Is Jazz School The Next Great Innovation Incubator?

Reposted from Fast Company, June 6, 2016 by Michael Hendrix

Two musicians stood before the audience, each watching the other’s eyes. With a nod of the head their performance began. They moved effortlessly through their cues, gesturing subtly to indicate who had the lead and who should follow. In less than five minutes, an audience journey that began with apprehension ended in applause.

This wasn’t a new duo debuting a song. It was Berklee College of Music students sharing their pitch deck for a new digital product for an experimental class co-taught by Becky Bermont and Michelle Kwasny, design leads at Ideo.

Classes like this at the Boston-based school are the brain-children of Panos Panay, director of the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship. Panay is on a mission: to help music students—and the world—recognize the natural entrepreneurial skills rooted in their musicianship. Like the now well-known cases of startups founded by designers (Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky of Airbnb, Evan Sharp of Pinterest, Charles Adler of Kickstarter), Panay believes that musicians have the kind of mind-set that could fuel the creative economy.. Recently, Panay and Berklee launched the non-profit Open Music Initiative with broad-based, cross-industry support to solve for issues surrounding music rights management, compensation and organization in the digital era.

He may be on to something. As we collaborate with Berklee students and co-teach with Panay and Ken Zolot, an engineering professor at MIT, we’re struck by how much musicians and designers think alike. We call our approach design thinking. Berklee doesn’t have a name for their mind-set yet (“jazz thinking” or “music thinking” come to mind), but the similarities between the two have led us to believe there are fundamental entrepreneurial traits in the professional creative process. Here are three of the many we’ve identified:

At Ideo a designer serves as the project leader of a multidisciplinary team. This person keeps a team inspired and focused throughout the course of work but is not “the boss.” Our teams work more like jazz ensembles; members know when to solo and when to comp (a jazz term for accompanying behind the soloist). Often the project leader is not functioning as the decision maker. She knows when to rely on the experience of another team member and to step out of the spotlight. This dynamic team play permits everyone to contribute his or her best at the right moment. Knowing when to do this is one of the intrinsic traits of designers and musicians. In fact, it’s more a feeling than a thought, which leads to the second trait.

In music school, a lot of time is spent in training the ear to accurately hear pitch, chords, harmonics, and more. These skills help a musician both contribute and analyze patterns during performance and composition. As designers, we have a sensory skill equivalent: We seek behavioral patterns through firsthand observation. A seasoned design researcher can quickly identify people’s needs simply by watching how they live. In both cases these are skills developed over years of practice. We are often asked to teach design thinking, and many clients assume that simply by deploying formulaic methodologies (without the years of practice) they can solve innovation challenges. Sensory development is key to making creative methods effective.

Designers prototype ideas early and often—sometimes even in public—iterating toward a final solution. As we’ve worked with Berklee students, we have discovered that songwriting is also an iterative process. Often a song idea begins with a simple phrase or chord progression. As the artist lives with this phrase, it begins to evolve into a more complete song. Common to both methodologies is a commitment to progressive development through many small steps rather than an initial launch of one big idea. Large companies often feel they have to fully bake an idea before releasing it to market, and that lack of user feedback may keep them from alighting upon ideas with staying power.

If “music thinking,” like design thinking, can unlock innovation—music schools may become drivers of a new economy. The stereotypes of musicians being “flaky” or “artistic types” who can’t be relied upon reminds me of the dismissive comments I once heard about designers. I believe businesses should be looking beyond traditional education tracks toward the arts if they want to find the next wave of entrepreneurial talent. IBM seems to get this, featured by the Seattle Times last year for hiring hundreds of young designers from Carnegie Mellon and Rhode Island School of Design (the alma mater of Airbnb’s founders). Perhaps progressive-minded companies will follow a parallel path toward schools like Berklee in the near future. One doesn’t need to look further than Panay himself to see clear evidence. The 1994 Berklee graduate founded Sonicbids, an online platform to connect venues and performers, which he sold for $15 million in 2013. Not bad for a trombone player.

Michael Hendrix