If ever there was someone with a unique and varied background, it’s John Rogers. Over the years, he’s done just about everything. From developing training and technology for the Department of Defense post 9/11, to working with Hollywood creatives, to promoting groundbreaking medical research in front of Congress, there’s no doubt about it, John is certainly an expert at solving complex problems. However, his new book, The Renaissance Campaign, a problem-solving formula for your biggest challenges, probably isn’t what you might expect.

Yes, he shares a lot of insight into how to navigate even the most complex challenges confronting us in all aspects of our lives today. But this book is far from limited to campaigns as we think about them in the traditional sense. As John explains it, we are all constantly running campaigns in every area of our life. He’s here to show listeners how they can navigate these campaigns with more ease by breaking out of their perspective prison and into more creative thinking, in order to achieve the results that will create change, improve day-to-day life, and ultimately compound into a more joyful experience in every aspect of life.

Nikki Van Noy: John, your new book focuses on a new model for problem-solving. But before we get to that, I’m curious about your background as it pertains to problem-solving and what brought you here?

John Rogers: Well, Nikki, that is a great question because my background is really a fairly atypical background. I grew up in the Southside of Chicago in a little town and my parents one was classically right-brained and the other who was classically left-brained, so I began my whole life looking at things slightly differently. My career has been, let’s just say, not typical.

I put it to people like this–if somebody had said to the 14-year-old John Rogers, “John, one day, you’re going to be an Assistant Secretary of Defense, and another day, you’re going to be the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation, and another day, you’re going to run a campaign that is going to change medical research in this country, and another day, you’re going to be working with Hollywood as it relates to creativity and helping the entertainment community to have a voice within the national security space after 9/11,” I would have looked at them and said, “You are smoking some really good stuff.”

But here I am. I’m now at a place and time where I get to look forward and backward, and so it is that perspective of looking backward, as well as thinking about the future that inspired me to write the book.

Nikki Van Noy: I mean, I have talked to a lot of people and I can say with 100% assurance, I have never heard that answer about someone’s background before, ever.

John Rogers: Well, there you go. As I said, it’s just not a traditional background but it’s been an exciting one. I kind of feel like Forest Gump, you know? I’ve had all of these remarkable experiences that I’ve just been very fortunate to lead. Hopefully, I did with a slightly higher IQ than poor Forest had.

You know, nevertheless, my life has really been rich.

Nikki Van Noy: I mean, Forest was very wise in his own way, John.

John Rogers: My god, he was crazy great. One of my favorite movies.

Three Words

Nikki Van Noy: Totally. With all of these different things you’ve done in all of these different sectors, is there some connective tissue that you can pull out as you look back amidst, maybe not all of these different positions, but most of them? What floats your boat?

John Rogers: You know, there is. It really has to do with the second part of the book. I was talking with a really brilliant friend of mine one day and he got me to do this really interesting exercise. The exercise was to identify three words that define you in every aspect of your life.

It’s a really hard exercise. When I say that to you, Nikki, the first word, you’ve already come up with, right? Now, when I say every aspect of your life, I mean, every aspect from professional, to parent, to partner, to child, to spouse, sibling, whatever it is, friend. It’s really hard to do, but the first word is usually pretty easy for people. My first word is impact–I want to make an impact.

Then the second and third words are harder. In my case, my second and third words are “I want to do everything I do with integrity, and I want to either add some insight to a conversation or I want to glean some insight from the conversation.” At the conclusion of this exercise, describing all that I’ve done and from my buddies, they say that everything I have touched is a campaign. I got to think about that and then say that they are absolutely right.

I decided to write the book, The Renaissance Campaign. When I say everything in life is a campaign, what I really mean by that is that we do a bunch of things every day. Getting on this podcast Nikki, you and I are running a campaign, we just don’t call it a campaign. But all campaigns have the same architecture. The same structure. That was the genesis of the book.

Nikki Van Noy: Interesting. Also, as a writer myself, I love that your three qualities are alliterative. You’re all “I”, that’s really great.

John Rogers: Yeah. That was totally unintentional, but yes, that subtlety has not been lost upon me.

Nikki Van Noy: Okay, I like this idea of looking at everything as a campaign because you’re right, that is not a word that I’ve ever applied in a holistic way like that. You mentioned that the architecture is the same. What is that architecture, can you break it down for me?

John Rogers: Absolutely. People frequently talk about campaigns, process models, there’s a bunch of things that a lot of people talk about and they’re the part of it. You have to have an objective or a goal in mind. You have to understand strategy, tactics, and execution and that’s what people generally talk about and it’s all true.

But what people don’t talk is you also have to understand the context. You have to understand the environment that you are working in, and then you have to understand the process, how to map the process, both from an organizational standpoint, from an idiosyncratic standpoint, who is involved and who is not. Then you build your strategy, then you build your tactics, and then you execute.

