Purple Rain – Prince on Improvisation, Ingenuity and Innovation

The name Prince is synonymous with innovation in music. From classy pop classics such as ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ and ‘U Got The Look’ through to high class jazz, soul and funk, working with artists such as Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, and George Clinton. Prince performs at this weekend’s Hop Farm festival in Kent and I’m delighted to have a ticket for the occasion. Check this performance of Superstition out with Stevie Wonder out to see what you will be missing if you are not there.

Unlike many performers in rock’s monarchy, a Prince live performance is often different every night. This is because Prince operates from a menu of 300 songs, which the band may be called upon to play at any time, whereas many other artists prefer to perfect and then repeat their set night after night. Admittedly, this is difficult for some of his audience to take but speaks of artistic integrity and a desire to constantly develop. I was discussing how Prince achieves such amazing levels of nimbleness and ingenuity with my colleague John Howitt, a professional musician who has performed for Celine Dion, Anastasia and Shirley Bassey to name but a few. We came to a set of conclusions, with parallel lessons for businesses that are interested in being fast, nimble and continuously innovative. Here are a couple:

• To reach mastery in improvisation paradoxically requires intensive detailed preparation. What looks like a seamless performance is the result of many hours of preparation and Prince is meticulous in this respect. In business this has been referred to ‘the 10,000 hours effect’ by Tom Peters and, more recently, Malcolm Gladwell. The idea of prepared spontaneity contradicts what some so-called creativity and innovation gurus say on the subject, yet we constantly see parallels across many industries. Sloppy creativity produces sloppy results in many businesses.

• Prince is also a master of fusing musical genres and influences outside his core style to innovate. This enables him to still exert a major influence on artists of the 21st Century, such as Lady Gaga, Beyonce and many others. In business, the ability to cross mental boundaries is the parallel skill set, as exemplified by companies such as 3M and Google.

I explore more of Prince’s personal qualities and the relationship with becoming an agile, ingenious and innovative company within the book “Sex, Leadership and Rock‘n’Roll” and the new one “The Music of Business“, acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith.

I’m delighted to say that I managed to get a copy of the book to Prince at his last series of O2 concerts and have been told that he enjoyed it. Praise indeed! John Howitt draws a distinction between Prince’s level of risk taking on stage versus his experience of working with artists such as Celine Dion, who aims for a perfect, polished performance which can be reproduced night after night. Both approaches are valid and rest on thorough preparation if you want to reach out for excellence. An object lesson for all – if you want to be a star, know that perspiration is much more important than inspiration. Here’s a little bit of improvisation from an impromptu event in Italy:

We will be exploring aspects of Prince’s approach to improvisation, innovation and reinvention at the 7th International HR summit event in Athens, Greece on October 20th following on from Dave Ulrich. For now, its the Hop Farm for me to witness his purple majesty in action on 03 July.


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk

David Brent on Creativity

The BBC TV series ‘The Office’ is accurately described as being ‘awfully funny’. It gains its comic strength through its use of real life work situations, suitably distorted in various ways for entertainment purposes. Let’s consider a pet favourite of mine – the teambuilding event and Brent’s cheesy Springsteen parody ‘Free Love on the Freedom Highway’.

The creativity devices used in The Office include techniques like reversal, exaggeration and contrasting metaphorical and literal thinking. These are used throughout The Office to appallingly great comic effect. Consider the contrast of metaphor and literal thinking between David Brent and Gareth in the above sequence:

Brent (metaphor) sings “ … I’ve got some hot love on the hot love highway, ain’t goin’ home cos’ my baby’s gone”

Gareth (literal) joins in and adds “She’s dead”

Brent (literal) corrects Gareth’s exuberance “She’s not dead”

The creativity technique of exaggeration ‘makes the familiar strange’ and is classically used in creative thinking approaches such as Synectics™, Superheroes and wishful thinking. If you have the DVD, check out the sequence where David Brent uses exaggeration to great comic effect, when he offers counselling to his secretary, Dawn. Brent suggests that her personal relationship problems are analogous to a car crash, which she is unable to comprehend when she considers the metaphor literally. It’s therefore very important when you are using metaphor for creative thinking sessions in business to ensure that the metaphor is explored for it’s own value before making an attempt to gain something concrete from it. This point is poorly understood by many practitioners in my long experience of such things.

Reversal is another simple and quick creativity technique that I have used on many occasions during 24 hour new product / strategic innovation sessions for companies such as Pfizer, BT and Johnson and Johnson. The technique works by its ability to explore ideas that are NOT within the current thinking space. This generates wild ideas, many of which are unusable. On further reversal and detailed exploration, ideas which do have a practical value emerge. It’s very important to balance the reversal with critical thinking if you are to harvest ideas that turn into profitable innovations. This is a major reason why some people think that brainstorming sessions are like an out-take from The Office. It’s not that brainstorming / creative thinking is bad per se, it’s just that it is poorly executed in the main.

We will be using sequences from ‘The Office’, to help us deliver a keynote for the British Association for Research in Quality Assurance (BARQA), based on quality communications across cultures. We also offer specialist ‘edutrainment’ workshops that use the BBC TV series ‘The Office’, for which we have a unique licence, as series of upside down lessons on creativity in business and personal excellence.

