In any organization, collaboration is a key to both improved productivity and heightened creativity. In other words, we all know the importance of effective collaboration but, oddly, it’s not a skill that is singled out for improvement. The assumption is that since the stakes are high and collaboration is known to be helpful, we’ll all collaborate and collaborate well. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Collaboration is based on the bedrock principles of trust, courtesy and support but in the heat of battle these can go out the window to the detriment of everyone involved. When I lead businesses and organizations through the process of learning to write songs, what I emphasize beyond the improved ability to innovate and greater creative confidence is the power of effective collaboration. I’ve listed a few things to remember if your hope is for a positive and productive collaborative experience.

You don’t have to do it alone

In the early days of learning my songwriting craft, I took on far too much responsibility in the co-writing process. Because songwriting was so important to me, I rarely took the time to consider my collaborators’ suggestions. This was a mistake that resulted in lackluster songs and uninspired co-writes. Over time, however, I learned to step back and make room for my co-writers’ suggestions. This worked on multiple levels. First, my co-writers felt valued which immediately improved their enthusiasm and secondly, their contributions were often significantly better that anything I could have come up with on my own. It takes a certain amount of self confidence – and even bravery – to open up your work to others but the rewards are undeniable.

Avoid perfectionism 

There’s nothing that kills momentum on a project more quickly than perfectionism. In songwriting, squeezing too hard on any one line of the lyric can stall out the entire process. I’ve learned that the best approach is to write a “good enough” line and keep moving forward with the understanding that I can always go back later once the song is complete and continue to edit and refine. All this to say, collaborations work best when no one is too precious about any one thing. We all know how important the work is but unless and until we can gain a little momentum, it will be hard to make any significant progress. 

Make sure everyone feels safe (and even expected) to contribute

Remember to keep an eye/ear out for the quiet members of your team. Everyone has different ways of working and if the process isn’t open to any and all contributions you could be missing some of the best. Since it’s rare that any of my business clients knows how to write songs, everyone – no matter what their position in the organization – is on a level playing field and is expected to contribute. What I’ve found is that brilliance can come from the least likely contributors and it’s only because they’ve been given the space – and safety – to speak up that their contributions are heard and add beautifully to the process.

Conclusion 

Collaboration is as much an art as it is a tool for good business. Taking the time to improve your collaborative skillset will pay multiple dividends. Not only will your collaborations be more productive but you’ll also enjoy them a lot more. Even though the projects your team will face are certainly serious work, I’ve found that the best efforts come when everyone is relaxed and enjoying the collaboration. I owe my most significant songwriting achievements to great collaborations and I wish the same for you.

 

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

It’s been clearly recognized that teams with members from diverse backgrounds and experiences are the most likely to succeed in innovative and creative areas. That being said, this diversity can add a layer of complexity given how important it is for teams to quickly establish a common ground from which to execute. In my close to a decade of working with teams in areas as diverse as banking, computers and biotechnology, I’ve discovered several constants when it comes to bringing teams together as quickly and effectively as possible. 

1. Take them out of their comfort zones

One of the great levelers when it comes to teams made up of members not only from different organizational silos but also from different levels of seniority is to take everyone out of their comfort zones at the same time. When I explain to my teams that over the next hour, they’ll be writing (and singing!) a song, it’s safe to assume that without prior songwriting experience, everyone from the CEO to an administrative assistant will be temporarily at sea. This discomfort, albeit intentionally brief, is designed to make sure that everyone understands that they’re all beginners and working from the same blank slate.

2. Give them an “impossible” project

For almost all of the organizations and teams with whom I work, songwriting is not only “uncomfortable” as I mentioned above but it can also feel practically impossible given the lack of my participants’ musical experience. What this does so beautifully is that it makes it abundantly clear that the team members will have to rely upon each other to get through the project. When I debrief with my workshop participants after the songwriting workshop and ask them what they were most scared of when they heard they’d be writing a song, one of the most common responses I get is that they were afraid they’d have to do it alone. Team members demonstrate a palpable relief when they’re told they’ll be working together. This sets the stage for a fruitful and evenly distributed collaboration.