That’s the chassis, the architecture if you will, of the campaign. Before you get there, before you even run a campaign, you have to understand the problem and the challenges that you’re continuing. That’s the second big idea of the book. Namely, that life is so much more complex than it used to be, that we really need–holistic is a term you used a second ago Nikki–we need holistic thinking around our problems, around the challenges.

The way to get that is to convene what I term a mix table. Namely, to bring people together, those with a different perspective, different histories, different life experiences, to help one solve different challenges, to think about challenges in different ways. So that then you can put together a holistic answer about how to move forward.

After you have that holistic answer, then everything in life is a campaign.

Nikki Van Noy: I was writing as you were explaining that, just because it’s sort of my way of thinking and I wanted to map it out for myself, and you are absolutely right. We apply campaigns to everything. I’m putting this mainly in the context of my personal life, which I would never associate the word campaign with that.

John Rogers: We go to the grocery store, when we have big issues, when somebody has disease and they’re fighting cancer, they’re running a campaign. My daughter had a stalker a couple of years ago and I channeled my inner Liam Neeson, and got on a plane and flew to Europe, and ran a campaign. Everything we do really is grounded in that.

Again, part of the nature of this book Nikki is to give folks some tools that they may not have had that can help with the efficiency and the success of their lives. I’m at that point in time that I’m in my 50s and I have had this interesting life and these experiences.

This is part of my give back, to help people think about things in a different way so they can get shit done, so they can move through life in a way that is less burdened, and if they can put some simplistic structure to it so they can understand it, then maybe they will have a better chance of accomplishing their goals, dreams, and objectives.


Nikki Van Noy: That’s an amazing mission. Okay, you mentioned as you were talking about the complexity of the world. I think that this is obvious to most of us at this point that the world is becoming more and more complex. But what I would love is for you to break down how that complexity impacts how we need to go about problem-solving and dealing with challenges today?

John Rogers: Well, I’d say a few things with regard to that. I’d say that when I go out and talk about this stuff, I really begin with the notion that we’re all prisoners of our own perspective. Each and every one of us, every day, and in every way, is a prisoner of our own perspective. The way that prison manifests itself is through rigidity of thought, and rigidity of thought is the curse of creativity and effective problem-solving.

We need to insert creativity–we need to break through that rigidity of thought as we go about our lives. Again, all of this is compounded by the fact that we live in an era where people don’t know what to believe anymore. They believe whatever’s convenient for them and they don’t know how to navigate in these disruptive times.

Disruption is everywhere. Some of that disruption is technological, some of that disruption is societal, sociologically based, some of that disruption is political. Look everywhere and we have disruption. Now, more than ever, we need a toolkit to be able to navigate through that disruption and having a mix table, having a group around you of your go-to people that really think about it intentionally, versus passively or unintentionally backing you into it, having the intentionality around that challenge solving, that problem solving, I believe goes a long way in helping people work through those complex issues.

Indeed, something that I term and others term “wicked hard challenges.” Wicked hard problems. But to have that group, really helps and then again, after we have some outcomes that have been identified by that group, then we put them in a campaign box and we go around and run campaigns, that’s what I’m talking about.

Nikki Van Noy: You know, I was really struck when you first mentioned the mix table because, we are living in such polarizing times and so many ways right now and in so many different sectors, it seems like this ability to bring people together with different thoughts has become trickier than at least I ever remember it being in the past. I love this idea of a mix table. I feel like that in and of itself would make a massive difference in navigating challenges and breaking us out of rigidity and all the things that you’re talking about.

John Rogers: Absolutely. I learned this years ago. One of my main mentors was a guy named Les Aspen. Les Aspen, when I started working for him, was the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he was from Wisconsin and then he went on to become Secretary of Defense and I went with him to the Pentagon.

When he was Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Les undertook a process called mix tables. He went around the country and he convened people who didn’t talk to each other, to think about a really wicked, hard problem. At that time, the challenge that he was thinking–I was a young staffer working for him and staffing all these things–was, “Okay, what is US forum policy look like with the collapse of the Soviet Union? Now that the iron curtain is down, what is US Foreign policy going to look like?”

He brought together, again, people who otherwise wouldn’t talk together. Retired generals and admirals in the room, along with industry sectors. Those guys would talk to each other, but then he’d bring in a really brilliant professor, and then he would bring in somebody from the political world, he’d bring in a poll store, a campaign consultant who had never been in the room with an admiral before, to have these really interesting conversations.

