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 rage. Businesses, educational institutions, healthcare organizations, and even government entities have all climbed aboard the “Innovation train” but few seem to know what to pack. Yet, this is an enthusiastic bunch that hangs from the windows shouting – higher profits! Higher test scores! Higher profits! Greater accountability! En route to a dream destination, people expend innumerable resources and too often realize only short-term gains because they haven’t packed well.

Hanging from the windows, passengers en route to Profit Land miss the scenery. They’ve not brought cameras; they’ve left sunglasses at the office, tanning lotion at the drugstore, and none have maps, a GPS, or first aid kit. You see, the journey to Profit Land is through the tunnel of Innovation but there are thorny branches along the route and wind gusts of hurricane force, trembling terrain and blazing rays of sun. Culture teaches passengers how to survive the journey, it has done so since the beginning of time through traditions that have helped people endure amidst catastrophes more sinister than financial meltdowns. The purveyors of this knowledge are artists. Why? Because art forces us to realize our humanity, to emote, relate to one another, build relationships necessary for our survival and develop coping mechanisms for navigating the tricky terrain of life and its labyrinth of personal and professional relationships. Art unsettles us, brings us out of our “comfort zones” and forces us to engage.

Relationships matter in business

In a McKinsey Quarterly article, “Developing Better Change Leaders,” the authors offer the example of “Annie, Conor and Pierre” to present the challenges and successes of navigating change. In each case, developing strong interpersonal relationships prevailed; demonstrating empathy, engaging socially, and creating bonds of trust led to improved outcomes. The improved outcomes, readers are told, serve as examples of “innovation”; change happened because exemplary leadership skills were honed and implemented and the success was measured in increased returns.

Through business model innovation, companies hope to restructure their organizations to leverage internal innovation capabilities. This is really smart and gets to the heart of what drives innovation – (cultural) identity. Instead of identifying innovation by an end result, profits, these businesses move towards deep integration of internal segments and create a tightly woven diverse fabric where different ideas and practices come into direct contact with one another and yield better ideas and best practices. Adaptability is then realized because a company becomes adept in navigating change and hence is resilient in times of corporate duress, those very times when flexibility is tested. Relying, as some companies do, “solely on product innovation” misses the point of identifying and then leveraging core beliefs and the associated corporate coping mechanisms that lead to continuance even in the face of change.

The Benefits of integration

The benefits of integrating business and revenue models are many. When these models are integrated, revenue is cast as an extension of the company’s core beliefs and becomes a measure of the extent to which employees are cognizant of and “buy-in” to corporate strategies, function systematically and adapt to change. Moreover, company differentiation is realized and when each business is made aware of its unique identifying features and offerings, the possibilities of scaling upwards are realized. This information is vital to branding. As the authors note, “A good product that is embedded in an innovative business model… is less easily shunted aside. Someone might come up with a better MP3 player than Apple’s tomorrow, but few of the hundreds of millions of consumers with iPods and iTunes accounts will be open to switching brands.” This leads to an environment of theoretical noncompetition because uniqueness cannot be duplicated.

Change Leaders

Nilfoer Merchant always has something insightful to offer. You should follow her Tweets (@nilofer) for ideas such as the following: “Innovation happens when ideas, resources and constraints collide” (4/18/2012 6:50PM). Indeed, like passengers on the train, ideas must come into contact with one another in order to be tested for relevance and viability. “To Innovate, we need to check what assumptions we carry forth from the past… that need to be released.” (4/18/2012 7:00PM) Or rather, we must discern what works and what does not, if we are to endure and perhaps prevail. “The real question” Nilofer asks, “is why are we doing what we are doing and what measures *that *.” (4/18/2012 6:59PM). Are we simply interested in achieving short-term gains and turning a quick profit? Or, are we invested long-term to the process of innovation, developing better business practices and relationships and working towards improvement of the human condition? She notes, “If we borrow the metrics of finance (scale) to fuel social change, we are using the wrong measures” (4/18/2012 6:58PM) because such measures capture tangential gains; the journey to long-term gains, cultural sustainability, is deeply embedded.

