would ignore what you were doing. So, you could actually get a lot done and test things and find out what was working. And so, I took Henrik's approach as well. And I remember when it came time, when you actually need big budgets and a broadcaster that big to actually move things forward. And I remember presenting to Greg Dyke and our board of governors. And him saying, "I know Sony PlayStation was not approved. And they were building it up, and the exec team didn't know." And he seemed really worried that we were building some massive games empire within the organization. And I just said, "Look, this is what we've done. There are the results that we've got. We've got high levels of engagement with the audience. They're loving it. And so, now it's coming to the stage, before we get too crazy with it, to get your approval before we move forward." But there was definitely some fear around too much innovation, or at least too much investment before there was general buy-in.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

But we have to show them sometimes, we have to actually do it and show them, because otherwise some of these ideas are too abstract or they just don't believe it's going to work.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

And that's the way you find out, by the way, whether the idea actually works before you present it.


Angel Gambino:

Right.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

I think, to me, the overarching point is, it is through those stories and those experiences that you start to realize what your idea is. Like, it is by thinking about, "Hey, wait a second, what is this story that I went through or that people I know went through? And what does that tell me about getting new stuff done in big organizations or whatever?" It is from the immersion or something like it into the real world that you start seeing the missing links in what's out there. Like, wait, there's a really important topic to be written about here, problem finding. Like, solving the right problems. I thought that was covered, but almost all the companies I work with, they don't know how to do it. I'd better write a book about that.


So, really kind of not thinking this comes from reading books. It is about getting into working with practitioners or looking at your own practical experience and figuring out what's unique about this. What's an important message that needs to be shared with a wide audience?


Angel Gambino:

Yes, that makes a lot of sense. And so, when people are kind of in their day to day jobs and they're interfacing, either with people within their companies or with customers, and they're thinking about all these different topics, when they kind of get to that stage where they've done enough due diligence, so to speak, around the topic, what would you suggest in terms of next steps? Because not everyone's going to get into Harvard either an article in the magazine or get their book published. And there's lots of new models, right? Where you can either self-publish or some kind of quasi-self-publishing, you know? What do you suggest people look at in terms of, once they've kind of landed on the idea, they've tested it a bit, they've got some good stories to share, in terms of really thinking what are the best options for them?


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah. I'd say the first one is just to recognize that just writing an article anywhere can be a great first step. It doesn't work this way, like, oh, you've already written the article, so now you can't write the book about it. On the contrary, my second book, it actually started as an article in 2017, that became massively popular. And I then used that and expanded that into a book. So, you don't have to aim for a book at once. It's great just to start with publishing something much shorter, also easier to do.


I think secondly, and you referred to this, but when people come to me and say, "How do I get published by one of these big publishers?" My reaction is, "Do you want to?" Because there are very different models out there. And some of the newer models can actually be really, really powerful depending on what you want. What's worthwhile knowing about the traditional publishing model is, you do get good distribution, you do get some branding around if it's a known publisher. But you also, first of all, your revenue from the book, if that's something you want to count on, that's fairly minimal. Like, because the publisher taking most of the risk, they also take most of the revenue.


Secondly, and that was the thing that was a little shocking to me, the time. If you choose to go with a traditional publisher, you are adding at least a year to the book getting out there. So, in my experience, basically, once the thing is done, there is a prolonged editing production process. There is also this process the publisher does of getting it out into bookstore chains and so on. So, the weird thing, I think, about traditional publishing, most of the ideas you read are a year old by the day they're published. And if you're in a business where you want to build your reputation faster, where you don't necessarily want to wait that long. Then it might make a ton of sense to go in and examine self-publishing, examine hybrid publishing. And there's a lot of different options out there.


Somebody who writes a lot about this quite well, I think, is Tucker Max, who writes about his book called Scribe, formerly Book In A Box. He offers a lot of free content on his site, kind of as a fairly objective guideline to, should you go traditional, should you go with a hybrid model? Should you self-publish or whatever? Look into that before you just kind of mindlessly say, "I want to get published by Random House," or whatever it is.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

All can work. But look at which model makes sense, given your own aims of what you're trying to do.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, I think they have a great model. And I think you were the one who introduced me to them. And I like how they've got lots of different versions and price plans, based on the level of support that you want as an author, you know? Everything from, "We'll just help you get it out there. You've written it, you've done most of the editing, etc." Through to, "We'll do full ghost writing." So, I'd like to have everything kind of in between, because different authors have different needs, right? Especially first time authors.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

And I think there's a lot of great people out there with really interesting ideas that just aren't natural writers.


Angel Gambino:

Yes.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

You know? And that's okay. You don't have to be. But there are many ways of becoming an author, I think. Yep.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, one of the things that I discovered while writing is, it's funny because sometimes I'll have some lengthy Facebook posts. And people say, "You're such a good writer, you should write." And I'm like, "Okay, writing a long Facebook post is really different than writing a few hundred pages, you know? Or even a couple of hundred pages," you know?


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

And it's a big time investment. I find I'm writing, I'm writing, I'm writing. But the thought of going back to reread after I've written, gosh.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah. It requires a level of perfectionism or writing obsession that I, for some reason have it, to my detriment sometimes. I'm a slow writer. But it can help to have other people involved in that process if that's not your strongest suit.


Angel Gambino:

Right? Well, I'm definitely a perfectionist when it comes to a lot of things, but definitely when it comes to the writing. So, that's why I said, I think I'm in the middle. But once I go back, I might be at the middle again in a few months, because every time I read it, I find more improvements to make.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Oh yeah. Yeah, I think Steven King, he has a piece of advice that I followed as well, which is, once you have written it, put it away for a month and then read it again, because you're too close to it to really see the ... And ideally, use that month to get somebody else to read it as well, with the red and green pens if you like.