3. Set a tight deadline

In my experience, one of the most destructive elements to team unity is perfectionism. If even one member is dead set on making things perfect, it can either discourage or silence the remaining team members. By setting a tight deadline to complete their “impossible” task, I don’t leave room for my teams to write a “perfect” song. This allows everyone to feel like they can participate without fear that their answers won’t be perfect as they’ve only got a few minutes to come up with a minimum viable product. I’ve found that this tends to unite the individual members of the team in a way that taking a full day (or even a few hours) would not allow.

Conclusion

Teams are fickle entities. When everything is running smoothly, the results can be significantly greater than the sum of the team’s individual parts. However, teams made up of diverse members have to find a way to gel before they can hope to succeed. Even the most well-intentioned team members will always need a way to find common ground with their peers. Hopefully, by applying the above tips, your team will achieve its full potential.

 

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

Over the years, my work with business teams has brought me into the realm of highly seasoned and successful executives. It’s no surprise to me why these accomplished people are where they are. They’re smart, tightly focused and in control. These are all exceptional, even critical, qualities for leadership. However in order to stay ahead of the inevitable changes that come for any and all businesses, it’s also essential that from time to time even these high-functioning leaders reawaken their often long dormant beginner’s mind. This is precisely what I do for them when I teach leadership teams to write songs in an exploration of their most pressing challenges and goals. I’ve listed some of the powerful benefits of employing a beginner’s mindset below.

Beginner’s mind prevents perfectionism

While I’m sure it would be nice to be perfect, it’s an elusive goal. The danger in striving for “perfect” is that progress and productivity are sacrificed at the altar of perfectionism. What beginner’s mind offers is a chance to free ourselves from that pressure since we’re new to whatever challenge or idea we’re exploring. Being a beginner is the ideal way to approach innovation challenges given that there’s no need to find an immediate solution. Innovation is often about the willingness to accept and learn from a chaotic situation without feeling the need to fix it/make it perfect right away.

Beginner’s mind awakens curiosity

Once we’ve been in business long enough to become experts in our fields, there’s significant inertia preventing us from being open to new approaches and ideas. We’ve worked long and hard to find approaches that work for us and deliver the expected results. While this is true, it’s only effective if the world around us stops changing which, alas, it never will.  A beginner’s mind rekindles our innate curiosity in a way that can help us develop important new skills and approaches we might otherwise have avoided.

Beginner’s mind provides new solutions by avoiding familiar approaches

One of my favorite quotes (paraphrased) is Abraham Maslow’s “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Senior leaders get to where they are by having very effective “hammers.” While, there is no doubt that there are many situations in which a hammer is the perfect tool, there are times when a hammer will cause more problems than it solves. We need to turn to a beginner’s mindset to see the issue in a new light. While this approach can be uncomfortable, leaving our expert comfort zones from time to time is not only a good idea but also an ideal way to add new tools to our problem-solving collection.

Conclusion

There is a belief that the status quo is safe. If we just keep doing the things we’re doing – which are working just fine thank you very much – then all will be well. Unfortunately, all our hard-won expertise can fall by the wayside when the world changes around us. Embracing a beginner’s mindset, in spite of all the time and effort we’ve spent becoming experts, is a strategic hedge against the inevitability of change where we’re all beginners even if it’s against our will. Better to build our beginner’s mind “muscles” on our own terms so that when we’re forced to use them, we’ll be ready.

 

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

The beauty of the status quo is that everything is clear and predictable. The danger in the status quo is that the world refuses to stand still and without a willingness to embrace change, things can quickly become stale and, for example, business teams can lose their motivation. In my work with teams over the past decade, I’ve discovered several highly effective ways to break through the inertia of the status quo to recharge and motivate listlessly performing teams.

