HBS Case Explores Miles Davis and Creativity

Last Updated Apr 15, 2009 1:26 PM EDT

We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the most influential music works of all time, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. His notes seemed to sweep away much of the jazz we were familiar with, creating a new sound, a new feeling, a new way to appreciate music.

Harvard Business School professor Robert Austin recently coauthored a case study on the work to get at the roots of innovation. You can read an interview with Austin and co-researcher Carl Størmer in this HBS Working Knowledge interview, Kind of Blue: Pushing Boundaries with Miles Davis.

Two lessons stick out to me from the great trumpeter.

  1. Simplicity Trumps Complexity "Most of the songs on that album are based on a very simple blues structure," says Størmer. "I also think he wanted to find ways to more fully realize the incredible potential of his team -- John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, et al. How could he give them more freedom, more empowerment? Maybe he realized that playing easier material would in itself help emancipate the players -- even if he was dealing with the best talent in the business."
  2. Great Innovators Aren't Confined By Past Success "These people -- Miles Davis is one, but there are others, such as Pablo Picasso -- seem to be willing to abandon past successes in the pursuit of something new and more exciting," observes Austin. "They seem willing to disappoint their truest old fans if that's what it takes to make something truly new."
Next time you are stuck coming up with the next great product, marketing campaign or novel, rock some Miles and think "simple" and "truly new."
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.