Fast forward. 9/11 happens. I had been utilizing this process for both within and outside of government for a while. We were asked to convene a group of Hollywood writers, producers, and, directors to think about terrorists. We were asked to do that because, if you think about 9/11, it was Die Hard 4. I mean that is an overly simplified, terrible description of it on the one hand. On the other hand, it was right out of a movie.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah it is pretty apt.

John Rogers: We wrote a report and I remember bringing it to the Pentagon and up to Congress and other places and thinking to myself, “You know, one of three things is going to happen. One, they are going to pat me on the head and say, ‘That’s nice Johnny, we’ve thought about all of these things before. Go away.’ Or two, they’re going to look at me and say, ‘Rogers, we’re revoking your security clearance. Don’t ever come here again.’”

But the third thing occurred, and the third thing was they said, “Wow, we hadn’t approached this in this way before. That is really interesting.” So, from that began a program that one way, shape, or another, exists through to this day, in order to tap into some creativity. What it prompted for me, what it spurred in me, was this notion that if you insert creativity, if you insert creatives into the mix table process, you have an exponentially better chance of getting to some interesting solutions.

Now, how does that work? You either say, “What? You put these Hollywood guys, these Broadway guys, these entertainment men and women into the process, they don’t know anything about X, they don’t know anything about Y.” Well, this is all collaborative. So, the idea is a collaboration. So, you bring people together with deep subject matter expertise. You matched them up with creatives, who are, by the way, a professional creative.

You are a professional creative, Nikki, in many ways, and you know one of the ways I term professional creatives is paid imaginers, who are used to work under a timed budget.

The Mix Table

Nikki Van Noy: I love that. Accurate.

John Rogers: Think about that, paid imaginers who are used to working under a time budget. Who wouldn’t want that for their blue-sky activity? Really, how cool is that? But then you match them up with people who have really deep knowledge and then you sprinkle in some thought leaders on top of that, then you have the capability for a really powerful mix table. So, the way to get to a mix table is you have to build some structure around it. That is how it becomes really effective–that intentionality associated with it.

Nikki Van Noy: Amazing, so talk to me about what this might look like on a smaller scale? So, as I have referenced a couple of times now, you are talking about how campaigns are everywhere, including in our personal lives. Give me an idea of what this might look like as we walk through a personal situation. How do we apply this?

John Rogers: Yes, absolutely. So, the way I would apply it, it depends on how big the challenge is, right? The first thing I would do is I would designate in my mind a core group of who your mix table is. So, your mix table is maybe your friend from a college or high school who has caught on to do some really interesting things. Your mix table may be your spouse, your best friend, who is your core, your anchor. Your mix table may be, you know the artist that you met at a gallery, who is just brilliant and insightful, and you just want to make sure you’re maintaining that dialogue with her.

So, you designate a group and they become your go-to group. Ideally, what you do is bring them together literally. “Let’s have dinner.” The art of the dinner party is long gone. Have dinner, bring these people who otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other, bring them to your home, and present to them:

“Listen, I have this challenge. You know, I am going to consider you my go-to group with your permission,” of course you are seeking permission and approval from them because they’ve got to be part of this. You are very transparent about this. “So, I really want your help with this. I need to get in shape. I hate exercise, oh my god, the last thing I want to do is exercise, but I really need to do it. I really need your wisdom and thinking of how I can best do that in a way that works with my life.”

Come up with some innovative solutions. What happens on those mix tables, every single time I have ever seen one, is somebody comes up with an innovative solution. That is the beginning of it. The second part is that life is a campaign–it is actually a series of millions of campaigns. Now you have your objective. Your objective comes out in the mix table. So, what is the context for that?

It is one thing if you live in New York City, it is another thing if you live in Topeka, it is another thing if you live in a mountain in Australia, and in each and every one of those, you have to understand your environmental context. You have to understand the social context. You have to understand your budgetary context. You have to understand all of those things. And then you need to understand the process, right?

In this case, you are going to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. So, what does it entail to hike Kilimanjaro? What’s permit do you need? What are the training requirements? What is it that I need to understand? What is the process? Who do I need to have involved with this? You really understand the players and the process to get you up Kilimanjaro. From there, then you build your strategies.

It is not strategy, because inevitably something happens along the road to life. You know, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, right? You know something happens in the road and life throws you a curveball every time. The way to ensure that that curveball doesn’t get you struck out, pardon the sports metaphor, is to make sure that you stay grounded in your objective and you have multiple strategies to achieve your objective. Then you arm all of that with tactics.

I refer to the tactics as the arrows in your quiver. You have a bunch of things that you are going to do. You’ve got to buy a new pair of shoes, you’ve got to buy a plane ticket, you’ve got to walk three miles a day to start off, and then we’ve got to move to five miles a day over six months. There are all of the tactics that you are going to employ to be able to get to Kilimanjaro.

That is how you run a campaign.

