Innovation Lessons from Prince

Innovation Lessons from Prince

By Peter Cook

I am a great admirer of the artist Prince, both for his musicology, but also for his leadership of the music business and his constant innovation in an industry that is renowned for ‘repeat performances’. In other words, once you have a hit record, there are huge pressures from your fanbase and record company to repeat the ‘formula’ until it wears out.  Whereas Prince has switched genres and styles, sometimes testing his follower’s patience to destruction, but, in doing so, building a lasting brand.

I was privileged to see Prince twice on its recent UK “Hit and Run” tour and I never thought I would get to see a Prince concert in such small venues as Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Koko’s in Camden. I also got to meet his spiritual Godfather, Mr George Clinton at a private party in London the night before one of the shows. I wrote a eulogy to Prince in my book “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll”. This is available free to readers of Prescouter Journal simply by contacting me. So, what then are the innovation lessons you can learn from a study of the man behind the funk and roll? Before we go there, check out Prince’s latest incarnation, 3rdeyegirl on the Arsenio Hall show:

Adapt and learn continuously

Unlike many performers in rock’s monarchy, a Prince live performance is often different every night. Prince’s band operates from a menu of 300 songs, which the band may be called upon to play at any time. Many other artists prefer to perfect and then repeat their set night after night, because it is seen as a huge risk to make mistakes in front of a stadium size audience. I work with John Howitt, a session musician with a track record working with Anastasia, Celine Dion who confirms this:

“The risks of jamming in front of a stadium audience are huge for a major artist and most of the people I’ve worked with have a set routine for passing solos round the band at the end of a performance. Prince is unusual in that he’ll call them out almost on a whim using signals such as ‘On the one, bass’, signaling the band to cut out on the next beat for a bass solo. This makes Prince a bigger risk taker than many major stars, who refine a ‘product’ which they can repeat night after night”.

This capability is that of what business writers talk about when they mention the words ‘adaptive’ or ‘learning company’. To innovate, learning is not a luxury, it’s a business essential. In a recent interview Google’s CEO said:

“One of the primary goals I have is to get Google to be a big company that has the nimbleness and soul and passion and speed of a start-up”

To master improvisation, practice, practice, practice

Paradoxically, to reach a point of mastery in improvisation requires intensive detailed preparation. What looks like a seamless performance is the result of many hours of practice and Prince is meticulous in this respect.

“I used to be more involved with every aspect of everything onstage. I’m way more relaxed now. It feels like anything can happen”

Prince is a living example of the ‘10,000 hours effect’, as popularized by Tom Peters and, more recently, Malcolm Gladwell. The idea of prepared spontaneity contradicts what some so-called creativity and innovation experts say on the subject, yet, in the same way that improvisation without discipline rarely produces superb results in music, creativity without discipline rarely produces sustainable innovation in business. The notion of practice is less well understood in business than it is in music. We explore this further in a radio interview with Drs Jackie Modeste and Wes

Fusion creates innovation

Prince is a master of fusing musical genres and influences outside his core style to innovate. This enables him to still exert a major influence on artists of the 21st Century, such as Lady Gaga, Beyonce and many others. In business, the ability to cross mental boundaries is the parallel skill set. The skill of combination is also a core tool of great product and service innovators, such as 3M, Apple, Nokia et al.

Innovation requires diversity

Unusually within the music industry, Prince has always run a meritiocracy, regardless of gender, race and so on e.g. with women taking on less traditional roles of bass and sax in his bands. His current band 3rdeyegirl is an all female three-piece rock ensemble. Different minds contribute to innovation through the dissonance that ensues from such combinations. Thus diversity is not a ‘nice to have’ quality in the HR department but it’s a business critical issue if you want to have innovation. Consequentially innovation leaders must be exceptional listeners, especially when ‘hard to hear’ opinions and ideas are being expressed.

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