The Music of Business

I just spoke with Peter Cook, the author of the new book The Music of Business and the creator of the executive workshop “The Academy of Rock.” The core theme of Peter’s book is that rock music can provide valuable lessons for managers. Peter has the perfect background to write this book; he’s a musician, he’s been a band manager, he’s managed R&D teams in pharmaceutical companies, and he’s been running these workshops for years. Although I’m primarily a jazz pianist, in my 20s I played for a total of about five years in two different rock bands in Boston–an all-original early 1980s band called Video Free Europe, and then a Grateful Dead cover band called Slipknot–so I really enjoyed Peter’s book.

So Peter, tell me about your Academy of Rock executive workshops. What kind of experience do the participants have?

The Academy of Rock is the high-visibility “brand” of my business. The core is mixing music with business. My design follows the Honey-Mumford learning cycle…I take concepts from academia, get people to try them out in a personal experience, and then reflect on the experience and identify the take-aways. With music, they have a much more powerful and engaging experience in a short time. Adding music is engaging, and people get the message faster. Music also helps you retain the take-home message better. A BBC 4 reporter described what I do as “sexing up” business, which sounds just fine to me.

Sometimes I bring a band with me to perform on stage along with my keynote remarks. I like to use the blues, because the basic structure is easy for non-musicians to understand. Jazz is a bit too complex. I’ve used some big-name musicians in my seminars—for example, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist.

I like to get people up on stage, but I always ask for volunteers. If there are musicians in the audience who volunteer, I have instruments available and I have them play. For the non musicians, I have a lot of percussion instruments that just about anyone can play…triangles, even “found objects” like water hoses from cars. I always bring a box full of rock musician clothing, and a bunch of long-hair wigs, to help with the role-playing element of the experience and make them feel that they are in a rock band.

Some audiences are very shy. So sometimes I take the instruments out into the audience, so they can play without actually getting up on stage.

In your book, you say that rock is “an industry that encourages repetition” (p. 46). You start your book talking about the band AC/DC, which you say always sounds the same. But isn’t this the opposite of innovation? Why is this a good model for innovative business? There’ve been a lot of books that have used jazz improvisation as a model for business and leadership, emphasizing the emergent and improvisational aspects of jazz. So is the repetition and stability of rock a better model for business? Is jazz too improvisational?

AC/DC has rehearsed everything. They are non-adaptive. They succeed because they’ve developed a strong brand, and the fans want to hear the same thing over and over. They performed the same songs for forty years. The most successful business model in the rock business is when bands keep playing the same songs—the Rolling Stones, AC/DC–and people like that. But music industry insiders have told me that AC/DC wouldn’t last 40 years if they started now. You could do that in the 1970s, because there weren’t that many media channels.

But some bands change constantly. The example I use in the book is Prince; he is a “boundary crosser” (p. 139). Prince’s band is an example of an adaptive organization, and he’s managed to keep his audience even through his many changes. But there’s a very real possibility that you will lose your fan base, or some of them.

So is the message, don’t be too innovative? I am reminded of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. It’s very innovative and it’s won design awards, but the existing Microsoft Windows customers mostly don’t like it.

So how do you change and yet keep your audience? Do you warn them in advance? Do you simply lead, and wait for them to follow? I think the best strategy is scaffolding…bring the audience along, keep things in it that they can build on, that are familiar.

Some rock bands are more improvisational. You use the example of Deep Purple in your book, and I see that you’re now wearing a Deep Purple t-shirt.

Yes, they are noted for improvising, not just doing their set pieces. Particularly when they started. You can see videos online of Ritchie Blackmore directing the rest of the band, in a very didactic way. Extremely strong leadership style. Deep Purple are exceptional, especially when compared with a band like Black Sabbath. The creative tension between the members of Deep Purple drove great creativity, but the band eventually broke up due to this same creative tension.

So how do you manage creative tension and keep everyone together?

Creative leadership involves enabling and facilitating, allowing mistakes, transforming the problem, giving it space.

I spent a lot of time doing R&D at a pharmaceutical company, leading teams of maverick scientists. Leading more than managing, getting them facing in the general direction of what we wanted to do. Small startups can afford to be more jazz-like, they are focused more on breakthrough innovation. They’re doing front end, leading-edge stuff, and the jazz metaphor is very appropriate to that.

Richard Branson, on the other hand, says big industries can’t do anything clever. I’m not sure I agree, but I think the rock thing is appropriate for things that have reached a certain size. R&D might be more appropriate for a jazz approach. But manufacturing is not the place to do a lot of improvisation. They’re looking for order, control, certainty. And the rock thing works better there.

What are the key take-home lessons of your book?

First, I think organizations are over-structured right now. Creativity is vital and yet scarce resource. All organizations need to improvise and dance a bit more.

Second, I focus on the end-product rather than the input. You need to be able to commercialize the creativity. A lot of organizations are really bad at preserving the novelty that they’ve produced. Turning creativity into innovation is as important as creativity itself.

