Thursday, June 25, 2009

Musical inspiration

A while back, I wrote about an academic who so hated the sameness of recorded music that he refused to listen to it. While I can’t help but respect his obstinacy, my iPod wins out when it comes to sheer pleasure, particularly on long flights and relaxed Sunday afternoons.

This human inclination toward the unique, creative, and individual was underlined by a recent study (Harvard and Arizona University) on musical inspiration. First, the members of a student orchestra were told to “Think about the finest performance of this piece that you can remember. Play it that way.” When they were about to play it a second time, the conductor’s direction was quite different. “Play this piece in the finest manner you can, offering subtle new nuances to your performance.” In other words, he opened the door to personal inspiration. When a musically sophisticated test audience listened to the performances, they could hear an immediate difference between the two. The study called the difference 'mindfulness', I call it 'flow'. The audience knew which one they liked most; of course, it was the one that drew on everything in these young musicians that was intense, personal, distinctive. The performance that demanded that they were most themselves and most in the moment. Best of all, the musicians themselves found the second performance more enjoyable, dynamic, and energetic.

While this work shows how to train musicians, it has important insights on how to unleash and inspire any team. Think about it. While an orchestra aspires to unity and co-ordination, the best results come when each musician feels focused, alert, and open to new discoveries. The moments when they make their own unique contributions. If I happened to be looking for a smart definition of how to do holistic marketing, it would be in those qualities.

It’s all wonderfully counter-intuitive. Don’t follow those who went before you – no matter how great they might be – but be the best you can be. This is exactly the kind of behavior I always look for in great creative teams. The people who study what has worked before and then do a great version of it, produce predictable, competent ideas. These ideas do not cut through with clients, colleagues, or consumers and cannot create the foundation for even better ideas to come. At the heart of every great team I have ever known is flow – personal focus, openness to the moment, inspiration.