1. Scare them a little (just a little)

One of the best ways to set the table for motivating a team is to take them out of their comfort zones. When I tell a group of executives that they’re going to write (and sing!) a song, I can safely say I’ve taken them beyond what they typically encounter at work. After this brief moment of shock, however, I’m quick to set up a psychologically safe environment where everyone feels equally encouraged to contribute. The idea behind scaring people a little at the beginning is that it grabs their attention and all other distractions tend to fall away in service of the task at hand. Then once the task is accomplished and the fear has dissipated, a blend of relief and exhilaration steps in to take its place.

2. Give them a challenge they’ll need each other to complete

The power of teams is in their combined ability to achieve. When a team is demotivated, it often has to do with forgetting the inherent power of collaboration. Asking an individual who’s never written a song to do it on their own would be a recipe for confusion and likely a certain degree of resentment. However, bringing a team together to contribute their individual experiences and skills to the challenge results not only in great lyric-writing and a good amount of laughter but also in an elevated sense of accomplishment. Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding a team how well they’re capable of performing when they rely upon each other.

3. Bring in someone from the outside 

One of the things I enjoy most about working with business teams is that when I’m brought in, I rarely know anything about the internal dynamics of that day’s team. This enables me, as the facilitator, to treat everyone equally without fear of straining a work relationship by not showing the proper deference. In order to get a team back up and functioning well, each participant needs to remember that they need the others to be at their best. By being immune to any and all office politics, an outsider, such as myself, can help level the playing field and improve team morale.

Conclusion

Teams are the lifeblood of productive and profitable organizations. However, they are not a “set it and forget it” endeavor. Teams need to be nurtured and challenged in equal measure in order for them  – and the individual members – to thrive. When a team’s motivation flags, it’s a clear sign that attention must be paid. Motivation, more than the skills of any individual team member, is critical to a team’s – and ultimately a company’s – success. The above recommendations are designed to help bring demotivated teams back up to their high-functioning best.

 

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

When it comes to successful creativity, there is very little room to indulge in stereotypical “artistic” behavior. The reality is that flighty, irresponsible and disorganized creative geniuses rarely have any significant success. Being organized in your creativity yields measurable benefits above and beyond the obvious ability to find a pair of matching socks. Below are a few important reasons why it’s worth your while to stay organized as you pursue your creative growth.

1. It’s good for business

I feel like I end up saying this a lot but if you’re hoping your creative efforts will translate into financial success, then you’re not just a creative, you’re a business person. The grim reality of businesses is that they don’t run themselves. Staying organized will only make your business (and your career) run more smoothly. Everything from being on time to appointments to keeping a current backup of your computer hard drive counts. To make it more personal, creative ideas are precious and losing them because you’re disorganized feels like an avoidable catastrophe.

2. Inspiration can accessed

The difference between having a creative idea on the rare occasion when all the planets line up versus accessing your creativity every day comes down to being organized. Keeping track of your inspired ideas in a way that allows you to go and find them, will allow you to more consistently create even if the magical inspiration isn’t on a predictable schedule.

3. You’ll avoid missing opportunities

Having an organized folder arrangement on your computer will enable you to find – and exploit – your creative ideas quickly and efficiently. On a personal note, my first big break as a songwriter almost didn’t happen because the artist was in the studio and couldn’t find the demo we’d sent them. Because I was able to quickly find and email an mp3 of the demo, the artist cut the song in the studio that afternoon. I can’t imagine how disappointing it would have been if I hadn’t been able to find the song until a day or two later when the opportunity had come and gone.

4. You’ll be more productive

So much of being effective in your creativity is about getting the maximum amount done in the limited time you have to do it. If you’re constantly rooting around your office or on your computer looking for where you placed your last creative project, you’re not making the kind of progress you could be. Staying organized can take you a long way towards being productive and, ultimately, successful.

Conclusion

It should be understood, of course, that there is no substitute for actively pursuing your creativity. Unfortunately, there are many, many people capable of great creative ideas. The way to differentiate yourself is to not only create but also keep yourself and your ideas organized in a way that will allow you to take full advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. By improving your odds of success, staying organized might be the deciding factor in your next successful creative idea.