The passengers on the Innovation train must not only board but must engage one another as they yell from the windows, lest the ride become one of simple and unimaginative self-interest leading to a mad rush for a single pot of gold at journey’s end. Instead, by engaging one another, distinct identities can be realized; and through differentiation, each company can recognize its own pot of gold. The experience of the journey can inform practices, decisions, and become habits that create a tradition within which innovation can occur.

As Albert Murray reminds his readers, “The traditional element is precisely the one which has endured or survived from situation to situation from generation to generation… not only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.” (Hero, 71-72) In other words, businesses seeking to innovate or to create the conditions within which innovation can occur, should work to identify their core beliefs so that strategies for success can be discerned, implemented, duplicated and disseminated throughout the organization. Furthermore, while tradition is often critiqued as being stagnant, it is the direct opposite. Its hybrid nature merely gives the appearance of a singular entity but hides its diverse inner workings. Never judge a book by its cover.

How Do we Assess Change?

Business and organizations of every sort are keen to rely on financial metrics for assessing the success of programs and practices. Determining success in restructuring something as significant as organizational culture requires asking different questions that queries that yield a more compete picture. These are some initial ideas:

  1. Monitor each stage of an implementation: beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Ask the same questions at each juncture.
  3. Ask probing questions yield depth of insight into areas such as: company mission statement; the way in which specific jobs help fulfill company goals; organizational structure (how many “bosses” can you name? what segments are related to yours and what are their tasks?); the relationship between non work support systems on workplace productivity; personnel “hidden” talent and interests (Multilanguage proficiency, mathematical or technological expertise, hobbies, volunteer work, musical tastes, etc.).
  4. Post assessment “follow-ups”

Check your Ticket to Ride…
In the United States, the blues and jazz form major cultural markers of identity and through their study, lessons can be learned in areas such as: collaboration; talent identification; resilience; strategy; innovation; leadership and competition. While companies seeking to work with US businesses can learn from the blues and jazz, US businessmen would do well to learn their own culture so as to root their corporate confidence in something that holds when storms occur and counter the historic and ongoing stigma of the US being profit-driven soulless.

For now… The humanistic qualities that served Annie, Conor and Pierre, are honed through art as a matter of disciplinary practice and professional viability. Artists are change agents, conductors on the train of Innovation and when they check your ticket to ride, check your ego – listen, learn, and innovate – meaningfully.

Theatre Reimagined


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.

The Bubble, The Blues & A Streetcar Named Desire

Blanche: “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!                         A Streetcar Named Desire, scene nine

The blues counteragent…is that artful and sometimes seemingly magical combination of idiomatic incantation and percussion that creates the dance-oriented good-time music also known as the blues.”– Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues (16-17)

Passion drives the streetcar that transports Blanche DuBois to her sister’s home in the French Quarter of New Orleans as imagined by playwright, Tennessee Williams. Blanche, desire’s first foe, lives a life on the run. Wanting magic instead of truth, Blanche lives in a bubble that transports her from city to city in an effort to avoid reality; in an effort to avoid the blues, which as Albert Murray reminds his readers, “are always there, as if waiting and watching.” Indeed, the blues waits for Blanche at each juncture and though it bursts her bubble each time, she bounces onward even to the play’s end where she is committed to residency in the town of “Delusion.”

Meanwhile, Stanley Kowalski, his wife Stella (Blanche’s sister), and their friends Mitch, Eunice and Steve live within the rugged reality of the blues. They embrace the desire and it permeates every aspect of their lives. To be sure, their lives are sharp-edged and filled with ugliness; Stanley and Steve are verbally and physically abusive husbands; money is in short supply; and overt sexuality and gambling stir emotions that ignite passions of every sort. The “lowdown dirty shame” of life is experienced fully by these friends driven by desire.

