Creativity requires a little ‘tude.

People are always asking: How can we get our company to be more creative?

In Creativity & All That Jazz, we often turn to some of the giants of jazz as examples of what to do. (And occasionally what not to do.) When it comes to creativity, we say:

Be a little more like Miles Davis.

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Miles Dewey Davis III. Trumpeter. Composer. Band leader. Celebrity. Fashion icon. All-around bad-ass. One of the most gifted musicians in all of music. In my opinion (and I’m hardly alone on this), Miles was the most innovative jazz player ever.

Miles Davis spent his entire career – 40-plus years of it – reinventing himself. While some of his recordings may have been more successful than others, all his music, it’s safe to say, made some noise. Fans, record companies, the music press and fellow musicians would love him, then hate him, then love him again.

For example, when Birth of the Cool was released in 1957, no one quite knew what to make of it. Winthrop Sargeant, classical music critic for The New Yorker, compared Miles to:

“…an impressionist composer with a great sense of aural poetry and a very fastidious feeling for tone color…the music sounds more like that of a new Maurice Ravel than it does like jazz…it is not really jazz.”

Birth of the Cool. One of the great jazz albums of all time. “Not really jazz.”

This story was repeated over and over. Kind of Blue (1959) is hailed as the most influential jazz album ever recorded. (Let me repeat that: Most. Influential. Ever.) Its release, ‘tho, was overshadowed by the then-trendy “free jazz” scene.

And the revolutionary Bitches Brew (1969) was mercilessly blasted by fans and critics. From The Penguin Guide to Jazz:

“It is profoundly flawed, a gigantic torso of burstingly noisy music that absolutely refuses to resolve itself under any recognized guise.”

From Bill Meyer of Ink Blot Magazine:

“Davis drew a line in the sand that some jazz fans have never crossed, or even forgiven Davis for drawing.”

And from acclaimed critic Bob Rusch of Downbeat:

“This to me…[is] part and parcel of the commercial crap…beginning to choke and bastardize the catalogs of such dependable [jazz record] companies as Blue Note and Prestige.”

Ah, this is the thing about being out in front – you ruffle a lot of feathers. That’s kind of the whole reason for creativity, to shake up the status quo. But man, how we humans just love us some status quo.

In over 30 years in the advertising biz, I’ve found that the primary reason for bad marketing, bad management, low employee morale and disappearing customers can be traced to one thing. And it’s not lack of creative ideas. It’s resistance to them.

New ideas are fragile. They need nurturing and development. Resistance to new ideas kills creativity before it’s had time to establish the slightest of roots. Resistance says, We know what people want, how people think, and how the universe works. Resistance offers no room for alternative possibilities.

Worst of all, resistance scares creative people (and we’re all creative people) from bringing new ideas to the table. After all, who wants to get pommeled by an army of naysayers? In some companies, suggesting one might entertain abandoning the time-honored way of doing things in order to consider something new can produce a sideways glance or two. In other companies, it can kill a career.

Miles Davis? He didn’t care what you thought – whether you were a fan, the guitarist in the band, or the president of the record company. You didn’t like his new music? Too bad for you. You didn’t understand it? Get out of the way, there are others who did. You didn’t think it was going to work? Shut up. Watch. Listen.

Here’s what we learned about creativity from Miles Davis:

1. Ignore everybody. The more original your idea is, the less good advice anyone can legitimately give you. (To borrow from another bit of music history, Decca Records refused to sign The Beatles in 1962, claiming they had “no future in show business.”) 

2. Ignore expectations. Expectations are the prediction that the past will repeat itself, precisely and unerringly, again and again. Based on that logic, we’d have no iPod, iPhone or iPad.

3.”Big Ideas” don’t need to be big. It can be a small, simple idea. In fact, those are usually the ones that change everything.

4. Prepare to go it alone. Not everyone gets a Big Idea. That’s OK. The more compelling the idea, the fewer the number of people telling you right off the bat how “great” it is.

5. Change is not dangerous. Refusing to change, however, is certain death. Ask any dinosaur how that evolution thing went for them.

6. Avoid the crowd. All existing business models are: (a) all wrong, (b) in serious need of improvement, or (c) working but have a shorter shelf-life than anyone realizes. In any event, deliberately trying to be different is as bad as conforming.

7. You cannot have two lines in the sand. A business, just as an artist, needs to know what is worth putting up with and what is not. That’s the easy part. More challenging is realizing that the line in the sand cannot be one place when it comes to creativity and another when it comes to making money.

8. Stop listening to experts. Is information valuable? Sure. It’s also an intellectual narcotic. Miles Davis never had a focus group.

9. The best way to get approval is to not ever need it. You don’t get power, you take it.

10. Find your own voice. Miles sounded like Miles. Other trumpet players who put the mute in their horn and squonked out a melody – some of them very good – they sounded like Miles too.

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Why do so many companies want to show their CEOs the door?

I am not making this up.

According to CBS News, one out of every three companies would ax their executive management team. If they only could. By any interpretation, that’s a fairly stunning statistic. What the heck is up with that?

As with most news stories, the article only scratches the surface. This key passage, ‘tho, sums it up:

“Most CEOs simply don’t know what to do….Typically, they’ve come up through the company and honed specific disciplines – they’re great finance thinkers, product innovators or salespeople. Their entire careers have been characterized by the steady accumulation of deep skills in one area. But once they assume senior executive positions, they need entirely different skills:  networking, knowledge-gathering, consensus building, listening.”

Not long ago, I was sitting with a friend after a gig (I’m a creative director by day, drummer by night) and we were talking about this very thing. “Our boss is a freaking idiot,” he said. “No clue whatsoever on how to run the company.”

