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Lessons in Innovation Management from Bob Dylan

Published on
07 December 2016

When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature there were many lifelong fans who thought ‘about time’, ‘at last’ and ‘finally’. It is hard to ignore the contribution of an artist who has had a creative stream lasting more than fifty years and fitting that Dylan was the first singer songwriter to be recognised by the Nobel committee. But Dylan’s contribution is so much more. He is a singer and poet who has defied categorisation, stuck to his own vision of what he wanted to do and never stopped innovating. What can we learn from this?

Courage and Vision…

Innovation is not for the faint hearted. There are considerable pressures in society and organisations to maintain the status quo, the easiness of the familiar is a powerful force. Dylan has never been afraid to make a break with the past, with what has worked before.

Dylan’s first albums were characterised by him as a solo artist with acoustic guitar and harmonica. This led to his breakthrough in the early 1960s among the folk movement in New York. Then his fifth studio album, “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965), had one acoustic side and one electric side – it was vinyl at the time -- and began to embrace the creative opportunities offered electric instruments. Few of his fans agreed at the time but this led on to classic albums such as “Highway 61” later the same year.

Sometimes the audience does not know what it wants. Whether it is customers, employees or stakeholders there is a strong ‘push’ dimension to innovation that is in the imagination and creative leadership of those leading organisations. Did we know we were missing the smart phone before they became an indispensable part of 21st century life? Dylan has not been afraid to challenge his audiences. When Dylan came on stage with an electric guitar and band for the second part of his act at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 it was one such moment. His audience was openly hostile but this led to a new creative and inspirational period of his music without which we would not have had the album “John Wesley Harding” (1967) and one of the greatest rock songs ever, “All Along the Watchtower”.

Incremental and Radical Innovations…

Innovation is not just about major ruptures or leaps forward in technology. An important part of innovation is tweaking, adjustments and incremental improvements that lead to improved performance and products, efficient systems or processes that run ‘just right’. Look at the success of Japanese manufacturing systems or Team Sky in the Tour De France for the benefits of continually seeking small improvements.  Dylan has been on a “Never Ending Tour” since 1988 yet anyone attending will know that the tracks rarely sound anything like the album versions they love. Dylan and his band insist on reworking, revising and reshaping old songs often far from their original formulation. Even for die-hard fans, recognising some of these reworked songs is not always obvious until you hear the first lyric.

Innovation also requires seeing the problem from another angle. Only by standing back, looking at things through a fresh pair of eyes or ‘thinking out of the box’ can breakthroughs be made. In 2015 Dylan’s innovative interpretations of Sinatra songs in “Shadows in the Night” captured a range of emotion and depth to these songs that had not been seen before. To paraphrase Dylan’s words, he lifted them into the light after they had been buried by years of cover versions by so many artists. 

Much of Dylan’s art has done exactly this: taken a new approach to what we expect from a popular song, tackling subjects outside the realm of other musicians. His challenge to the perversion of justice that led to the imprisonment of Rubin Carter in the classic song “Hurricane” (1976) is a great example. He has also not shied away from tackling class divisions, racism, religion, globalisation, and social exclusion as well as more mainstream themes of love but always with his own take from weddings to one night stands to male insecurities to marriage break up.

Even within a single song he has the capacity to portray events in innovative ways. Take the song “Tangled up in Blue” (1977): a tale of a love affair told in the past, present and future tenses, all mixed up in a way that captures the pain and joy of love spanning ten years of his life. Like a cubist painting you are unsure what is up, down, left or right but you know that you are absorbed in a passionate story and feel the emotions of a love affair that changed Dylan’s life.

Looking Back to Move Forward…

There are perhaps few really new ideas and many innovations draw upon perennial problems or challenges faced by humankind – love, family, friends, peace, housing, safety, transport, communication, etc. By recognising these basic drivers we can identify the soul, purpose and role of innovations while also recognising what we can learn from earlier innovators. Dylan’s success undoubtedly comes from an incredible talent as a wordsmith, combined with his music writing skills. Even if you are not a fan of his voice – Dylan lovers admit too that there have been low patches – is it hard to deny this creative output. But Dylan has time and again demonstrated a capacity to reinvent himself drawing upon the past, timeless ideas and other great poets and musicians. His emergence in the 1960s drew upon American folk music history and legends such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. His rendition of the folk classic ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on his first album captured an emotion and depth in the lyrics not replicated since, even in iconic covers by other artists such as The Animals.

Even great innovators have times when they are not firing on all cylinders, the trick is to go back to basics – the activity that led to the early successes. Steve Jobs revival of Apple in the late 1990s drew upon the spirit of the early Macintosh that appealed to non-techy people looking for something more in a computer. Similarly an apparent loss of direction for Dylan in the 1980s was followed by a resurgence of his creativity when he drew again on early folk American music and produced his first entirely acoustic album for almost thirty years. This 1992 album, “As Good as l've Been to You”, marked the start of renewed creative streak that led to two Grammy Award-winning albums; “World Gone Wrong” (1993) and the celebrated “Time Out of Mind” (1997). 

The Innovating Individual…

Yet, we may also have to accept that some innovations are simply beyond the capacity of all but a few and that there are creative developments that contain a magical mix of talent, inspiration and perhaps luck. These great innovations are also somehow timeless and, even when the original design has been bypassed by subsequent developments great creations, stand the test of time: a benchmark against which others are judged. Take the Mini Cooper (1961), Jonathan Ive’s iPod (2001) or Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost chair (2002). Dylan’s 1962 “Blowin in The Wind” is a song that captures the existential questions that humankind will always face and the ephemeral answers life offers us – the answers are either obvious or they are in front of us, in the wind, yet impossible to grasp.

At 75 Dylan has had an unstoppable drive to do his thing and not to be swayed by others – almost a rejection of what others think about him. At this moment, it is not clear whether he will accept the invitation to travel to Norway in order to accept the Nobel Prize but when one has produced so much over more than 50 years he has perhaps earned the right to decide himself. One thing is for sure, he will and he will not care what we think. And after the Prize giving, he will go on innovating through his art and following his own particular vision.

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