After over 30 years of writing songs, I’ve come to the realization that while songwriting, in and of itself, is a wonderful thing, the benefits extend far beyond the boundaries of music. Among the many areas that learning to write songs can develop are a set of seven skills uniquely designed to make you a better innovator. In my work with business teams, we cover all seven skills in the course of writing and performing a song and, without a doubt, my favorite part of the workshop is demonstrating to people not conditioned to seeing themselves as creative that they absolutely are! I’ll begin with a brief description of each skill and then enumerate the way that a specific component of the songwriting process will enhance that particular skill.
Innovation Skill #1—Lateral Thinking
Songwriting Component—The Metaphor
When it comes to innovation, it can help to remember that in order to create something new and different, you need to think differently about your current product, market or process. Another way to describe this is to think laterally. By avoiding a standard, linear approach to problem-solving, you can avoid the same, well-worn, and often suboptimal “solutions.” In his book Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono makes this point beautifully when he states “the mind is a cliché making and cliché using system. The purpose of lateral thinking is to overcome these limitations by providing a means for restructuring, for escaping from cliché patterns, for putting information together in new ways to give new ideas.”
Songwriting provides the perfect device to help you “put information together in new ways” and escape from the aforementioned “cliché patterns.” That device is the metaphor. By learning to reexamine any idea from the standpoint of its metaphorical equivalent, you will empower yourself to think in ways that don’t reveal themselves using the standard problem-solving approach.
Innovation Skill #2—Creativity
Songwriting Component—The Verse
Creativity is at the heart of innovation. That said, there is a common misconception that creativity is the domain of a specialized group of individuals with a “gift” for it. This is simply untrue. In an article for Fast Company magazine, neuroscientist and author Tara Swart summarizes the keys to creativity as “practice” and “intention.” In other words, you have the ability to be creative if you’re willing to develop it.
Writing songs—and specifically the details required in verse writing—will serve as an important reminder that you are—at your core—a creative being. As you’ll see in the coming pages, writing verses is quite simply a concentrated form of storytelling. The more you develop your verse writing/storytelling skills, the easier your access to your own creativity will become.
Innovation Skill #3—Communication
Songwriting Component—The Chorus
Properly highlighting the uniqueness and value of your innovation comes down to the ability to communicate in a way that is both clear and compelling. This communication works both internally as a way to assure buy- in from your colleagues as well as externally when it comes to the marketing of your new product or service.
The chorus of a song is the deceptively simple summary and distillation of your message. Choruses are often very short and highly repetitive so if your message isn’t perfectly refined, you run the risk of missing your opportunity to connect with your audience. The better you become at writing choruses, the better your communication skills will be in any situation.
Innovation Skill #4—Empathy
Another key to effective innovation is the understanding of how your ideas will be perceived both inside your organization and externally by your customers. The more developed your empathy is as an innovator, the greater your ability to connect with those people who most need to believe in what you’ve created.
Similarly, in order to write a song, you need to first consider and observe from the standpoint of the song’s subject. Writing while continuously keeping your subject’s feelings and behavior in mind, automatically strengthens your ability to empathize.
Innovation Skill #5—Collaboration
Innovation requires multiple varieties of collaboration from the outreach across silos within a company to simply putting together a team that can leverage the strengths of its individual members.
Co-writing is a microcosm of the exact form of collaboration necessary for successful innovation. Each of the component parts of songwriting from developing the metaphor to storytelling in the verses to refining the core of the song’s message in the chorus requires different skills. When these skills are shared among songwriting collaborators, it can make any song better than the sum of its individual writers.
Innovation Skill #6—Risk-Taking
Developing new products and processes to replace current ones—even when they’re working—requires a kind of risk-taking that is antithetical to most businesses and executives. That said, in order to stay competitive and grow, this kind of risk-taking through innovation is essential.
Writing—and ultimately singing—songs will require you to make yourself vulnerable in a work context which will feel undoubtedly risky as you will likely fear potential ridicule. However, doing this in a structured, psychologically safe setting will allow you to build up your risk-taking tolerance in a healthy and consistent way.
Innovation doesn’t work in a vacuum. In order for innovation to succeed, it needs to be propagated to those who can most benefit. If this doesn’t happen, innovation is simply a good idea that never sees the light of day.
In the same way, songs are designed to be shared. Writing a song is only the first step. The true power of songs is when they connect with—and move—others. To that end, the performance of your song carries the added significance of reminding you that new ideas need to be shared.
Cliff Goldmacher is a GRAMMY-recognized songwriter and music producer. Cliff’s book, The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering The Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs, comes out on MBS Press in September. Click here to get a free sample.