Third, leaders, in the current age, can’t run organizations with command and control. You need to lead with emotional intelligence, consult and listen carefully (also to markets). Everyone needs to get better at using their ears.

Peter Cook, thank you so much for your time, and for your fascinating book The Music of Business.

You’re welcome!

Burt Bacharach’s Creativity Technique

Burt Bacharach said this in an interview with Spencer Bailey in the New York Times:

When I’m stuck with musicians in the studio and don’t know what’s wrong, I will break and go into a stall in the men’s room. I will sit on the toilet seat. Nobody talks to me there, and I get no advice from any musician. I work it through in my head, and four out of four times, I come out a winner.

I give very similar advice in my book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. I call this technique “Incubate” and in addition to the toilet seat, here are some common places that people have sudden inspiration (page 114):

  • In the tub
  • On the treadmill
  • Gardening
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Sorting the recycling
  • Waiting in the doctor’s office
  • Shopping
  • Listening to talk show radio
  • Listening to a boring lecture
  • Sitting through a boring meeting
  • Commuting to and from work

I really should have added Burt Bacharach’s technique to the list!

Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz

I just finished reading a delightful book called Yes to the Mess by Frank J. Barrett. In the face of complexity and constant change, Barrett observes that the world’s best leaders and teams improvise: They invent novel responses, and take calculated risks, without a scripted plan and without a safety net. They say “yes to the mess”–similar to Chicago improv theater actors, who are taught to say “Yes, and…” to accept and embrace what their partners suggest, and to build on it and drive the scene forward, even while no one knows where it’s going or what will happen next.

In my own 2007 book Group Genius, I make many of the same points about how creative collaboration is often highly improvisational. But unlike me, Barrett is a professional jazz pianist and has even played with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. And Barrett was one of the first management scholars to note the parallels between improv and business: inspired by the management guru Karl Weick, he organized a 1995 panel at AOM, the annual management scholars’ meeting, and he contributed to an influential 1998 issue of the journal Organization Science. So I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time!

Barrett writes:

Jazz bands actually are organizations designed for innovation, and the design elements from jazz can be applied to other organizations seeking to innovate. Jazz bands…require a commitment to a mind-set, a culture, practices and structures, and a leadership framework that is strikingly similar to what it takes to foster innovation in organizations.

Since Barrett’s 1995 panel at the AOM conference, several business books have appeared that draw parallels between jazz and business. The first was John Kao’s Jamming (1996); there’s also my own 2007 book Group Genius, Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom, and last year’s book by Josh Linkner, Disciplined Dreaming. (And some others I’m forgetting about right now…) So what’s new in Barrett’s book? His treatment overlaps quite a bit with these prior works, but his contribution is to draw out the improvisation metaphor with seven principles in seven chapters:

  1. Master the art of unlearning; guard against the tendency toward routine and structure. Deliberately disrupt routines.
  2. Welcome complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, by learning how to make “affirmative moves” that drive the situation forward, trusting in the process of group emergence that something positive will emerge.
  3. Perform and experiment simultaneously. What results is unexpected, and often is a “mistake.” Nurture a culture of enlightened trial and error. Embrace failure. (This one reminds me of design thinking.)
  4. Aim for guided autonomy: just the right balance of structure and improvisation. Tolerate dissent and debate.
  5. Jam and hang out. Organizations need to create room for jam sessions, to design for serendipity, by fostering “opportunistic conversations.”
  6. Learn both soloing and supporting. Accompanying others, or “comping,” is a form of followership.
  7. Leaders should practice “provocative competence”–incremental disruption that forces people out of their comfort zones, provoking “learning vulnerability”–moments when people are exploring the unfamiliar.

These are fascinating new concepts, perfectly targeted at business leaders who need to foster greater collaboration and innovation. As Barrett says,

This new era demands focusing on teams rather than individuals…. Leaders must master the art of learning while doing….build a capacity to experiment, learn, and innovate…engage in strategic, engaged improvisation.

This is an engaging and well-written book. If you’re drawn to the jazz and business metaphor, and you’ve enjoyed prior books on this subject, you should add this one to your collection.

What Americans Think About Creativity

I just read the results of a fascinating new survey of 2,040 adult U.S. consumers, conducted online in April for TIME Magazine, Microsoft, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). #strangebedfellows

First of all, Americans value creativity in others more than just about any other characteristic:

TIME 2013 survey 1








And although 83% of people say creativity is important in their job, a whopping 91% say it’s important in their personal life.

Fifty percent of people think creatively in pictures, only 34% in words. And 4% think creatively in sound…probably the musicians!

For you students and teachers out there: 62% say that creativity is more important to job success than they thought it would be when they were in school.

*If you follow the link below to the online article, you’ll discover that the survey is connected to a conference held on April 26, 2013, hosted by the MPAA, called “The Creativity Conference,” and you can watch video excerpts there (including of President Bill Clinton).

Jeffrey Kluger, “Assessing the Creative Spark,” TIME Magazine May 20, 2013.