-Cliff

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

Although I have made my living for over thirty years as a songwriter and musician, I have to admit that I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with creativity. There are several reasons for this and also several reasons why creativity will – in spite of everything – always have an important place in my career and life. I thought that by confessing that creativity is complicated even for this full-time creative, I might shed some light on why as adults we’re often resistant to creativity and why we should strive to incorporate it into our lives regardless.

Creativity messes things up

Let me start by saying I truly love order. I can be described – only somewhat tongue in cheek – as the kind of person who wakes up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and makes the bed. For me, creating order is not only soothing but also my way of establishing focus in my work and life. One of the problems I’ve found with creativity is that it’s messy. The act of creation involves trial and error (lots of error), tension, vulnerability and no small amount of discomfort. And for a guy – true story – whose kindergarten teacher told my mother that I didn’t want to finger-paint because I didn’t want to get my hands dirty, this is a serious challenge. And yet I’m still drawn to creativity. The way that I reconcile this is by looking at creativity as messing things up so I can then put them back together again but better.

Creativity is scary

Even though I’ve been writing songs for over three decades, I still feel a slight tremor of fear every single time I sit down to write. So I can only imagine what it must feel like for someone who doesn’t explore their own creativity with any regularity. However, leaving your comfort zone is supposed to be scary. What I mean by this is that the fear that you feel when confronting creativity is exactly what you need to break out of your old, familiar routine. Also, I’ve found not only with myself but even with business teams that when I take them through my songwriting workshops, the fear is temporary. Once you’re absorbed in the creative process, everything else falls by the wayside in service of your creative effort.

Creativity takes effort

And, speaking of effort, it’s not an easy thing to begin a creative project of any kind. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Finding Flow” refers to the effort it takes to begin any creative endeavor as “activation energy.” The difference between flopping down in front of the television and actively engaging in a creative exercise is significant and ofter enough to discourage even the most intrepid creatives. However, like getting past your fear, once you’ve exerted the effort, the rewards far outweigh what it took to get started.

So, let’s talk about those rewards…

Creativity adds meaning to life

A life built on maintaining the status quo and avoiding challenges may seem appealing at first glance but, in reality, will be almost unspeakably dull and unsatisfying. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to become a painter or dancer in order to have a meaningful life but the act of having a hobby, telling a story or raising a child (one of nature’s original creative endeavors) adds meaning and texture to our lives. We need creativity to become the fullest expression of ourselves.

Creativity fuels productivity

Productivity – that coveted skill that all businesses require – is based on having something to “produce.” So without the creative act there’s really nothing to be productive about. In my experience, I’m always much more motivated to be productive when I’ve created something I’m proud of that I want to share with the world whether it’s a new song, workshop or book. In the end, productivity is in service of creativity.  It can be helpful to remember that productivity for its own sake is an empty exercise.

Creativity leaves a legacy

I’ve written about this before but it’s important to repeat that creativity isn’t the domain of a select few “anointed” ones but, rather, something that we are all born with. All of us are responsible for adding our unique creativity to the collective whole. Our reward for this is that we leave a little bit of ourselves behind. This means that a part of us will continue even after we’re gone. Whether it’s a made up story for your child or a song people sing, your creativity will outlast you and that is a powerful reason to brave the discomfort and fear that are only temporary.

-Cliff

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

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across bright, motivated executives who – when asked – say they’re not creative. Similarly, I don’t know how many times in my talks, workshops and writing I have said that we are ALL creative. I believe this to be true without exception. I believe that part of the problem when it comes to people downplaying or outright dismissing their own creative ability is the standard for what counts as “creative.”

Just as it feels like common sense to say that we are all endowed with a certain amount of creative ability, it also makes sense not to compare ourselves to the icons of creativity in various fields. In other words, it is reasonable to say that anyone can tell a story but not everyone is Stephen King. More importantly, we don’t have to be Stephen King to benefit from incorporating storytelling into our communication.

