Stories and opinions that spark creative thinking

How to build and manage an innovative creative team

I went to the studio one day and I saw on her keyboard, I said, “What is this?” 

There were all these little notes on there. 

She said, “Oh those are my notes for when I play with you.”

And it had all the music written out in musical notation and it said, this part play with more feeling. ‘Cause I had given her that note and I’d said, "You gotta play with more feeling," and she had written that down.

And I said, “Oh my god she has to go. Play with more feeling. If you need to write that down, you have to go.”

Do you know Nardwuar? Wikipedia bills him as a Canadian celebrity interviewer and musician from Vancouver, British Columbia. His real name is John Ruskin and he has a bachelor’s degree in History. But he’s best known for his quirky celebrity interviews, mainly with musicians. Nardwuar has notably interviewed, among many others, Tom Morello, Glenn Danzig, Iggy Pop, Nirvana, Courtney Love, Jello Biafra, The Melvins, Jack White, Ice-T, Henry Rollins, and my favorite band, The Mars Volta.

I pulled the above quote from Nardwuar vs. The Mars Volta—the part where bandleader Omar Rodriguez-Lopez reminisces about a mediocre keyboard player who had to be let go. I wanted to share it because it illustrates an important point that needs to be illustrated in today’s “everyone’s creative” data-driven culture. A controversial point in the eyes of some, to be sure. But nevertheless an important one: creativity is more about vision and feeling than anything else. Either you have it—that kind of innate talent—or you don't.

On my team (my "band") we say that creativity is managed, simple, clear, conceptual and good design. That is our direction. Maybe creativity is those things for you, too. Or maybe it's something entirely different. Either way, without the vision and the feeling, no matter how you define creativity on your team, it will be like pushing buttons. That's no way to innovate.

When it comes to managing innovation, the late jazz legend Miles Davis was one of the best. Musicians notoriously did not know what to expect when they joined the Davis band. Davis, himself, could be billed as a dictator of sorts, but kept his band free-flowing and open to change. Every player was encouraged to contribute material to the group, and was allowed plenty of freedom and responsibility. They were encouraged to take risks. In fact, those who did not take them ran the risk of being fired.

But here’s the thing. Davis himself was a talented and skilled musician, and every player in Davis’ band was a talented and skilled musician—most, like John Coltrane, went on to become leaders themselves. With great (innovative) freedom comes great responsibility, and you can't orchestrate a successful band of merry innovators unless you’ve got talented and skilled professionals to make it up—and you, yourself need to be a talented and skilled professional who can guide them.

That means, from the creative perspective, if you want to be innovative you need a group of people who have been professionally trained in their craft and who intuitively “play” with feeling. Both are requirements, whether trained by other talented artists or trained formally in school—Davis was accepted to Julliard but never went, opting instead to play with and learn from Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. The talent, above all, must be there. Talent can be developed if it's untrained, but if it's absent you end up with artists who need reminders to "play with more feeling."

Miles Davis was his band’s pilot, with a clear vision and leadership direction. All of the other players served important, but different roles: In his classic 1960s quintet, bassist Ron Carter and pianist Herbie Hancock provided the solid foundation, acting like specialists. Young drummer, Tony Williams, was the explorer—he added fire, brilliance, and unpredictability. Thoughtful sax player and composer, Wayne Shorter, was the “idea man,” or general coordinator. This goes to show that teamwork and collaboration do not mean a total free-for-all, stepping on each others’ toes and playing each others’ roles. They mean each member plays his or her own important role, and the whole team fits together like perfect pieces of a puzzle. It also goes to show that a visionary approach goes hand-in-hand with a data-driven approach when it comes to creativity and innovation.

But above all, finding the right players is the most important part of putting that puzzle together. The ones who know their shit and intuitively play with feeling. Once you've got them, keep them focused and managed while allowing them the freedom to improvise. Improvisation is the link between creativity and innovation.

This is my lesson to anyone looking to create a design-driven culture of creativity and innovation within any organization that doesn’t currently enjoy such a culture. Get the players and the teams right. Give them specific roles. And only then can you pilot them—and you will need talented, trained-in-their-craft pilots because someone has to direct—on a course to free-form, value-add innovation.

If you're interested in learning more about just who the hell Nardwuar and The Mars Volta are, you can check out Part 1 of Nardwuar's interview with The Mars Volta here.

Alyssa YeagerComment