Innovation Lessons from the Beatles

by John Steen

Be Prolific and Focused

by John Steen

Innovation Lessons from the BeatlesTim and I are now writing a lot on the importance of focus. Being successful with innovation is about managing the paradox of ‘disciplined creation’ and it helps to have some clear ideas about what you are trying to achieve and how you are going to create value. Part of this discipline is taking time to reflect on progress and problems and this in itself may lead to other innovation opportunities.

Managing innovation as a chain of activities such as idea generation, selection, conversion and diffusion will help the disciplined approach but the weakness of the chain model is it understates the importance of feedback and learning. If we can learn from what we create then our subsequent innovations are probably going to be better and happen faster.

I think there are probably two categories of prolific innovators. One takes a scattergun approach and tries many things in many areas and some of these turn into a once-off shot. Others are more prolific but focus on a particular market or technology. Failure and success are both productive here because they can sow the seeds of new ideas. Dyson is a really nice example of this type of business.

Another example of a prolific innovator arrived in my email the other day. It’s not what you would call a typical innovative business but it demonstrates the value of being both prolific and focused. As you might know, the Beatles albums have been released on iTunes recently. They have sold more than 450,000 albums already, which is very surprising because I thought that most people who were ever going to own a Beatles album already had the ones they wanted.

Going onto iTunes and looking at the albums I was amazed by how much music they produced in such a short period. We are really talking about 7 years and I found myself spending a long time listening to the samples. Some of the songs like ‘Something’ and ‘Hey Jude’ will always stay in my head, but others like Blackbird and She’s Leaving Home, I had quite forgotten about. To me, they still sound good over 40 years after the band split up.

What becomes apparent when doing an iTunes sample tour of the Beatles is how fast their music changed. In six years they went from ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ to ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’. Hard core Beatles fans will be able to offer many opinions but I think that really focusing on the musical creativity and spending a lot of time in the studio was essential to the progress. Perhaps they could have made more money from tours but they spent more time on what they were really good at, including developing their own studio which launched the careers of others such as James Taylor. The love-hate relationship between Lennon and McCartney was also essential. Neither of them really reached to same songwriting peak after the demise of the band.

Creativity and risk-taking are on one side of the innovation coin. The other side is hard work and discipline.


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John SteenJohn Steen is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

No comments

  1. Good article and worth a few considered points.

    The Beatles provide another clear point identified by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers that is long practice, good, or lucky, timing and underlying capbility.

    So to add to your point about focus I’ve been writing recently about the importance of focus to understand market pull, rather than idea push.

    Dyson is a great example of someone who has created a process of innovation within his organisation second to noe. A pre google google approach to innovation in his company.

    However don’t get carried away by a wildly successful industrialist. However many failures he has had don’t match the number I saw as an Insolvency Examiner!

    Final point is that if we are living in a time of rapid innovation the critical issue is to get the right partners, and understand how to cooperate with them. A partner is not just for Christmas!

    PS the split resulted in talented musicians and there are many who would say that McCartney and Lennon in their own way had as much an impact after the Beatles as during, Including Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages.

  2. Hi John,

    I just posted my own thoughts on the Beatles with IE – you can find the piece at http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2011/11/07/the-beatles-lessons-in-business-innovation/

    Happy to connect on Linkedin etc.

    Peter Cook

    Author “Best Practice Creativity”, “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll” and “Punk Rock People Management”

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