The reason I bring this up is twofold. 

First, by comparing ourselves to the exceptions (the genius, full time creative types), we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and – perhaps worse – discouragement. This is an unnecessary comparison and one that doesn’t do anyone any good. On top of that, just because you’re not Steve Jobs doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute to the creativity of your team. Teams need creativity – and creative awareness – at all levels in order to function at their best.

Secondly, in a business context, even if someone on your team IS brilliantly creative, that feels like a risky way to incorporate creativity across a department or entire company. For example, that brilliant creative might have a creative slump or even leave your company all together. Might it not be better if everyone were to explore their own creativity so that at the very least they can understand – and contribute to – the creative conversation? I’m not saying that everyone has to contribute equally but I am saying that putting all of the creative weight on just a few shoulders could cause problems down the road.

I’ve spent my entire working career in the arts and while there are countless ways of finding and harnessing inspiration, there are also creativity-damaging behaviors to avoid. First on that list is comparing your creativity to the creativity of those around you. Better to explore your own creativity, celebrate the creativity of your peers and idols and know that there is room for all creativity.

-Cliff

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

The longer I spend guiding business teams through the process of learning to write songs, the more I’ve come to understand the surprising and powerful benefits. In a previous article, I enumerated some of these benefits which include learning to think differently, leaving one’s comfort zone and improving the ability to communicate concisely. This article will pick up where my last piece left off and go even deeper into the exceptional business advantages that learning to write songs provides.

1. Learning to write songs demonstrates that we are all creative

It is my firm belief that we are – all of us – creative. That being said, as we progress through life there is an emphasis placed on productivity that, unfortunately, comes at the expense of exercising our innate creativity. So much so that by the time we’re established in our careers (unless your career is in the arts), our creativity has often been left to atrophy. By breaking down songwriting into its component parts and giving clear direction to a group of obviously intelligent – if a little uncertain – business executives, my songwriting workshop simply provides a road map to access the creativity that is already there in each one of us. It’s hard to describe the joy, motivation and increased energy that comes from a business team when they emerge from a songwriting session having proven to themselves that they are, in fact, creative.

2. Songwriting teaches us how to methodically access our creativity

It’s one thing to believe we are creative and another altogether to know how to access that creativity. What songwriting provides is a clear and predictable structure to explore ideas and communicate them to others. Above and beyond the final product, songwriting is a means of tapping into our creative selves consistently and repeatedly. And, like any craft, the more that it’s practiced, the greater the results and the benefits. The ability to access creativity will pay dividends far into the future as business challenges will always require a degree of creativity.

3. Writing a song helps teams get over a generalized fear of failure

Any time a team comes together to work on a project, there is a chance that the project won’t succeed in the way they would like. This is especially true when the project – writing a song – is something the team has likely never done. That is exactly the point. By demonstrating to a team that a daunting task like writing a song is something they can do together, my workshop reinforces the idea that facing your fears can – and most likely will – have a successful outcome. This increased confidence carries over into any and all projects the team will face going forward.

4. Songwriting is a shortcut to the emotional crux of any issue

Often in the workplace, there is a reluctance to face the genuinely human and emotional aspects of the work we do. The fear is that we will appear weak or ineffective when, in fact, the opposite is true. Having the strength to include what makes us all connected as human beings (i.e., our emotions) gives a team a deeper and more robust connection. By exploring any idea through the lens of songwriting, a team adds emotion and humanity to what otherwise might feel like yet another clichéd business challenge. One of my favorite examples of this was the group of airline executives I worked with who instead of simply putting together a PowerPoint Deck about coordinating their disparate teams, wrote a song using the metaphor of geese flying south for the winter. This way, the idea of true teamwork and survival became a tangible part of the vision they were trying to achieve.

