Be Prolific and Focused: Innovation Lessons from the Beatles

Tim 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 opportunties.

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 focussed. As you might know, the Beatles albums have been released on iTunes this week. They have sold about 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 shuch 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 focussing 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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5 thoughts on “Be Prolific and Focused: Innovation Lessons from the Beatles

  1. After watching the PBS American Masters episode on LENNONYC last night, about John Lennon’s years in NYC (mostly after the breakup of the Beatles), I would add “be authentic” to the list of lessons learned about innovation from the Beatles … or at least that Beatle.

  2. On the other hand, if they hadn’t worked like maniacs, they might never have burned out and split up, and so we might today be looking back on a much larger catalogue of Beatles music from decades of collaboration.

  3. Thanks Stephen. I had overlooked that point. It’s important because it raises questions about sustaining innovation.
    Perhaps some innovators need to work manically to create the intensity the need to perform? What is better… to burn brightly and briefly or to smoulder? Your comment reminded me of a poem written for an Australian war journalist, Neil Davis, who had a brief but extraordinary life.

    So, if just one year is ever wasted,
    Even one day should it be never tasted,
    All fruits of one’s own life may seem quite sour!
    Should we maintain a conservative line,
    Like an ostrich pretending there’s ample time?
    Or live life as if in just one crowded hour?

    Thanks again for the comment. Very provocative!

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