Thursday, September 19, 2019

The music isn't in the piano

I was speaking with a long time colleague and trusted branding partner, Kevin Polonofsky from Revered recently about branding and marketing.  We were specifically discussing the idea of training people to do specific tasks that they did not have time to do, or had no passion to do.  One good example of this is innovation training.  In my work history I've done a lot of training for corporate clients on innovation methods and tools.  Many executives have asked that I train their teams, in order that the teams become more proficient at innovation.

Let me stop here and say that training, for people who have the focus and the passion to exercise the training, is exceptionally valuable.  On the other hand, training is sometimes used as a way to demonstrate that "we are doing something" but isn't intended to be put into practice, or executives don't quite know how to shape projects or opportunities that allow teams to put new learning into practice quickly.

As I was describing this phenomenon, Kevin said something I thought was profound, and I've paraphrased for the title of this blog post.  He said - "they think the music is in the piano".  When I asked him what he meant by that, he said that anyone can buy a piano but the piano does not create music.  It takes talent, training and commitment to make the music come out of the piano.  In the same way providing innovation training to teams that don't immediately start an innovation project, or who don't have the time or aren't compensated to do innovation work is pretty meaningless.

What's more, with the right training, practice and passion a good pianist can make many kinds of music from a piano, but the piano does not create the music.

Player Piano

Ah, but I can hear you say, some pianos don't need pianists.  And this is true.  Player pianos can create music without a piano player, but they are driven by a computer (today) or by a roll of paper that dictates which keys get pressed when, merely a recording of key strokes in the right order.  In the business world there is the equivalent of a player piano.  It's your existing processes and culture, which reinforce how work gets done, and ensures that for the most part work is done the same way every day and in every instance.  In fact we have perhaps the worst situation when we train internal teams on innovation.  They aren't especially interested in being pianists, and they know the piano they will be playing is already capable of playing only one song - the one it is programmed to play.

It's no wonder that many companies and teams struggle to innovate.  Most people have little time and little exposure to unmet needs, and and are so focused on getting the existing products out the door at the lowest possible cost that providing training for innovation seems almost superfluous.

Prodigies vs Practice

For some reason many businesses seem to think that their staff are prodigies when it comes to innovation.  That is, show them some innovation tools or methods at some point in their career and at their first attempt at innovation they'll create a masterpiece.  Innovation is far too unusual within an existing organization to be easy, and far too different to be completed effectively by people using tools for the first time without experience or practice.

So, this is where it all falls apart.  There are few innovation prodigies who are just naturally good at innovation, and unfortunately there are few companies where average people who aren't prodigies get to practice the tools and methods regularly.  So innovation is often attempted and rarely very successful because there are few prodigies and the rest of the people don't practice.

The best case is when people who have a passion for change and creativity are given the time they need, an opportunity or problem that challenges their thinking and the training on the tools that are necessary to do good innovation work.  In Kevin's metaphor about the piano, the music is innovation, and while the piano can make good music, it takes a prodigy or practice to bring it out.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:12 AM


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