Nikki Van Noy: That is so unintimidating. I love that.

John Rogers: Well, it is meant to be unintimidating. When I first started writing this book I thought, “Wow, this could be really interesting for leaders and for aspiring leaders–how do you go about navigating these really wicked hard problems that organizations face?” But as I got into the book Nikki, I realize everybody could use this and that this is a tool kit for people to help them more easily navigate their lives.

Problem Solving and Joy

Nikki Van Noy: I am curious, so the mix table, in particular, is part of a work-around for this rigid thinking. You strike me as someone who is not tethered down by rigid thinking. So I am curious, have you always thought in the way you do now, or did you used to be more rigid and this was a way of working around it, or did you at some point notice that some of the hold-ups with the people around you had to do with rigidity? Where did that observation come from exactly?

John Rogers: Well, I think the answer to your question is yes. On the one hand, I know I have evolved in my thinking as time has gone on in my adult life. I know that I certainly aspire for being much more intentional around making sure that I check my personal perspective. I am aware of it, and I try to be very open-minded and not caught up and to break down the rigidity of thought that no doubt I will bring to the table.

On the other hand, as I said, I grew up in a Levittown. My father was an insurance executive, a really great guy, a businessman, and a World War II vet, and my mother was an artist. She was the longest singing member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. She collected oriental rugs and modern art and wrote a dictionary at the University of Chicago, and so I always had this right brain, left brain.

But it wasn’t until Aspen and bringing people together in a mix table, to really help solve world problems–these are not little problems. These are world issues that he was taking on. Really it crystalized for me that there is something powerful here. So, I have spent the better part of my career making sure that organizations that I am associated with have these tools to better navigate the future.

Nikki Van Noy: So, impact is essentially your North Star. What impact do you hope that this has on people’s lives?

John Rogers: I hope it makes life easier for them. I think life is hard for people and I think that what we all aspire for, or this is my personal perspective here, what I think we should all aspire for is joy. But it is awfully hard to get to joy when you’re bogged down at whatever you are bogged down at and life is sort of beating you up. People don’t talk about that. There are all sorts of reasons. There is humility–there is humbleness, that people don’t talk about, but I see it.

As I have gone through life, I say, “Well maybe I could help that person do this more efficiently, so that they have an extra set of tools, so that they are not struggling with these wicked hard problems that they are facing.”

You know at least they have a framework to approach some of this stuff, versus not having a framework because for me that is always helpful.

You know, there is no prescription here. There is no mandatory prescription here. If you don’t like the idea, it doesn’t work for you, then don’t do it. But I think that in many cases, it’s got the potential to help a lot of people.

Nikki Van Noy: I can tell by that answer that both the right and left sides of your brain are definitely firing, that this idea of joy, and then a framework for helping you achieve that bit by bit. I love that.

John Rogers: Right, because people don’t talk about joy. How many folks in your podcast talk about joy? It’s been literally part of our business philosophy to make a big impact and to derive joy while doing this stuff. That is the business I run, that is our philosophy.

Nikki Van Noy: Well when people do talk about joy it is such a floating nebulous type of thing, it starts to become very intimidating. When you are living your day-to-day life and dealing with all the things that hit us on a day-to-day basis, joy starts to seem really elusive, and kind of annoying sometimes when people talk about it as this thing. So, I personally really appreciate this mix.

John Rogers: I don’t know if it is annoying to me, but that’s okay. You know you said something really important there, and that is people are so caught up at work and in their lives. The other thing I would say is that if you think about it this way, if you think about the mix table and thinking about the campaigns this way, it is working on your life, right? So, that when you have a problem and you are working in your life, you have a framework to apply it.

It is the difference between working on a business, on a project, or working in a project. In order to see the forest, you know while you are in the trees, you need to be able to work on something before you’re working in something because if you are always just working in something, that bark if awfully close to that nose.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah and who doesn’t want an excuse for more dinners with all of their friends together? Talk about a bonus.

John Rogers: Absolutely. It is a lost art. Oh my god when you go to a dinner party, how great is that? How great is that day? You know, to be able to celebrate life with a bunch of interesting people that otherwise wouldn’t do so. They wouldn’t have the benefit of that but for you convening them.

Nikki Van Noy: You know, that is one of those things that I have to admit I haven’t even consciously realized that slipped away, until you said it and then I thought, “Oh yeah, I haven’t done that in a really long time.”

John Rogers: Yeah, informed common sense if you will. Mindful common sense. That is when so much of, the lessons I learned from life, so much was just, “Oh yeah, oh my god I haven’t thought about that,” it’s common sense. We just all, myself included, get so sucked into what we need to do on a day-to-day basis that we forget about it.

Nikki Van Noy: Perfect.