HBS Case Explores Miles Davis and Creativity

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."