Innovation Techniques from Jazz Musicians (Part 2 of 3)

As a music geek and a student of jazz for over 40 years, I’m obsessed with the intricate, dangerous, soul-filled improvisational skills of legends like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Which is why I’ve decided to share some of the inside approaches that have delighted audiences and made history. Last week, we covered two techniques: Trading Fours and Contrast. Let’s continue to learn from secretive jazz masters whose approaches spark brilliant creative outputs.

Technique #3: Mixing it up

If you listen to a jazz group playing the same song every night for a month, it will never sound the same twice. A core aspect of jazz is trying new things and keeping your work fresh. One way to accomplish this is to change styles. For example, one night a group may play the classic jazz standard “All the things you are” in a medium-swing style and tempo. The next night it may be played in a smoking-fast bebop style. The following evening as a slow and touching ballad. Another session could feature the song with a groovy Latin feel.

In addition to the feel and style of a song, jazz groups often play around with instrumentation. One night may include the entire combo on the song, while the next night features only guitar and saxophone. The order in which the musicians take turns soloing frequently changes to keep it fresh. Perhaps one night the piano player begins the song and plays the first three or four minutes alone with no accompaniment by other musicians, creating a cool contrast when everyone else begins to play along.

Mixing it up not only keeps the music fresh for audiences, it keeps the musicians fresh with new ideas. The same is true for you and your business. Mixing things up will not only help you overcome the blank page with exciting sparks, but it will also help throughout your evolving creative endeavors. Here are a few ways to mix it up:

  • Use a different room for each brainstorming session
  • Alternate who is the facilitator each day
  • Begin each session with a different warm-up exercise
  • Change the order of your meetings around frequently
  • Conduct your meetings at different times of the day

In addition to the context of your meetings, you can also try mixing up your idea flow. For example, you may challenge the group to focus only on the very beginning of your creative project, and later challenge them to only focus on the ending. You could have the team generate small, incremental, safe ideas one day and the next day switch to giant, audacious, world-changing ideas only. Maybe one day you generate ideas only for a certain type of customer, and the next day you go for the opposite. One session could focus on low-cost solutions and the next could focus on expensive ones. The key is to mix it up like jazz musicians to unlock hidden gems of creativity.

Technique #4: Lean on the Masters

When learning the art of jazz, students not only learn technique but spend a significant portion of their study learning from the masters. Understanding how Dexter Gordon crafts his solos, or how Sonny Rollins builds excitement, or how Oscar Peterson uses the special technique of playing in unison octaves helps an up-and-coming jazz musician gain both perspective and inspiration.

Studying other musicians helps in three ways: it provides a context and broad understanding of the past which gives you a platform on which to build; it offers a source of inspiration and ideas; and it provides specific concepts that you can use and adapt to your own musical challenges.

You can benefit greatly in the same way jazz musicians do by looking to the masters. How would Edison have approached your product design challenge? If you’re not sure, you can easily find dozens of examples, books, diagrams, whitepapers, and artifacts at your fingertips thanks to Google and Wikipedia. How did Einstein approach his research? What did Henry Ford do when he was stuck on a problem? Where did Picasso go when he needed a fresh perspective? How would Mark Zuckerberg attack your new social media strategy? What training regimen would Serena Williams employ when faced with a challenge like yours?

In addition to examining what specific approaches various masters would have, you can learn from them just by understanding how they think. I’ve read biographies on business legends ranging from railroad baron Henry Flagler to Andrew Carnegie to Steve Jobs. Besides their amazing stories, you can start to see patterns in their thinking which can be applied to your own situation. Grabbing a book, article, or online story about masters in any field is almost like having the ability to sit down and have a conversation with them.

Jazz musicians often use a favorite musical quote or approach that they learned from a master. I have a few riffs that I learned by studying jazz guitar virtuoso Wes Montgomery, for example. Sometimes when I’m stuck in a solo, I will play these licks to not only regain my footing but also to spark ideas. I also know that McCoy Tyner used something called “quartal harmony”, which was an unusual and creative way of voicing chords. When I am looking for ideas, I sometimes try using this technique to see if it sparks something fresh for me.

To apply the age-old practice of leaning on the masters, try to discover some patterns or approaches that you can use as part of your overall creativity arsenal. Start small by learning one or two approaches or ideas from only one legend in any field (business, art, science, politics, etc.) and see if you can apply the same approach to your own creative challenge. As you continue to build your creativity muscles, you can keep adding to your repertoire and before you know it, you’ll be creating like the masters.

Finally, when you need a spark, are frustrated with the blank page, or stuck on a problem, try stepping away and look to the masters. I have been in situations with my eyes glazed over and completely unable to get moving, only to read a story or article about a legend and become instantly inspired with a fresh approach. As you continue to build your creative career, you may just be a master to someone else in the future as they look to you for ideas and inspiration.