How could that be? The guy in question was a former senior exec with a large multinational company. One doesn’t assume such a position without an impressive skill set of some sort.

Further conversation (over Guinness of course) revealed the details. Experienced? No doubt. Intelligent? Exceptionally. Reputation? Praised on two continents. The issue?

The man couldn’t jam to save his life.

OK, what do I mean by that? Simply that it’s one thing to assume a leadership position, and quite another to actually get people following you. For all his accomplishments, this CEO – and his company’s employees and stockholders – would be better served if he exercised a few Jazz skills.

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LEADERSHIP IS DEFINED BY FUNCTION, NOT POSITION.

There are two main responsibilities of leadership. The first is to establish and articulate the vision of the organization. (And notice it’s “vision,” not “mission.”) The second is to facilitate what we call Interactive Relationships of Reciprocal Influence. People operate much differently in an Interactive Relationship of Reciprocal Influence. Instead of focusing on personal agendas, the shared vision of the group becomes the primary performance motivator. Ultimately, the aggregate of talents and experiences is more compelling – and has a far greater effect – than the mere sum of individual skills.

There’s a misconception that Jazz is wild and chaotic – everyone battling to out-perform the other. While unbridled competition may be the hallmark of the executive wing, if you watch any good Jazz group (and why are you watching bad Jazz?), you’ll find something very different. Make no mistake, we’re talking about virtuoso players who love the spotlight – why else go to all the trouble to be on stage? But instead of competition, you’ll find cooperation. Much of the time, in fact, you see players holding back or not playing at all.

They’re listening.

The great British drummer Bill Bruford explains that playing Jazz is like having a musical conversation. And like any good conversation, you can’t have everyone speaking at the same time. You also can’t have one person always doing the talking. That’s not to say one can’t direct the conversation – how to improve the customer experience, for example. But one talks, then listens…preferably, doing more of the latter.

If this sounds simplistic, it is. (There are times when “simple” rules the day.) When a CEO or other power player fails to listen as job one, it comes at a terrific cost. Problems aren’t fully understood, if at all. Crises aren’t averted. Possibilities aren’t considered. Opportunities aren’t acted upon. Creativity is squelched. New ideas are ignored.

Worst of all, the expertise at the CEO’s disposal – the Aggregate Intellectual Capital of the organization – goes untapped.

This is what my friend at the gig was trying to explain. His CEO wasn’t listening…to his managers, to the hourly employees, or to his suppliers or business partners. Worst of all, he wasn’t listening to his customers. This CEO had succeeded in becoming his company’s own self-limiting factor.

Again, let’s contrast this with the Jazz group. In Jazz, the musicians are actively listening, watching, feeling out the other players, looking for the subtle cues that will open up the door to new performance possibilities. (For example, when the sax player is soloing, the drums and bass busy themselves keeping the rhythm. They’ll have their turn to amaze the audience soon enough.) Everybody is there to support everyone else – the band succeeds, or fails, together.

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I was lucky enough to have seen the Count Basie Orchestra in the early 1980s. If you’re familiar with Basie, then you know his piano playing often diminished to the tinkling of a few keys. You also know his band could turn on a dime – from gently gliding on a breeze to barreling around a curve like a speeding freight train. And every performance, flawless.

It takes great skill to lead at that level. But first, you’ve got to listen.

 

Involvement is Practice

We like to think that practice is something we sit to do at a certain time, then we stop practicing when that time has elapsed. I put it forth for your consideration, that practice is not always confined to planned rehearsal time, or self-selected times when we who may be musicians sit and play until one of our parts or another is blistered and/or bleeding.

In fact, I put it forth that we are always practicing. Whatever we are involved with, we are practicing. So it follows that through this unscheduled practicing we become skilled, just as it is so with scheduled practice. The distinction becomes clearer when we cast each of the practice methods into its applicable consciousness state. One method is conscious, the other is unconscious, meaning we do not think about it consciously even as we do it. The things we practice unconsciously we master, just as regular practice of a musical instrument will lead to mastery. Here’s the rub, if we are involved with complaining, we will master complaining. If we are involved with being bored in our work, we will master being bored. These seem to defy the standard conception of practice, but think about it for a minute, and it will become clear. This mastery, when unconsciously practiced, is displayed without intention, so it is not something we can shape and format to what our conscious mind desires. It has a power all its own, and that power is culture-creating in an organization, just as it is habit-creating in an individual.

Organizations wondering where their zest for life went would do well to account for what is being practiced in the daily activities of the people who work in that organization. If we practice conducting boring, unplanned, and unproductive meetings, then our organization will become greatly skilled in conducting boring, unplanned, and unproductive meetings. If we celebrate paint-by-numbers consistency in our culture rather than creative courageousness, then this practice will shape the long-term output of our employees and ultimately our organization. Consistency and creative risk-taking must be balanced, and this too requires practice.

It’s worth repeating: What we are involved with, we are practicing. Once aware that this is in fact true, we can move more of the daily organizational activities into conscious practice. Every meeting is practice for future meetings. Every interaction, and the quality of that interaction, is an exercising of a skill we are developing. It’s a challenge to remain conscious of our practices, like anything else, it requires practice.

We recommend finding ways to account for what is being practiced in your organization, and building-in methods to remind those who work in your organization to be aware of not just what they are involved with, but how they are involved with it. What is being practiced in the quality of involvement? By this I mean, with what attitude are work duties/activities approached, and how does that approach impact the quality of the work?

We can begin the accounting with this simple question: What are we mastering? Once we include the unconscious practices, this question takes-on a new meaning, and one that we can use to initiate changes in the daily practices of those working in our organization. This can be a first-step in making daily practices more intentional, so the output is more predictable and desired, and more congruent with consciously identified sets of skills/abilities we want to master for the success of the organization and each person working in it.