What Duke Ellington can teach business about innovation

Every year, for the past 14 years, I have read a biography of a famous musician or composer.  As I read each book, I listen to their music and how it evolved.  This year I’m reading Terry Teachout’s recent biography of Duke Ellington, the most prolific composer of the 20th century.  Ellington and his band were known for continual innovation–a hot topic in business these days.    Duke carefully blended conformity and freedom of expression to achieve continually innovative results.  Every band member was required to be impeccably dressed and well-mannered so they would look the part and project the right image.  And they were required to memorize every song–no sheet music or music stands–even though Ellington would routinely change the song parts, sometimes even nightly.  But that’s where the conformity ended; these were not “company men.”  Ellington knew he needed to produce new sounds all the time to be successful, and to do that, he wanted the very best musicians–each one a stand-out on his own.  And he gave them the freedom to express both their individuality and musical expertise knowing that would result in more innovation and further success.  It worked well for over 50 years.

Organizations wanting more innovation also need to strike the right balance between conformity and individual expression both to deliver consistent results and to innovate.  What are you doing with your systems, processes, and talent management to achieve the right climate for innovation?

Copyright 2014 Bob Legge  All rights reserved.

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