Angel Gambino:

Yes, right. Did you do editing along the way? Or did you kind of write, write, write, and then go back and edit?


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Constant iteration between writing and editing. So, that's like, it's almost the same thing to me. I write a sentence, then I look it over, and then I edit. And then I write another sentence or two, and then go back and edit. But again, probably many different ways of doing it. I think this brings to mind very specific advice that I have for people that are kind of setting up to write. And let's just say for articles for now. One of the most difficult things is that people, they sit down, and they start kind of pouring out thoughts into a document. And then, they have 10 pages. And they're all over the map. And it's like, there's some interesting stuff in there, but it's a mess.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Structure is a quite difficult thing. There's a shortcut though. Namely, use an existing structure. What I mean with that is, let's say you want to write something for HBR. And let's make it easy, or easier, let's make it for their website, which is shorter. Let's say maybe like 1,000 words long. Find an article that you really like, not necessarily on your topic, but just something. And then follow that almost exactly. Like, you see the article, and you see, okay, the author uses the first two paragraphs to introduce the core problem. Now you have to do the same. The next paragraph is about why they are writing this. Well, I'm an expert on this because I've done this and that.


And then, okay, they have three pieces of advice. And each of those consists of a tactical thing and then a clear story. Like, it's just such a massive help to use a structure that's already there, because it allows you to skip a ton of time as you try to wrangle your text into something that works. Just start with an existing outline and work from that. It is just so helpful, and I use that a lot with my own writing, I still do.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I've been looking at different ways to create those outlines for different types of writing, right? From newsletters through to short form articles, through to the book itself. And I think you're absolutely right, because otherwise, you become a bit like Neal Cassady, you know? In his writing where it's just endless freeform thought. And they might be very eloquent sentences. But stringing them all together and following is-


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, there's very few people how can get away with that.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

It's just a ... In the first draft I wrote of the first book, I was kind of like, "Yeah, I'm Malcolm Gladwell. I am Malcolm Gladwell." I was not Malcolm Gladwell. Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

Well, are there any kind of last tips or advice or sources of inspiration? Maybe things that either you're reading or authors that you think we should take a look at?


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

I'd say, I mean, there's the standard advice to people how want to write: read a lot. You can, but I think for me, it's much more about find a specific book that you're really into, and kind of think about how you could do more of that. For me, I think two of the really shiny examples of how to do business writing well is Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick, Switch. My favorite of theirs is a book called Decisive. It's a little bit less known than some of their other works. But it's just a super good example of how to make a book entertaining and useful at the same time, because let's face it, most books we read the first two chapters and that's it.


With their books, I find myself reading the entire thing because they're kind of this mix of storytelling. And then they throw some jokes in. And then they like ... So, I'd say that's one just specific. I wouldn't say I follow it exactly. But I definitely stuffed a good deal of humor into my book, which seems to have gone over well so far with my readers.


Angel Gambino:

I love that aspect of your book. And in fact, I'm going to have to check out ... It's called Decisive, the one you're describing?


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah, I'm familiar with them, but I haven't read that book. And I think, for me, while I've been writing, I keep saying, I don't want it to be like a classic business textbook, you know? Not the ones that they recommend that you read, but the actual books that you get for the class now. I'm sure they've improved over the years. But I think making it entertaining and engaging and just really good to read, I agree, that's the pinnacle. I'm struggling a little bit on that part. I'm like, I've got to start weaving more of the kind of fun, entertaining, even embarrassing stories, because that's what makes it readable. You want to be informed, but you can be informed in an entertaining way. So yeah, great advice. And what I found is, I started editing, Bronco, my son is writing a dystopian novel. And he's-


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

At age 13? That's pretty young.


Angel Gambino:

At age 13, yeah. I know. And he's 50 pages in. And I mean, he's a veracious reader. And so, 50 pages in, in a novel. I'm like, it's all just about the writing and the characters and the storytelling. And it's so immersive. And so, I think if we can pull some of that creativity and the thought around just the pure joy of reading into non-fiction, then that's the best of all worlds.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, I completely agree. And please, if you're writing, anybody if you're writing a business book, make it a little bit entertaining, because many of them are not.


Angel Gambino:

[crosstalk 00:56:27] it feels like work.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

Cool. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today, and to share your experience and your stories with other authors, aspiring authors, innovators. I think both of us working in the area of innovation, one of the great things is, is it's constantly changing. And so, we're all constantly learning from each other. And there's no end point, right? It's just constantly ongoing and evolving. And I think it's a real privilege to be able to work in that space. And I think if more of us give ourselves permission to be innovators within our own roles, whether you work at a sandwich shop that's just reopening, or a hair salon, or a big media, technology, consumer goods company. I think if we can all see our own creativity and find different ways to bring that to our roles, it just makes it a lot more fun.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah. I agree. And I'm very much looking forward, after this talk especially, to reading your book.


Angel Gambino:

Yes. Well, I'm going to ask you for that red and green line. You're going to regret bringing it up.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Yeah, exactly. I shouldn't have said that to you, should I?


Angel Gambino:

No.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

No.


Angel Gambino:

Volunteered yourself. Cool. Well, thank you so much, Thomas. I love the book, again. And kudos to you for getting Eric Schmitt to basically tell everyone that they need to read it, because it's always great to get endorsements. And yeah, just great job getting it done. And I think it's a great toolkit for entrepreneurs, for innovators, and for everyone to look at how they can reframe problems even in their own lives with their own communities. So, I think your work and being a kind of master problem solver can definitely help the rest of us do the same. So, I appreciate the work that you put into this. Thank you.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Well, thank you, Angel.


Angel Gambino:

All right. You take care.


Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Ciao.


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