What I learned about leading innovation by starting a band

Hitting the right note



By: Rob Holland, Steven Werther
Blog

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to pursue my lifelong passion for music in the least likely of places — at work. I signed up to compete in a corporate battle of the bands, performing in public for the first time. That night I caught the bug starting my unexpected journey to build a band.

It is difficult to describe to someone how it feels to perform to a packed house where everyone is singing in unison while dancing to the beat of the music. The band and crowd are connected in that moment, producing one of the most powerful emotions I have ever felt. Given my job created the conditions for all of this to happen, I have often thought about what I learned from that experience that I can apply to business. As it turns out, I learned quite a lot.

My mission is to support large, traditional companies in accelerating their innovation agendas to be able to thrive in this new, intelligently-connected economy. Recently, I wrote about how future success will require the innovative mindset of an entrepreneur who seeks to break traditional models and create new pathways to value. However, it begs the question – what does this mean for leaders who have the responsibility to drive transformation for their organizations? It can be a challenging balancing act – driving predictable results and meeting the market’s expectations are still number one priority. It is incredibly important therefore, that for maximum effect time and treasure spent incubating new ideas be supported. To achieve this organizations can take a page from established practices, like design thinking and rapid prototyping, at the world’s most innovative companies.

For those new to the concept of design thinking it largely comes down to, and I am grossly oversimplifying here, bringing a diverse group of people together to quickly and creatively solve for a customer/end-user outcome.

“As the British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell declared, “The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.”

Design thinking is great at this and combining it with rapid prototyping allows you to quickly put something tangible in the hands of your target audience for testing. Informed by this feedback an organization can decide to move forward to an MVP (minimal viable product), or if the solution is insufficient, simply log the learning as an input toward a future effort.

Hopefully it is already apparent to you how different this can be from the Waterfall, Agile, or Agile-Fall practices of most companies today. Alright, you got me. I made Agile-Fall up, but many of you out there will know what I am talking about when companies say they are Agile while maintaining most of the gating factors from the previous Waterfall governance structures. The point here is to move with speed, to accelerate the time to learning, and to get new propositions to market more frequently. This requires a change in approach and change is hard. It is here where I draw parallels from my musical adventures that I invite you to consider. 

To sound good, you must first be willing to sound bad (or at least feel a little awkward)

Anyone who has ever attempted to learn a new instrument (or language, or any new skill for that matter) knows that it is pretty rough starting out. Imagine then what it must be like to bring a group of instruments together for the first time. Even while I was surrounded by some pretty talented musicians, we sounded pretty lousy together until we pushed through that awkward stage that precedes a tightly orchestrated performance.

This comes to mind as I watch my clients experience design thinking workshops for the first time. As much as I have tried to prep them, each and every group has voiced their discomfort in one way or another. Typically, it comes from how the exercises are time boxed bringing fear that some of the important details will be missed. Good news is that there is immediate customer testing available. Or other times it is simply having people work together for the first time and understanding new sides of a challenge (for example, marketing working in a group with someone from legal).

I can proudly say that despite the trepidation, I have had a happy client at the end of each encounter. The most common refrain is how surprised they were to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. There are even comments about how much they learned from members from other functional teams. The take away here is to get good at design thinking, you need to experience it. The workshops will feel different and uncomfortable at first. Know this going into it, but also know that on the other side of that discomfort is a critically important capability for an organization to blaze a path to its future.

Diversity of thought leads to surprising and unique outcomes

While artists can be sometimes undervalued in our society, it is also true that there is simply a lot of vanilla, repetitive, or manufactured music out there. People are looking for something unique. This is even true in a cover band. Our lead guitar player was a classically trained trumpet player, our drummer came from a reggae band, our bass player was more bluesy, and I – well I was a neophyte. Strange as it is to say, this weird brew worked and made our sets more interesting than most… Our lead guitar player would sometimes play the trumpet in place of a guitar solo and the crowd would go nuts. Even though we were playing a rock set, our drummer had a bit of a groove that underpinned all our songs. We were just different, we surprised people and they enjoyed the uniqueness of the sound and environment we crafted.

“While artists can be sometimes undervalued in our society, it is also true that there is simply a lot of vanilla, repetitive, or manufactured music out there. People are looking for something unique.”

One of the core tenants of design thinking is the inclusion of a diverse set of participants. Often together for the first time in their careers, you have people representing the full value chain in attendance to attack a particular challenge statement. This bias towards perspective-taking and widening your point of view is prevalent in the empathetic approach espoused by design thinking. Just as the best musicians draw influences from different genres, artists, and time periods, the most successful business people allow themselves to be influenced by various functional areas, generational perspectives, degrees of tenure, and innovations in the market.

