Entrepreneurs and business teams will often strive to create a “Minimum Viable Product” (or MVP) in order to assess whether their idea is worthy of continued effort and refinement. The problems arise when a project appears complicated and multi-faceted in a way that prevents the timely creation of the MVP.

What I particularly enjoy about leading business teams through my songwriting workshops is that, in a similar way, these executives and/or entrepreneurs are faced with the complicated and multi-faceted problem of writing a song with little or no songwriting experience. I’ve found that there are a few critical elements in my workshops that make the achievement of the MVP – in our case, writing the verse and chorus of a song – efficient and timely. I thought I’d take a moment to show how writing a song is analogous to – and great training for – creating an MVP.

Break Down the Problem
One of the best ways to work efficiently is to break down big problems into their component parts. Instead of simply telling a roomful of stunned executives that they’re going to write a song and leaving them to it, I take a few minutes at the beginning to explain that songs – like any complicated problem – are made up of metaphors, verses and choruses. Then, after I demonstrate to the teams how each of those elements work with both descriptions and musical examples, they are much better able to dig in and write their own songs even though mere minutes before they’d never done it.

Use Expert Guidance
While it would be great if everyone in the world were good at everything, that’s simply not realistic. Instead of putting pressure on ourselves to know every part of the issues we’re confronting, it’s often better to allow an expert to guide the process so that we can bring our intelligence to bear effort in more efficient ways. By acting as a metaphorical guardrail for my songwriting business teams, I’m there to provide timely information and to make sure they’re making progress without going too far afield.

Enforce A Time Limit
As obvious as it sounds, sometimes arriving at a solution more quickly simply requires working more quickly. Given that my workshops are between sixty to ninety minutes, my teams don’t have the luxury of taking their work home or thinking about things for several days or even hours. The time limit requires everyone to think and act quickly which has the unexpected benefit of preventing overthinking. It’s been my experience that with bright, motivated people, their first instincts are often more on target than they think. And, of course, remembering that we’re going for a “minimum viable product” and not a GRAMMY-winning song – although you never know – helps, too.

The MVP
All of this to say, I’m convinced that taking teams through the process of writing a song during one of my workshops is a metaphor – and great training – for getting to an MVP in a timely and efficient way. Taking moderately overwhelmed non-musicians who have never written a song from zero to finished song in ninety minutes is not only great fun but should also serve as a reminder that we’re all capable of great work even in new and unfamiliar territory.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

This post is an excerpt from my book, The Reason for the Rhymes: Mastering the Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs

“The leader of this team has been skeptical all day, they’re pretty much afraid of him and they do whatever he says. Oh, and before this job he was a prison warden for almost twenty years.”

That was the last thing my liaison said to me before she introduced me and I walked up on stage in front of a team of senior executives at a Fortune 500 company who had no idea I was about to ask them to write a song.

As I explained to the team who I was and why I was there, I kept an eye on the faces in the crowd. Generally, when I tell a group of business people that I’m going to get them to write a song, I get a mixture of responses from nervous laughter to disbelief to confusion but the team leader – let’s call him “the warden” from now on – could have been playing high stakes poker for his lack of facial cues.

I spoke for about twenty minutes laying out the ground rules but no matter what I said, the warden remained stone-faced. I’ll admit I was getting a bit concerned that there was no way we were going to make a connection.

Then, as I broke up the group into smaller teams of six to write their songs, I noticed that – as predicted – the team the warden was on was deferring to him as they began writing their song’s lyric. I checked in several times nudging them in this direction or that to help them refine their message but still there were no outward signs from the warden of anything but a businesslike desire to get through yet another “exercise.”

In my songwriting workshops, once the teams have written the lyrics to their song’s verse and chorus, I ask them what genre they think their song should be. Country? Blues? Pop? Jazz? When the warden stated that he’d envisioned this song as a heavy metal ballad in the style of the Scorpions, I got my first indication that maybe there was something going on beneath his stoic facade. As I started playing chords and creating a melody for their song, it was like someone flipped a switch and – truly out of the blue – the warden became animated, engaged and totally immersed in what he and his team were doing.

If ninety minutes earlier, someone had told me that this taciturn business executive would be up in front of his assembled colleagues enthusiastically singing his newly written 80s-style heavy metal ballad, it would have been my turn to be skeptical.

The power of songs to challenge, transform, communicate and connect is equal parts inspiring and humbling. It’s why I write songs and why I now teach others to do the same.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s try a short experiment. Bring yourself back in your mind to the summer after your senior year in high school. You’re driving, the radio is playing and your favorite song comes on. If you were to hear that song right now, my guess is you’d be back in your car and every one of your senses would be alive with the emotions and memories of that time. For me, it was Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” which I’d performed in a talent show with some friends earlier that year. The acoustic guitar riff that signals the start of that song can still – over thirty years later – put me back in Memphis in that long, sticky summer before I headed out west for college. Still don’t believe me? Go to YouTube, find your song and listen. I’ll wait… Now that you’ve done that, I’m almost certain I don’t have to tell you how powerful songs – and songwriting – can be.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

This “Five Questions” blog post, features the CEO of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, Jane Allen.

1. What was your biggest concern/fear prior to the songwriting workshop?

The fact that creativity is not my strong suit.

2. Can you describe how it felt to write your song?

It was a lot of fun.

3. What was it like hearing the music added to your lyrics?

It was interesting to hear how the music just flowed and aligned with the lyrics.

4. How did songwriting make you think differently about your particular topic?

That people view the topic with different perspectives and how that all came together to get the song completed.

5. What is one of the things from the workshop that you’d most like to share with someone else?

It was a great team building exercise, it allowed people to express their individual thoughts and then watch people come together to get the song done – all while having fun and without feeling uncomfortable – definitely recommend. 

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

By definition a metaphor is simply “a thing that is representative or symbolic of something else.” That sounds simple enough but what often gets overlooked is the magic that happens when you attempt to represent your original idea or problem in with its often dry, prosaic wording with something more visual and emotionally compelling. All of a sudden, new doors open and ideas, angles and solutions tend to present themselves where there were seemingly none available before. It is the unassuming metaphor that works as a skeleton key to creativity and a reimagining of your concepts or ideas. Here’s why…

Metaphors are a reminder of our common humanity
At work, we can get so wrapped up in being efficient and productive that our focus narrows to the point of excluding alternate ideas and approaches to problems. This can be a good thing if the problems and solutions are clearly defined. When it comes to innovation or sticky, intractable problems however, this narrowness of focus can be detrimental. Metaphors and their accompanying emotional energy remind us that we’re not simply cogs in a corporate machine but, rather, humans looking for ways to make life better for others and, ultimately ourselves. Metaphors have the power to do that. In my workshops during the pandemic, we explored the idea of “working remotely” and used metaphors like being adrift in lifeboats, lost in the forest, in a long-distance relationship as well as many others which instantly brought humanity back into the discussion of remote workplaces. Metaphors are powerful stuff.

Metaphors work with your heart as much as your head
Much like the emphasis on productivity and efficiency that is prized in the workplace, clear “thinking” is often – and rightly – thought of as a positive trait. However, sometimes it takes clear “feeling” to unlock solutions that the intellect can’t uncover on its own. Metaphors with their rich, personal imagery and sensory cues, find a way to touch us and change our thinking to feeling which places us in a new, creative space to look for solutions or alternatives to the way things are currently done. For example, a group of airline executives decided to examine “coordinating disparate teams” through the metaphorical lens of a flock of geese flying south for the winter. That shift in perspective added the elements of survival and caring for each other along the way to an otherwise rather dry business problem making it more compelling and solutions more meaningful.

There are countless metaphors for every issue or idea
The beauty of exploring ideas and problems through their metaphorical equivalents is that there are an almost endless number metaphors for any given idea. As I mentioned above, you can look at the concept of “working remotely” using metaphors as divergent as a tray of ice cubes, foxholes in a battle and even the old TV gameshow “Hollywood Squares.” Each metaphor brings a new set of images and thoughts all of which provide a more well-rounded approach to exploring any and all ideas.

Conclusion
I’m assuming you’ve heard the expression that “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Well, to continue that particular meta-metaphor, the metaphor itself gives you more than just a “hammer” to explore your problems so that you’re better able to come up with new and refreshing solutions.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

In the next of “Five Questions” blog post, please welcome VP of Communications at Forte and Quora mastermind, Dushka Zapata.

1. What was your biggest concern/fear prior to the songwriting workshop?

Before the workshop began I worried if I could even write a song. During the workshop I felt supported by both Cliff and other participants so the experience was stress free and all fun.

2. Can you describe how it felt to write your song?

Writing a song felt like thinking more about how things feel, rather than how to solve or fix them. 

3. What was it like hearing the music added to your lyrics?

Hearing music added to the lyrics of the song we wrote felt like everything came to life. Maybe what I need is for someone to add music to everything I do throughout the day.

4. How did songwriting make you think differently about your particular topic?

Thinking about how something makes me feel, versus how to fix or solve it, felt like I was giving myself more room – it felt like a gift to myself.

5. What is one of the things from the workshop that you’d most like to share with someone else?

This workshop is lighter, less of an effort, more interesting and less scary than I anticipated. I encourage everyone to give it a shot.

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

So much of the ultimate success of any creative/innovative endeavor is about having the patience and persistence to try again when early efforts don’t deliver expected results. Nowhere is that more true than in the collaborative process. Being a great collaborator is anything but a given. As always, I’ll use myself as the case in point.

Let go of your control
When I moved to Nashville in the early 90s, I had already been songwriting and performing for about five years by myself. What that meant was that I had an established – albeit not totally polished – approach to my music and songwriting process. However, I kept hearing again and again that co-writing was the way to go and, curious about the process, I began to dabble in a few co-writes. Unfortunately for my collaborators at the time, I was much too attached to my way of doing things and that left little room for true collaboration. I like to describe my first few co-writes as “writing songs near people.” Not good.Collaboration

Play to your strengths
It wasn’t until I co-wrote with a songwriter who was strong-willed enough to convince me to listen to his ideas, that I began to understand what true collaboration was about. My melodic sensibilities are much like my singing voice…fine. My melodies were fine. In other words, they weren’t that great. However, this particular co-writer was a gifted melody writer and the more we worked together the better my songs became. It took me a while to understand that while writing lyrics came easily to me, my songs only came alive when I paired my lyrics with great melodies. Once I realized this about myself, I was able to find collaborators who were great melody writers and the overall quality of my songs increased dramatically.

Take risks
The other part of co-writing that took me a little while to get comfortable with was being willing to suggest seemingly ridiculous ideas on the road to what would ultimately be a well-written song. Learning to step away from my careful – often too careful – and methodical process of songwriting and into the world of messy, quirky, unfinished and downright weird ideas was when my songs began to shine. Being willing to appear foolish in front of my songwriting peers, while difficult at first, has become easier and yielded amazing results.

Conclusion
Having built my entire career on songwriting collaboration, it’s easy for me to see now how valuable collaboration can be. But it wasn’t always that way. Opening up my creative process to another person was a slow and bumpy journey but one that, ultimately, has been worth every awkward, frustrating moment. Collaboration isn’t guaranteed to be seamless but by giving yourself permission to make mistakes and let go, you’ll get to the good stuff.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

In the next of “Five Questions” blog posts, it’s my distinct honor to introduce you to my friend, Diana O’Brien, the Global Chief Marketing Officer of Deloitte.

1. What was your biggest concern/fear prior to the songwriting workshop?
My concern was twofold…

a. Would my entire team be embarrassed and see the activity as foolishness?

b. If my boss, our then CEO, knew we spent money on this, would he see it as non-value added?

2. Can you describe how it felt to write your song?
I felt empowered and more creative than I imagined; I think my team felt the same

3. What was it like hearing the music added to your lyrics?
Proud!

4. How did songwriting make you think differently about your particular topic?
I don’t think we saw the issues we were wanting to address differently, rather we felt more emboldened to address them together.

5. What is one of the things from the workshop that you’d most like to share with someone else?
We all learn from new things, the songwriting workshop is a fun and interesting way to challenge yourself and your team to grow.  Music has universal appeal but, more importantly, the team activity is a beautiful method engaging both heart and mind which grows your organization’s capacity for innovation as a team.

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.