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Playing outside the box

Playing outside the box

What jazz musician Miles Davis can teach us about disruptive innovation.

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“If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.” That fearless creed made trumpeter and composer Miles Davis one of the greatest disruptive innovators of the 20th century. As he said once – he was never one for false modesty – “I’ve changed music five or six times.” Born on May 26, 1926, Davis grew up in East St Louis, Illinois. At the age of 18, he discovered modern jazz – through the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker – and briefly played in Billy Eckstine’s orchestra.

Big bands were never really his thing. Convinced that jazz would die without innovation, Davis searched for a structure in which musicians could interact more creatively. He loved quartets and quintets, where barriers could be knocked down and genres transcended.

Some geniuses cannot abide other geniuses. That was not Davis’s way. In 1947, his quintet included the supreme saxophone player Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. At other times, he brought the best out of a variety of gifted collaborators. Most of his quartets and quintets were, you could say, innovation labs that worked their magic in a studio.

“I have to change,” Davis said once, “it’s a curse”. In 1948, experimenting with the orchestrated music that became known as ‘cool jazz’, he fronted a nine-piece band. Six years later, he reinvented himself again, pioneering the music of ‘hard bop’ with a quintet. Davis created groups that looked incompatible on paper but, through live, fervent interaction in the studio, produced great music. There were no hierarchies – musicians played as equals, not as hired hands. His eye for talent helped. Many musicians left him to lead their own groups. The constant search for musicians kept him fresh, exposing him to new ideas.

In 1959, Davis recorded Kind Of Blue, a multi-million selling album that pioneered new ways to create musical harmony. The easiest, most lucrative next step for Davis would have been to cut Kind Of Blue 2 but, like a marketing manager looking beyond a market-leading product and trying to gauge the future, he experimented with ‘free jazz’, rock, and – in a bid to reach young black Americans – funk and hip-hop. That innovative impulse led him to reject a role in Duke Ellington’s orchestra because: “I didn’t want to put myself in a musical box, playing the same thing night after night.”

Jazz pianist Horace Silver said of Davis: “He had that knack of just putting something together at the last minute and it would come off sounding great.” But Davis’s apparently improvised brilliance was founded on years of practice, reflecting on music and hearing young musicians. In 1953, inspired by the self-disciplined regime of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Davis gave up heroin – and took up boxing in his spare time.

Many businesses are averse to mess, but Davis embraced it. He was thriving on chaos decades before Tom Peters wrote the book. He made honest mistakes as he pursued change. Yet many companies would be proud to be as innovative as Davis was between 1948 and 1972. His mantra, “being creative is not about standing still, it has to be about change”, should be pasted on the walls of R&D departments.

Like many disruptive innovators, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, Davis remained unsatisfied. Towards the end of his life – he died in 1991 – he said: “I’ve come close to matching the feeling of that night in 1944 in music, when I first heard Dizzy and Bird – but I’ve never quite got there.”

Five key learnings

  1. Organization is crucial. A small, non-hierarchical group with the time and space to interact is more likely to drive innovation.
  2. Repetition kills innovation. Davis’s refusal to be “stuck in a box” helped him remain receptive to new concepts.
  3. Talent is key. Though Davis had some longstanding collaborators, the need to replace departing talent ensured a constant infusion of ideas. 
  4. Innovation is about perspiration as much as inspiration. As Davis said: “You have to find your own way to learn. There’s no shortcut, no accident. You have to practice and study.”
  5. Chaos is the new normal. Actually ‘no normal’ is the new normal, and Davis radically reappraised his performance – and his product – every few years.

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