When a Composer meets a Professor of Strategic Innovation


Didier Marlier

September 21, 2021

From Disruption to Engagement

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I often quote the work of Babson Professor, Jay Rao, on this blog. I like his down to Earth, thought provoking and unorthodox approach to things.

Like many of you know, Nick McRoberts is one of my closest Business Partner but he is also a conductor and composer in classical music.

We both invited Prof. Rao for a fascinating conversation on how to transform an organisation into a creative and innovative one. The discussion went on many topics such as:

  • Innovative Leadership
  • Disruptive Innovation and Continuous Innovation
  • How to strive in the VUCA World
  • And many others…

If full clip is worth every moment of it, I’d like to comment a specific part where both Jay and Nick expressed their views on some fallacies about inspiring creativity (see preview):

  • Copy the masters and you will become even more creative! : As Jay explains, it is not by organizing a week-end retreat in a fancy place that, all of the sudden, creativity and innovation will blossom in your team/organisation by Monday morning. Jay mentions the story of the famous Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. Since she was a child, her parents had noticed her passion for art for painting. But it is only when she was 13 that they decided to give her a proper artistic education. Her professor was astonished when he saw what she had already produced, but his first words of caution were: “Stop being original! Copy the masters and you will become even more original!”This is what Business Futurist Gerd Leonhard calls P.F.E. (Proudly Found Elsewhere). By advocating this strategy, Jay Rao is also aligned with Dave Snowden, one of the gurus when it comes to lead in complex environments. For Snowden, observing, progress by trial & error, fail fast, fail smart and fail cheap are ways to become truly innovative in a VUCA environment.

    Nick McRoberts, as a composer, fully supports Jay’s points and talks about “being a journeying artisan”: “Mozart’s fist symphony sounds like Haydn, Beethoven started by sounding like Mozart, and Brahms first symphony looks like Beethoven’s etc.”

  • You have to suffer to be creative: Nick then challenged another belief that he finds destructive: All great artists find their inspiration in suffering, alcoholism, depression etc. Instead, Nick advises to suffer, yes, but suffer on being disciplined, practice every day, accept that lots of your production may be garbage.In business, I remember that one of my mission was to work with the artists that formed an important part of the R&D lab of a household name in kitchenware. Our relationship was challenging from the beginning, as they saw me as the dictator who would rein them in and ultimately kill their creativity. It took them a while to realize that creativity wasn’t about filling a white sheet of paper but, on the contrary carefully listen to what consumers said and didn’t say and, to be creative with discipline and within that context.
  • You have to be profound and serious to be an artist: Nick then compared the famous French novelist, Marcel Proust, known for the depth of his masterpiece (“A la recherche du Temps Perdu”), how long it took him to write it, and how serious and profound it was. Such an art has its place! He compares this to the success and creativity of JK Rowling and her Harry Potter saga. That art also has its place.

    Amongst our clients, we count “serious” businesses, led by knowledge people, with a rock solid engineering culture, filled with brilliant scientists. But we also have the chance to work with organisations which create Psychological Safety, “fun” and constantly challenge past orthodoxies, which are equally successful.It is difficult to summarize an hour and a half of a rich discussion. I hope you will find the time to listen to the whole interview.

We would like to apologize for the poor audio and image quality which get in the way of a smooth production. But, be it Zoom, Team Meetings or others, the results are unsatisfactory. Please if you have clues about how to record interviews from several locations at the same time, with a similar quality, let me know. I’d be very grateful.

Meanwhile, enjoy your Leadership Journey!


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