5. Learning to write songs takes seasoned executives back to a beginner’s mindset

By presenting a business team with a challenge in an area where they lack experience, learning to write songs will encourage seasoned executives to go back to a beginner’s mindset. Looking at new and genuinely creative ways to approach and solve problems is a skill that will endure long after the songwriting exercise is done. It’s a reminder of the unexpected and lasting benefits of examining challenges with a clean slate instead of the standard – and unfortunately overused – problem-solving approaches.

Conclusion

There you have it. Another five reasons why learning to write songs is a great decision for business teams. And perhaps I shouldn’t assume everyone knows this but above and beyond the clear and compelling business value, learning to write songs is also a tremendous amount of fun. 

-Cliff

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

As a professional songwriter for the past thirty years, I know exactly why I write songs. I can’t help it. It’s my way of making sense of the world around me and, very fortunately, also the way I make my living. However, for the past eight years I’ve been helping business teams enhance their creativity and solve problems by teaching them to write songs. Understandably, there is no small amount of reluctance by executives to do something so utterly foreign to them. To that end, I’ve put together a few compelling reasons why all business teams should learn to write songs.

1. Learning to write songs makes you think differently

I’ll begin by saying I’m a big fan of the Abraham Maslow quote, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Consider exploring your ideas and objectives through the lens of songwriting as a new “tool” in your problem-solving toolkit. By examining ideas through metaphor and the emotion-rich language of lyrics, you’re opening up a new way of approaching old or persistent work challenges which will lead to novel and innovative solutions.

2. Learning to write songs takes you out of your comfort zone

As human beings we naturally lean towards preserving the status quo. It’s comfortable and gives us the illusion of control. The reality, however, is that the “safety” of the status quo is anything but safe. We may not want to change but the world will change around us no matter what we want. Leaving your comfort zone in pursuit of a new way to solve problems and examine ideas is a good reminder that the real rewards and solutions exist in leaving the tried and true behind. On top of that, songwriting as a high challenge, high skill and clear objective practice helps business teams achieve a flow state which is, in and of itself, highly satisfying and profoundly motivating.

3. Writing a song shows you that you can do something “impossible”

For most people, the idea of writing a song can seem more like a magic trick or an impossible dream. But my favorite part of what I do with business teams is that I take smart people who don’t consider themselves to be creative and I give them the tools to explore and enhance their creativity. By breaking down the process of songwriting into its component parts, I show the team that songwriting is a craft that can be learned. When a team “does the impossible” and writes a song, there’s a tangible boost of confidence that carries forward and helps the team tackle other seemingly “impossible” issues.

4. Learning to write songs improves your ability to communicate

The beauty of the lyric writing is how it requires us to communicate only the most critical parts of our ideas and say them in a way that is both clear and memorable. While the verses of songs improve our ability to use image-rich language in the service of telling a story, it’s the chorus that teaches us the skill of distilling a message so that it not only makes a clear point but also does it in a way that people will want to hear. If communication is a muscle, then writing song lyrics is a serious workout.

5. Writing songs brings teams together around a common cause

There’s nothing quite like a challenge with a clear goal to bring a team together. Above and beyond exploring ideas and objectives, learning to write songs bonds teams around learning a new way to express themselves. The finished song (and every team I’ve ever worked with finishes their song) serves as tangible – and singable – proof that the team has rallied and done something they weren’t sure that they could do. It’s like a shot of jet fuel for team bonding.

Conclusion

It is highly likely that becoming a songwriter isn’t the reason you joined your current company. Regardless, I can promise you that using songwriting as a new way to explore ideas and improve your team’s creativity and communication will make you and your team better equipped to handle the challenges you face on a daily basis. Take it from a veteran of almost a decade of work teaching business teams to write songs. It works and it works well.

-Cliff

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

First of all, a note of sincere thanks for receiving – and reading – my blog posts up to this point.

To say that I love my songwriting work with business teams and entrepreneurs would be an understatement.

If you’d like to know more about how I can help you and your team enhance your creativity and solve problems, either email me or give me a call at 615-320-7233.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

-Cliff