The Innovation Train

“Essentially, questions about experimentation in the arts are also questions about the relevance of tradition. They are questions, that is to say, about the practical application of traditional elements to contemporary problem situations. Hence, they are also questions about change and continuity.” – Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues, 71 Innovation is all the […]

Elephant Sperm Banks — Good Idea for Business & for Jazz

“Inbreeding presents real problems… [and it] isn’t just a problem for captive elephants” – it’s a problem for businesses and is an often-sited critique of jazz. Scott Anthony delves into his discussion of “innovation inbreeding” by using the example of Jackson, a Pittsburg area elephant who has sired so many calves in the US there is concern that the gene pool is homogenous and the species is at risk. Scientists want to create a sperm bank so as to diversify the gene pool in the creation of future calves. You see, whether in elephant sperm or in business, homogeneity (across sectors, within divisions, in the talent pool, etc.) is a bad thing. In business “inbreeding” occurs – when “innovation efforts are consistently led by the same group of people who have lived their life within the company.” In jazz, so the critique goes, “inbreeding” takes the form of musical stagnation and institutionalization.

Inbred businesses

Businesses seeking to retain or initiate their presence in established or emerging markets face a problem of integration. People stick to what’s familiar, it’s a herding mentality that provides psychological comfort through homogeneity. Valerie Gauthier notes managers in today’s globally interconnected businesses “feel a constant tension between the need for agility… and the quest for purpose, direction, and meaning.” They flounder, sensing the need to do something different but are unsure about just what to do and how. Their angst, she notes, “leads to irrational and erratic behaviors.” Yet it is this very tension that encourages the innovation necessary for business success, especially in the midst of ever-changing conditions. Managers not accustomed to hybridity in the workplace “gene pool” develop symptoms of neurosis and are indicators of systemic damage or worse, financial extinction. They need cultural coping mechanisms.

Hybridity in business

In “Learning How To Grow Globally” Christopher Bingham and Jason Davis use a “Soloing vs. Seeding” analogy to illuminate the differences between homogeneity and hybridity. Soloing and seeding represent direct and indirect approaches to learning respectively. Businesses need both. The soloing arm tends to realize financial success faster; while seeding yields slower growth initially but performs better long-term. Blending these approaches to create a hybrid seed (see, we’re back to elephant sperm) would seem to strengthen the company overall while also maximizing the talent pool. Moreover, a combination approach allows both a full-scale unified effort as well as a small group concentrated effort, a nimble arm to meet specific demands. In botany as with elephant sperm, the cross-pollination of ideas creates hybrid seeds that are resilient; they are better able to handle shifts in the (financial) environment such as wind gusts (wild market swings), tsunamis (depressions and recessions), and earthquakes. Growing globally will require adaptability to changing conditions.

Stagnant Jazz?

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestraand its institutional home come under regular attack for being unimaginative and restricted in their programming – homogenous. Eric Porter’s, What is This Thing Called Jazz??, offers a thorough overview of various critiques noting, the organization and its music “became a lightening rod for conflict, stemming from the attempt to craft a jazz cannon, from personnel decisions made regarding the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and from personality conflicts between major players at Lincoln Center and the jazz press.” As the Artistic Director of the JLCO Wynton Marsalis has often been condemned for “cultural gatekeeping” and espousing the “ideologies of social and cultural conservatism and neoliberalism”; and likewise, his music has been critiqued for being dated.

The charges are not without merit. You see, when cultural osmosis (like cellular osmosis) is thorough, the entity loses its apparent “two-ness” and becomes a singular new entity. So, as the ensemble performs in its characteristic swing style; tightly woven instrumental sections move convincingly through the score with locomotive power, difference gives way to the riveting dynamics, and the steady rhythm suggests automation. However, we must remember, the score is likely to have been arranged specifically for the performance; meaning, it is already a departure from the original. Also, solos are always current on the night they are performed; they are not written down and so cannot be repeated verbatim from night to night. Innovation is inherent within these conditions and the response to changing conditions is reflexive.

Change, Grow & Be Stronger…

Jackson’s efforts notwithstanding, the scientists in Pittsburg, businesses and jazz musicians know – hybridity is a good thing. Enduring long-term means coalescing disparate parts and making a whole, new thing. Call it what you will – cultural osmosis, hybridity, integration, diversity – when we are made to move beyond our comfort zones, we adapt, change and grow.

Collective Improvisation

The clip I’m attaching to this post is an example of collective improvisation (listen closely for this beginning at 2:45s); everyone is playing a different take on the melody at the same time – sonic hybridity.

Practice What You Preach

I am no fan of Sarah Palin. So I was irritated by the TODAY show’s decision to use her as a guest host today. I admire Palin’s outdoorsy ruggedness and her athleticism. I am intrigued that she is from Alaska, a state I’ve always wanted to visit. My disconnect hails from the moment Palin entered the national spotlight as John McCain’s choice for VP running mate in 2008. What a smack in the face for women, I thought. How could such an unintelligent, disconnected, ill-informed person advance the interests of anyone? How could she represent the nation? Surely thinking people of all stripes and women in particular would see though John McCain’s offensive attempt to secure the female vote by choosing a running mate whose only commonality with women broadly is physiology. So, today I was determined to opt-out of watching TODAY in protest.

… and then my twelve-year old said to me, “You have to watch TODAY because you say we can’t just listen to people we agree with.” Grrrr! So, I watched the show and I’m glad. Not only because I demonstrated by my own example that “Mommy stands by her word” but because watching the show was instructive. My opinion of Palin has not changed; in fact, I’m more convinced than before that she is ill-informed on a variety of issues and intellectually weak. I am also more convinced than ever that responsible journalism is a thing of the past, at least on morning TV.

My twelve-year old’s reminder reminded me of my recent blog posts, “Six-part Harmony” and “No Rhythm, No Rhyme” where I lamented the lack of listening by elected officials, professionals in a variety of fields, and the resulting lack of meaningful engagement and productive conversation. Our problem in finding answers to the innumerable problems we face as a nation and as global citizens, is not a lack of intelligence but a lack of engaged conversation. When we only listen to like-minded people, we stagnate; we flat line and effectively stop growing and learning. Innovation does not/cannot happen.

I am reminded of a musical collaboration between Wynton Marsalis and Yacub Addy, a Ghanaian master percussionist. The two agreed to work on a joint project due to their mutual respect for one another and the often-sited commonalities between West African music and jazz. Musically, however, these two forms just didn’t gel; they were too different. Wynton explained,  “In performance, we discovered things about balance, orchestration, and the beat – our two musics are very different. We realized that a collaboration showing both groups at their best might not be possible.” Well, if two world-class musicians can’t find a way through “dissent” what hope is there for the rest of us?!

Short answer, there’s a lot of hope for us. Here’s the thing: musicians spend a lot of time in rehearsal. Rehearsal is where they test their musicianship, artistry, and their ability to collaborate. SWOT is exposed in rehearsal. Wynton and Yacub worked through their musical differences and found commonalities that allowed the musical project to move forward. They engaged their differences, struggled through the learning process and created an outstanding piece of music, Congo Square.

Here’s a clip from Wynton’s first trip to Africa. This clip might be my favorite. He is listening to a group of South African children sing a traditional song. He’s never heard the song and doesn’t speak the language but when the children are finished, Wynton “sings” the song back to them through his trumpet. This clip demonstrates humility, respect, and the subsequent and immediate result – learning.  

Musicians engage difference as a matter of professional necessity; do we? Imagine if we extended this to engaging difference in politics, education, business, diplomacy, and relationships of every kind. You know the “right” thing to do. So, go practice what you preach and make the world a better place.