Innovation Excellence and all that jazz

This week, I’m offering you a business parable about jazz and innovation excellence.  As a generalisation, it probably works, although jazz is an enormous genre, so feel free to agree / disagree / extend the story as you wish.  It was written about 13 years ago for my 1st book Best Practice Creativity, and has resurfaced recently, since a University academic published an article on jazz and business in The Guardian.  If you enjoy this post you may also enjoy related posts on Innovation and The Flow and Jazz.

Let’s warm up with a bit of Herbie Hancock:

The Jazz Band – a metaphor for more innovative organisations

The Jazz band is a loose association of individuals that need no sheet music, since they share a common love for the music, achieved by careful selection of musicians, based on ability and empathy within and on the edge of the band’s style. There is scope for musicians to ‘blow their own trumpets’, whilst recognising the need for the ‘solos’ to be consistent with the overall musical direction.

The informal band leader helps band members reach new heights of musicianship and encourages the swapping of instruments to broaden skills. The band is paid on the quality of the group performance although random bonuses are allocated by group consent for outstanding individual performance from a ‘slush fund.’

The band’s repertoire is wide and both well rehearsed and unstructured, for the performance has both elements of formal musical structure and improvised chaos. Some performances are unremarkable, yet there are indefinable moments when the band seems to know exactly what to do to take the music in a new direction that has never been rehearsed formally in a state of ‘flow’.

Although the band get great enjoyment out of playing the music when practising or performing, off stage the members often disagree vigorously about many issues concerned with the music. In some cases, individual members are not great personal friends, yet this is subsumed to the greater ‘task’ of the music itself. For example, the guitarist tends to be simultaneously gregarious yet aloof, whilst the bass player will often be the one to arrange social events. The drummer is always late for rehearsals as he has to get a lift from the piano player since he is never organized enough to buy a car.

Competitiveness manifests itself in a positive way, in so far as individual soloists attempt to outdo each other with the aim of moving the general level of performance upwards. Although each person could probably play a very impressive piece on their own, the results that the band achieve somehow add up to more than the individual players could achieve on their own. The band also has to compete with other bands for gigs and one of the members carries out the job of getting the band gigs through advocating the band to club owners and using any tricks to make them more visible than other jazz bands.

The jazz band occasionally get asked to play requests. These are done in a dutiful way but often fail to reach the heights of performance achieved when they are in free flow. They claim to be unaware of anything around them including the audience when they are in this state, and they could be said to be creating music in a highly selfish way at these times.

The jazz band parable highlights the need for businesses and organisations to:

  • Balance structure and chaos according to the needs of the various stakeholders.
  • Learn continuously and adapt to change through the use of signposts which are understood by all.
  • Let creativity happen rather than trying to force it.  Technique and training helps, but no amount of engineering will necessarily produce the intended result.
  • Make personality differences irrelevant by a consuming mania with a shared purpose.

Speaking of improvisation and innovation, I have just been appointed Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor for New York based Global Innovation Website Innovation Excellence.  Run by Julie Anixter,  who has written with Seth Godin and worked with Tom Peters.   I have been asked to write a number of prestigious articles and interviews – for example, the CEO of Atlantic Records, Sir Paul Mc Cartney, CEO’s who play music and more.   Innovation Excellence is the world’s most popular innovation blog with over 10 000 reads per day.  I am therefore offering guest interviews and articles to:

  • Innovation authors
  • Innovative musicians
  • Innovative businesses
  • Innovation leaders
  • Innovation academics

If you wish to publish an article or interview, let me know via this blog or mail me at

Do check out the website All About Jazz for much more on Jazz.  To finish, the master of improvisation and innovation, Wes Montgomery:


It’s a kind of magic – Creativity at the speed of sound

Creativity in business can be a slow, incremental process, as Wallas identified in 1926:

  1. First insight – problem/opportunity finding and redefinition
  2. Preparation – the groundwork is often done here
  3. Incubation – in many cases, this is where unconscious processes play their most important part
  4. Illumination – often described as the ‘aha’ experience
  5. Verification – where the idea is validated and accepted by others

In other cases, creativity can pour out of people, at the speed of sound and almost to order.  Such was the occasion about 6 years ago, when I wrote a song and recorded a demo of the song all in less than an hour.  The piece was inspired by my 8 year old son James, who seemed to demonstrate an ability to wrap my wife and I around his fingers at a level of competence well beyond his years and quite different to my older boy.  One day, the idea of a song called “Cowboy James” came to me – words and music flowed and the whole thing was finished in minutes.   I previously wrote about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the state of flow and this is a good example of flow in action.  I recently re-recorded the piece.  Please take a listen to this product of naïve and rapid creativity:

The business lessons? 