Peter Diamandis, founder of XPRIZE, makes the point about the value the newer generations can bring quite strikingly. He suggests bringing a small huddle of some of your youngest employees together and tasking them with defining the digitally native model that will take down your company! Only by considering challenges, opportunities, and possibilities from various perspectives outside of our own can we truly achieve innovative thinking. Therefore, intellectual diversity among team members is particularly crucial to fostering an environment where surprising and unique outcomes are generated. This is key to discovering the innovative solutions you are searching for.

Brilliance manifests itself when team members feel safe to try new things

Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame says of making a record: “You try to hear it before you make it, so you walk into the studio with this idea of what you expect to happen, and that usually changes. That usually turns into something else, and that’s a good thing.” I can certainly tell you any expectations I had in controlling the creative process in my band were quickly extinguished (and thankfully so). Some of our best stuff, like our reggae stylized cover of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, only came about as we were willing to try new things.

In the world of business far too often everyone, from leadership to the lowest rungs of the organization, fears failure. The prospect of a misstep not only induces anxiety, it paralyzes even the most intrepid among us. But why? Does it not stand to reason that a staid organizational culture that prefers rigidity and exactitude at the expense of experimentation and learning has deeply limited its options for the future? You may have an idea in mind for what the outcome should look like or what you expect to happen as a going-in proposition to any attempt be to innovative. But, you should also assume that this pre-defined notion will change or turn into something else as it evolves over time. You should welcome and value this process of incremental improvement in ideating, designing, testing, and iterating a solution as extremely beneficial to the outcome.

Imagine if this stifling culture was present in the world of music. We would have never witnessed the progression from classical to jazz and blues to rock and pop to hip-hop and beyond. Only through experimentation, and many failures, are new genres born and new sonic innovations realized. In a culture that stifles innovation by demanding accuracy and forbidding failure, however, improvisation is prohibited. It is incumbent upon leaders, then, to create an environment that welcomes improvisation, accepts failure in the pursuit of innovation, and fosters a sense of safety that alleviates the concerns of team members that their job may be on the line if they do not deliver perfection.

Play to the crowd to see what really works

Many bands have been known to “test” their music on their fans before releasing a new album. In every live show, a band plays to the crowd, discerning its reaction and using it to determine which songs should make the cut and in what order. This was also true for my cover band. Over several gigs we came to learn which songs were duds and which ones raised the roof. We could always count on Santeria by Sublime or Give it Away by the Red Hot Chili Peppers to get the crowd going. And if we wanted a big sing along, we played Closing Time by SemiSonic

Again, business is no different. How can you claim customer-centricity if you do not know what your customer wants? Why would you spend time and effort fully developing a product or service when you do not know whether your customer will buy it? I had a colleague tell me years ago about a meeting where he asked his client if they had collected any recent customer insights. The client proudly responded they took customer experience so seriously that they only made decisions after taking the end customer deeply into account. Impressed my colleague asked them how they did this. Their answer will floor you. Again, proud as could be they be, they walked to a cabinet in the corner of the room and picked up a teddy bear placing it at the center of the boardroom table. “For every question we reflect on what the ‘customer bear’ would think,” they proclaimed. Stunned, my colleague asked if they had verified their decisions by speaking to actual customers. He was met only with blank stares.

How can you claim customer-centricity if you do not know what your customer wants? Why would you spend time and effort fully developing a product or service when you do not know whether your customer will buy it?

Paul McCartney of The Beatles once said, “I like the idea that people hear my [music], and if it’s commercially successful, that’s a good sign that it’s being heard.” Apply this principle to business. Pilot a new product in a test market to determine potential profitability. Use quick, iterative customer testing cycles to instill product or service design and development with a truly customer-centric perspective. Solve for what customer wants and needs, and dispel customer pain points. The earlier in the process you start customer testing and the more interactive you make those tests the better. At the end of the day, your customer knows what they want and so should you if you intend for your proposition to be successful.

After reading this post, I will hope you agree that leaders have the ability to create the conditions required for innovation to thrive in their organizations. Even bands with rock star drummers, guitarists, and vocalists will fail without a strong leader. A good leader encourages their team, instilling a sense of purpose and aligning members around a common objective. They have the confidence to try new things and are willing to push through the awkward phase of learning new ways of working like design thinking and rapid prototyping. Any musician worth their salt knows that to sound good, you must first be willing to sound bad. Based on my experience, this open and accepting mindset is just as necessary to innovation in business as it is in music.

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