Innovation Techniques from Jazz Musicians (Part 3 of 3)

For the last entry in my three-part series featuring the creativity techniques of jazz musicians, I’m excited to share two more approaches to sparking ideas and unlocking your creative genius:

Technique #5: Isolated Substitutions

Great jazz musicians love to substitute one thing for another. Like a chef who decides to swap out red pepper for broccoli rabe, jazz musicians find fresh ideas by “subbing it out.” The piano player, for example, may substitute one chord for another. A trumpet player may “sub-out” one scale in place of another during her solo. A drummer may swap one rhythmic pattern for another. By leaving other things alone and purposefully substituting one element of their music for something else, creative sparks often begin to ignite for the seasoned jazz musician.

You can put this technique to use to generate your own sparks of inspiration. Maybe you’re working on a new type of packaging for your product. You could decide to keep most of your original idea but swap out the opening of the package from the top to the side. Perhaps your Creative Challenge is to streamline a 12-step assembly line. What if you left 11 steps alone, but swapped out one step for something different? If you are working on a TV commercial, what if you swapped out a male actor for a female one? Or rock music in the background for classical.

Isolated substitutions are easy to uncover and can open up fresh perspectives and ideas. Start by thinking of the problem you’re trying to solve as several unique and interconnected parts. Then, simply take one part at a time and try swapping out something fresh. What if we swapped aluminum for plastic? What if we used contract labor instead of full-time employees? What if we sold our product directly to customers instead of through distributors? Let your imagination run wild as you substitute ideas to unlock your creativity.

Jazz musicians will tell you that even the worst mistakes are not all that bad. If you really hit a clunker in jazz, the wisdom is to play it three more times to make it appear that you did it on purpose the first time. “Wow, that piano player is really avant-garde! How creative!”

What’s the worst thing that will happen if your substitution doesn’t work? Keep trying new combinations and you will discover untapped resources of sparks and imagination.

Technique #6: Deep Listening

Jazz, to a large degree, is more about listening than playing notes. In the fluid musical conversations of jazz music, listening to your fellow musicians, the audience, and your own creative voice are the raw materials of this art form.

Translating the principle to business, that means listening to your team, your customers, your competitors, your industry, your suppliers, the latest trends and best practices, and of course, your own creativity. Through focused listening comes adaptation. Allowing the environment and your collaborators to influence the outcome as a group. Seeking inspiration and creativity from others and adapting in real-time to changing conditions.

The most in-demand jazz musicians are not typically the ones with the most blazing technique or dazzling solo ability. The ones who always find work are those that support the collective output rather than being a diva. What makes jazz performances memorable is not breathtaking speed or technique; it is all about establishing a connection and crafting true, artistic, musical expression. It’s about creating something special that resonates with your audience.

The same is true in the business world. The best leaders and the people who get promoted are not selfish, me-centric show-offs. Instead, the modern era of business rewards those that collaborate and work to serve their colleagues and their customers. Individual brilliance is great, but purposeful group engagement is worshiped. Any one person can be strong, but a tightly integrated group becomes unstoppable. As the African proverb states, “When spider webs unite, they tie up a lion.”

Finally, look out for what I call “The Jazz Trap.” This is the situation where musicians get so caught up in a look-what-I-can-do mindset that they lose connection with their colleagues and their audience. These musicians add complexity for the sake of it, becoming so busy showing off their technical brilliance that their art suffers (as does anyone who happens to be listening).

Don’t forget that your creativity must always be directed at a specific business challenge. You should be focused on solving problems in the best way, not the most complex way. There have been many ad campaigns that have won awards but failed to sell any products. Let your creativity flow completely unrestricted throughout the creative process, but don’t forget to ultimately select the solution that will create the best results, not the one that is the most dazzling.

Jazz improvisation is like a fluid conversation among friends; you make it up as you go. There’s no script, and the best discussions are never rehearsed. Think of yourself as a jazz musician, taking risks and using these techniques to improvise fresh and original ideas. Imagination will flow. Inspiration will hit. Sparks will ignite. And that blank page will be no match for your unbridled creativity.