Creative Sparks from the World of Jazz – Part 2 of 6

Yesterday, I launched a six-part blog series on techniques from the jazz world that can be easily translated to driving business creativity. Jazz music is all about spontaneous creativity and improvisation – skills that are critically important in the business world. The first post covered a technique called Trading Fours. Now let’s look at the second technique – Contrast.

Contrast. One of the most engaging elements of a great jazz solo is contrast. If a trumpet solo, for example, was simply an all-or-nothing thing with constant 16th notes played non-stop from beginning to end, it would sound incredibly boring. Great solos are not turned on and off with a switch; they develop and build, weaving in and out while telling an exciting story. It is often the contrast created by the musician that creates the most beautiful solos, and the most appreciative audiences.

Great business improvisation is no different. By exploring contrasting elements, you will find a wellspring of creative inspiration. However, most business people don’t approach creativity in this manner. You are much more likely to hear an approach such as, “Okay team… we have 15 minutes and we’d better come up with a bunch of good ideas for this problem right now or the boss is going to blow a gasket. Ready…go!”

As you can imagine, this on/off approach is not the way to generate your best ideas. You’ll see a better result and have a lot more fun by using the jazz concept of contrast. A jazz guitar solo may start slow and quiet, for example, and gradually build to a peak that is fast and loud. Once the peak has been reached, the solo may begin to retreat as if climbing down a mountain, until it ends in a quiet and slow fashion just like it started. Throughout a sax solo, a musician may weave in and out of many crowded notes to open measures that are sparse. A piano player may choose to go from harsh to delicate, and then from intense to mellow. A bass solo may build tension with dissonant notes that make you squirm in your chair, only to release that tension to create a feeling of being grounded and calm.

Try putting contrasts to work for your own creativity. Rather than thinking of creativity as an on/off switch, begin with a simple, easy idea and then explore the contrasts. For example, your creative challenge may be to “increase the close-rate of our sales team”. Using contrast, you would first begin with an idea such as “provide better training to the sales people.” From there, play around with the idea using contrasts. This may inspire thinking such as:

• Start with two weeks of intense training, then taper it down to three hours a month for six months, then bring the team back for another intensive week-long workshop.
• Alternate trainers. For the first day, use a warm and nurturing trainer. Next, use a drill sergeant type that shakes the group up. End with a motivational trainer that pumps up the team to hit the market hard.
• Break up each two-hour training session into four equal 30 minute parts: product knowledge, role-playing exercises, overcoming objections, and competitive insight.

Even if your initial spark is totally unrelated to the problem at hand (the best creativity often flows from random, unrelated concepts such as Italian dining, stamp collecting, or youth soccer), try using contrast to play around with the idea and see if you can solve your challenge in a non-traditional and more compelling manner.

Look for Blog post 3 of 6, entitled Mixing it Up, coming next.