People are always asking: How can we get our company to be more creative?
In Backbeat Visioning, 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.
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.