These worldviews – the bubble and the blues – are substantively different but have much in common. Blanche’s coping mechanism is to distance herself emotionally from life’s jagged edges and transform her realities – multiple family deaths, financial devastation, and the dual angst of loneliness and being alone – into delusions of grandeur. The Kowalski’s and their friends cope with life by engaging its harsh realities and use living, not magic, to transform their angst; persistence, resilience, and engagement characterize the group. While bubbles protect the psyche and the blues abuse, bubbles burst; those who are experienced in engaging struggles head-on are best prepared to manage life’s inevitable blows. Resilience doesn’t happen magically; it’s a tradition, steeped in history, practiced daily and mastered over time.

The Bubble…

Binyamin Applebaum and Robert Gebeloff report on safety net recipients whose Blanche-like delusions of grandeur allow them to rely on government programs but disavow their use. The middle-class lives they lead are government subsidized; and when pressed, recipients acknowledge assistance and admit to associated feelings of guilt. Receiving handouts from an invisible force, the safety-net recipients live in bubbles like Blanche and who in acknowledging the unknown physician who comes to her rescue says, “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” By extension, the housing bubble and ensuing global financial disarray can be viewed as contemporary consequences of existing in Blanche-like bubbles.

The Blues…

In “Uncommon Sense: How to Turn Distinctive Beliefs into Action” authors Jules Goddard, Julian Birkinshaw, and Tony Eccles address beliefs and their impact on business strategy and performance. The way A Streetcar Named Desire’s characters handle change is a case study into their “distinctive beliefs.” Blanche does not embrace change; she wants magic to transform her current reality and her actions flow from this core element. Yet in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, change is an accepted fact of life and residents believe in engaging volatility forthrightly. As the authors note, “some of [these] beliefs are smart and others aren’t” – the viability of each is tested through performance – literally in this case. Tradition is not only that “which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.”

The Bottom Line…

Tradition matters in business. Core beliefs form the culture and are executed through strategies (let’s call them corporate coping mechanisms) that inform management styles, mediate change, gauge risk aversion, identify talent and help define competitive advantage. Yet, organizational hierarchy can leave strategy confined to the C-suite, in a bubble shared by an elite few. Moreover, when a company lacks diversity (in thought, gender, ethnic or religious difference, national representation, etc.) the bubble stays in tact even if it encompasses the entire organization. Blanche’s problem is one of integration. She does not integrate into her sister’s culture and so the strategy for living in New Orleans remains foreign to Blanche; she does not diversify her thinking or way of living. Thomas Barta, Markus Kleiner, and Tilo Neumann’s findings are instructive. They assert, “for companies ranking in the top quartile of executive-board diversity, ROEs were 53 percent higher, on average, than they were for those in the bottom quartile.” In other words, diversity or integration is good for business and for Blanche. The Kowalskis integrate fully into the French Quarter; experimenting with life through daily practice and developing habits for living that help them endure – resilience is a tradition. Strategy must be integrated throughout the company and as with the French Quarter, the tension necessary for testing core beliefs is encouraged; groups are synthesized, innovation happens and continuance is assured. Goddard, Birkinshaw, and Eccles assert, “Real strategy making is about developing a process for consistently pushing beliefs forward.” Blanche’s strategy fails to allow her to successfully navigate the culture of New Orleans – bubbles burst.

If A Streetcar Named Desire seems an odd entry point into a discussion of corporate strategy, you’ve not been reading my posts long enough! You see, arriving at Elysian Fields – the final resting place of heroes – requires a journey on a streetcar named Desire, a transfer to Cemeteries and a walk of six blocks. Harnessing the passion necessary for growing a business may require the death of a certain way of thinking or operating. “It is challenging to get executives thinking in [an] unorthodox and experimental way” and the journey through the cemetery, the period of transformation, is long and fraught with challenges “but the potential rewards” or ROI or ROE “are enormous.” So, get out of your bubble, get on board, and go see A Streetcar Named Desire (behind the scenes)

Starring Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche, Blair Underwood as Stanley, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella, Wood Harris as Mitch, and Amelia Campbell as Eunice with an original score by Terence Blanchard The Cast

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.