  1. Sometimes the first thing we do is the best thing.  Resist the temptation to refine and overanalyse if your creativity feels right the first time.
  2. Steve Jobs was known to trust his intuition as much as a spreadsheet.  Balance head and heart if you want to convert creativity to innovation
  3. Read Bill Nelson’s principles for continuous creativity to gain an insight into how to create the flow state – More on this in my books.
  4. As part of my MBA teaching and innovation consultancy over the years I have practiced with a suite of about 120 creativity techniques which improve the speed and effectiveness of brainstorming.   Technique is only part of the equation to get an innovative climate, yet it can help produce creativity ‘on demand’ and certainly more reliably than a poorly run brainstorming session.   Contact me via e-mail at to find out more.
  5. Bill Nelson has just released a beautiful box set album covering 40 years of continuous creativity and flow.  It is a testament to an intuitive approach to creativity, matched by discipline.  Check it out at The Practice of Everyday Life:

The Practice of Everyday Life – Picture by Martin Bostock

The Flow – Personal Mastery in business and all that jazz

Mastery, unconscious competence, effortless genius.  These are all ways to describe what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called the state of ‘flow’.  What can we learn about ‘flow’ from music that we can transfer to the world of business and personal development?

Let’s begin, not by talking about the state of flow but by experiencing it through looking at masters of their craft operating at a state of effortless genius.  Let’s start with jazz master Joe Pass:

What then is flow?  Are there any ways to learn how to be in this state and what can we learn from professional musicians?   Here’s a great quote to open up the debate from Richard Thompson:

“Focus for performance is extremely important. I start quite early in the day of a performance, just very slowly focusing in on performing later that day with the whole idea that you are going to be as present as possible. You can play music for yourself, and that’s one thing, but to communicate with an audience is really something very special. When it happens, it’s a beautiful thing, an extraordinary thing, a wonderful feeling for the performer – this idea that you play something and people get it.

The way that you’re able to get stuff across to an audience is by getting inside the music as much as possible, reaching that really still place in the center of the music where you are totally present, almost unconscious, and totally engaged in the musical process and the storytelling process. When you get to that point, you’ve really achieved just about everything you can achieve as a musician.”

John Howitt is a professional session musician, who has performed with Celine Dion, Anastasia and Shirley Bassey.  He also works with us in our business and music masterclasses.  As a session musician, John must be at peak performance with every engagement.  I asked him to reveal some of his tips for staying in the flow:

Flow master – John Howitt with Peter – Picture by Jason Dodd – master photographer

Peter :  Can you tell us something about your career and the role of practice as a spur to personal mastery?

John : “Mastery comes out of preparation.  In business circles, people talk of the need for 10 000 hours disciplined practice to master an art or discipline.   Contrary to what amateur musicians might think, to do what I do, it’s all about practice and preparation.  I have probably exceeded the 10 000 hours in my career as a session musician and still spend 5 hours a day playing an instrument if I am not actually engaged in a piece of client work”

Peter :  Many so-called ‘creatives’ say that they feel they would lose their creativity / mojo if they overprepared. What do you say to that?

John : “Practice gives you ease AND versatility.  Playing routine pieces of music almost goes on auto pilot allowing you to concentrate on what is needed to add that extra piece of sparkle.  I feel this is just as applicable to business and personal excellence as it is to performing music”

Peter : As well as your stage and session work, I know you also record soundtrack music for films.  In your experience, how do you move from a performance role to one that is perhaps more introverted?

John :  In one way, there is no difference.  When performing, you still need to keep your focus both internally on the mastery of what you are doing, whilst keeping your antennae open to hear those around you.  It’s what the business gurus called ’emotional intelligence’ – living inside your own head AND paying attention to your co-performers.  Good musicians and leader do both.  Bad musicians and leaders just listen to themselves.

That said, when I’m recording soundtracks, I can focus completely in on the point of detail that I’m working with, PLUS keep in mind the overall piece.  The big picture AND the small detail are essential if you are to achieve what Peter Senge calls personal mastery.  As a musician or leader, I find it essential to be both gregarious AND solitary.

Peter : On innovation excellence, can you share one important insight for us?

John : I’ll offer two.   In music, the innovation challenge lies in breaking away from habits. Practice can force you into habit but it need not.  It’s what companies like Toyota, Nokia and First Direct have achieved, rather than just repeating themselves.  Furthermore, it’s like Miles Davis says “There are no mistakes”

Please share your thoughts on what gets you in the high performance zone.  A recent interview with Tom Peters on the related topic of personal excellence can be found at Innovation Excellence.  I found flow is vital when writing perhaps the shortest business book known to man or woman – Punk Rock People Management – get your copy via the link.

If you enjoy this blog, you may also enjoy related blogs at Prince, Deep Purple, Hendrix and Bill Nelson.  To finish, let’s see some more masters of music immersed in the art of effortless genius.  None other than Jeff Beck giving a tribute to Les Paul, plus a tribute to Les Paul by Bill Nelson:


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  Check our latest book reviews out: