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.
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.
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.
Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.
As a songwriter, vulnerability has been my stock-in-trade for the past thirty years. Plumbing my emotional depths to write a song that is both moving to me but and those who listen to it is critical to achieving my goal of connecting to others through my music. So you can imagine my surprise – when I began teaching business teams to write songs – to the resistance the typical corporate executive displays to making themselves vulnerable in a work setting. I thought I’d take a moment to list a few simple reasons why vulnerability – like creativity – is just as essential for business as it is for writing songs.
You get to what’s real
If your guard is constantly up while you’re at work, it will be almost impossible to get to the heart of any discussion or project. It is only though taking the risk of making your true feelings known that you’ll make any progress toward the deeper understanding that is the hallmark of truly resonant results. On top of that, vulnerability – in an environment where it’s encouraged and well-received is be both freeing and exhilarating.
It helps you connect with each other
Teams can be sources of genuine power and productivity within an organization. That being said, a team doesn’t function well together just because they’ve been put together. It is only through the willing vulnerability of making the individual members of the team known to each other genuine bonds are built and real progress is made.
It helps your products and services connect with the wider world
The creation of products and services that are designed to fill – or anticipate – a need in the marketplace is equally dependent on vulnerability. Without the courage to express how a given product or process truly makes you feel, there is a high likelihood that they won’t make a true connection with their market. Whether consumers or businesses can articulate it or not, vulnerability (aka sincerity) can be felt on a fundamentally human level and its absence will leave your intended audience cold.
Let me be clear. There is a time and place for vulnerability. Going around with your heart constantly on your sleeve will be exhausting not only for you but also for your colleagues.
For example, my favorite expression to describe songwriters is “emotional nudists” and, as you might imagine, that isn’t always appropriate. However, thoughtful and deliberate vulnerability in the context of teams, decision-making and innovation will pay greater dividends than you could ever imagine.
Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the act of co-writing a song is a perfect analog for the kind of collaboration critical for innovation. What I thought I’d do in this post is break down one of my more unusual – and fruitful – co-writes. This way, I can lift the curtain a bit and show you what a real-life songwriting collaboration looks like and connect it to the kind of collaboration used in the innovative process.
Shortly after I moved from New York City to Sonoma, California, I was brought in to help Grateful Dead drummer/percussionist, Mickey Hart, complete songs for his album, Mysterium Tremendum. Mickey and I were introduced via our mutual connection with his producer on the project.
I could tell this particular co-write was going to be a bit different from my typical fare since I was given a very specific set of rules before I even showed up at Mickey’s recording studio in Sebastopol, California.
First of all, the musical bed – basically ALL the instruments and percussion – was essentially complete and already recorded. All that remained was to incorporate a lyric and melody that would sit “on top of” the accompaniment. In other words, there would be no gathering around a piano or guitar and singing lyrical and melodic ideas to see what worked.
Then, I was provided with literally reams of poetry written by poet and longtime Grateful Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter. I was told in no uncertain terms that I could not add a single word. Instead, I would be allowed remove words, repeat sections and even move things around to come up with a coherent lyrical story that also had a repeating chorus.
And, finally, once Mickey (who was present for the entire process) approved the completed lyric, I was tasked with writing a melody that fit with the new lyric and sat comfortably on top of the existing musical accompaniment.
I have to say, working in the presence of a musical icon whose career spanned six decades was a total thrill. Not only was he an engaged and enthusiastic collaborator but he was also a genuine pleasure to work with. We spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon putting the finishing touches on our song “Cut The Deck.”
The beauty of this co-write was that each person involved was invited to play to their strengths and, consequently, help the others complete a project that was better than any of us could have hoped to do on our own. That is the magic and the intrinsic value of collaboration in any field. Leveraging the individual strengths of your team members will undoubtedly result in the kind of innovations in which everyone can take pride.
Find out more about Cliff’s songwriting/innovation workshops for business teams.
To accurately summarize what it means to pursue a career in songwriting, my favorite expression is undoubtedly, “writing songs for the money is like getting married for the sex.” What this expression rather indelicately—but succinctly—communicates is that unless you’re writing songs because you’re genuinely moved to do it, you’ll be disappointed.
To be clear, even the most financially successful songwriters write hundreds and hundreds of songs that never earn a single cent. The reason the most committed songwriters get out of bed in the morning and spend their days writing songs has very little to do with the paycheck and almost everything to do with the fact that they truly can’t imagine doing anything else. If and when the “money” does arrive, that’s great, too, but it ultimately represents more of a confirmation that they’re on the right track as opposed to the specific attainment of a financial goal.
No matter whether you’re a songwriter or not, your work is simply more fulfilling if you’re committed to your cause. Of course, salary and bonuses are a motivation in the working world but when it comes to putting in the long hours and materially contributing to the success of a specific innovation or an entire business, it’s the involvement with—and success of—the cause itself that will sustain your effort.
In this example, it’s not so much a particular song that I want to use to illustrate my point but, rather, the story of the writing of a song and my subsequent relationship with my co-writer, Spencer Day.
Spencer and I were set up to write by a record executive friend of mine after he’d signed Spencer to a development deal with Universal Records. By way of explanation, a development deal means that the record label likes the potential of an artist but isn’t ready to commit the necessary finances for a full album deal and, instead, will provide enough funding for some demos of songs and a showcase performance in order to convince the record company decision makers.
On November 5th, 2008, Spencer showed up at my recording studio on West 37th street in midtown Manhattan. We chatted for about twenty minutes as we got to know each other a bit and then, over the next few hours, we proceeded to write a song called “Till You Come To Me.” The song tells the story of a lovelorn protagonist and is set in a film noir version of a New York City summer. We were both happy with what we’d written and it became clear to me right away that not only was Spencer a gifted artist but also that he and I had great songwriting chemistry.
Spencer demoed the song and included it in his showcase for Universal Records just a few weeks later. At that point, it seemed like we were off to the races. Then a couple of days after his showcase, Spencer called and, just as quickly, what had appeared to be an auspicious beginning came to a grinding halt. He explained that the execs at Universal Records decided to end his development deal and drop him from the label entirely. He then said that since he no longer had a record deal, he would understand if I didn’t want to write with him anymore. I could only imagine how crushingly disappointed he was and I had no intention of adding to that disappointment.
I explained to him that I believed in our songwriting partnership and, as far as I was concerned, we would continue to write songs whether or not he had a record deal. To Spencer’s infinite credit, he picked himself up and opted to finance his own recording project and release his album independently. And this is where things got good. While Spencer was recording his album, there was a record executive from Concord Jazz named Nick Phillips in the next studio over who, unbeknownst to Spencer, had been listening to the songs coming from Spencer’s studio. Not only did Nick like what he heard but he ultimately signed Spencer to a record deal with Concord Jazz. On top of that, that very first song Spencer and I wrote twenty minutes after meeting each other was the song that the new label chose to release as the album’s first single. “Till You Come To Me” climbed the jazz charts for fifty weeks and ended up at number one.
While I wouldn’t exactly describe this approach as a business plan, it certainly serves as a strong reminder to me that if my head and heart are in the right place, the rest will end up taking care of itself. And it certainly has.
Find out more about Cliff’s book “The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering The Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs.”