For more like this read the book “The Music of Business”, acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith:

Got the business blues

In the words of Rogers, Hammerstein and Captain Sensible, “Happy talk”. Yes, it’s nice to be happy at work, but that’s only half the story. The Smiths’ classic indie anthem “Heaven knows I’m miserable now” is the modern blues mantra for people stuck in jobs that don’t fit their skills, attitudes, inner or outer desires:

“I was looking for a job, and then I found a job
And heaven knows I’m miserable now”

It may not make you popular as a manager to say:

“I’ve got the business blues, cos’ the server is down,
my 360 degree appraisal has come out with a mean rating
of 3.3 out of 4 and quarterly sales forecasts are down.”

Nor will these lines scan into a 12 bar blues musical format! 🙂 Nevertheless, part of the leader’s skillset is to find out what gets in the way of high performance and do something about it.

So, this light-hearted blog focuses on some frivolous (and, later on, some not so frivolous) lessons that you can learn from the artform that is the blues.

Most blues begin: “Woke up this morning …” “I got a good woman” is a bad way to begin the blues, unless you stick something nasty in the next line like, “I got a good woman, with the meanest face in town.” You can’t have a blues that begins: “I got a good manager, who sets meaningful performance goals and critical success factors.” It’s a cathartic artform.

The blues ain’t about systematic creative problem solving, blue ocean strategy brainstorming sessions, option formulation or scenario planning: You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in a ditch – ain’t no way out. Sometimes you gotta deal with people at work who believe there ain’t no way out…

Blues can take place in New York City, but not in Rochester or any place in Canada. Hard times in Minneapolis or Canterbury is probably just clinical depression. Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City are still the best places to have the blues, not York, Bath or Slough. You cannot have the blues in any place that don’t get rain, nor in a high tech R&D centre.

If death occurs in a cheap motel or a shotgun shack, it’s a blues death. Stabbed in the back by a jealous lover is another blues way to die. So are the electric chair and substance abuse. You can’t have a blues death if you expire during a strategy meeting, a team building day, on an overnight stay at the Holiday Inn, or while receiving liposuction.

People with names like Michelle, Amber, Jade, Les and Heather can’t sing the blues no matter how many men they shoot in the ‘twin blues towns’ of Memphis, Milton Keynes or Milan.

As far as corporate life is concerned, it’s easy to find examples of customer service that give you the blues. Just try establishing human contact with the average ISP or mobile phone company and you will see what I mean. Yet, some other companies stand out in terms of the excellence of their service. In the banking sector, my favourite is firstdirect, who, hire people that are fond of talking and doing things about OTHER people’s problems. A refreshing change and especially so, when one considers that the words banking and service rarely fit into the same sentence.

And finally, the blues need not a negative musical genre as some people may think. It can be a cathartic release for the performers and the audience alike. Here’s “The Credit Crunch Blues”, written and performed by a Housing company as part of their annual conference on high performance. They certainly gave their heart and soul to this performance, even though all the staff were amateurs and none had given a performance on a stage in their lives:

I’ll be appearing at the Customer Service Training Network Awards on July 8th, delivering a cameo performance and keynote entitled “The Customer Service Blues”.  For more on business mixed with music, check out our book “The Music of Business”, acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith:

Naked leadership in Essex

I’m often surprised at the things people are prepared to do in the crazy world of rock’n’roll but just occasionally I am even more surprised when business people take a bold step to help market themselves and stand apart from the crowd. Such was the case recently when the Business Woman’s Network decided to produce a nude calendar of their membership in the style of Calendar Girls. Quite aside from the confidence required by these women to do such a thing, this unique phenomenon has a much more serious reason – that of fundraising for a Hospice. So give these nude business women some of your kudos and more importantly some of your money. I got involved today as their leader Mandie Holgate, asked me if I would be prepared to go naked …. NO.. thank goodness … to deliver a keynote event to launch the naked calendar at their next event on July 7th in Essex. I have agreed to deliver this free on behalf of them and the hospice. We’ll be exploring aspects of ‘nakedness’ aka being your authentic self in the context of leadership, drawing on examples from the world of business and music to help us explore the subject from different perspectives.

So come on down – as I said in the promotional material – you don’t have to take your clothes off to have a good time…

And, contrary to the stereotypes, the evening will definitely NOT be anything like this hilarious mash up from the genius that is Cassette Boy:

Speaking of nudity I must say that, although I rarely watch TV, I was mesmerised by Lady Gaga on Paul O’Grady’s show last night. Gaga is a great example of someone who knows how to present themselves. On the show, she presented herself nude in the folicle department…. take a look at this stunning piece of authentic performance …

If the Nude Business Woman’s Calendar is even half as good as Lady Gaga’s performance last night, they will be rightly proud of themselves. Book yourself in for the launch party – Leadership, Nudity and Rock’n’Roll 7th July – Essex – its nearly FREE!

Postscript:  Here’s a picture from the evening featuring the georgous Julie Binder, who runs her own design consultancy – Check her design work out at Julie Binder Design.  Julie’s clients include Toyota and Nestle.

Getting down and dirty with Julie Binder

Speaking of design, my new book ‘Punk Rock People Management‘ is available for FREE alongside it’s sister volume ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll‘ by clicking on the picture below:

Buy one get one free

Competition for Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll

The good people at Lavender Blue Media decided to launch a competition for my latest book ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’. There is one very tough question. To find out more, go to COMPETITION

May the best person win!