How to Steal Like An Innovator

I’ve been obsessed with this video for the past couple of days:

The song is Nouvelle Vague covering Dance With Me by Lords of the New Church. It’s a great cover. The video is an even more inspired piece. Youtube user Luakabopper took the song and put it over this amazing dance sequence from Bande a Part (the movie after which Quentin Tarantino named his production company). The combination of a Bossa Nova cover of a new wave song spliced with new wave cinema is genius all the way around.

It might not be obvious, but this great video tells us a lot about innovation. Here are some ideas:

  • Innovation is about connecting ideas: I’ve always been fascinated by covers. When they’re done well, talented musicians take a good song and make it completely their own. This is combinatorial creativity. Taking an existing song, and combining it with your existing talent.

    Innovators connect ideas as well. In his controversial article on Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell says:

    The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution.

    John Gruber points out some of flaws in this argument, but the main one is that there’s no such thing as a clean sheet of paper. Connecting ideas is the fundamental creative act in innovation.

  • Innovation gets to the core of ideas: the key to making a good cover is to find the key part of the song you’re playing and focus on that. This is what separates the talented bands from the not so talented ones. There are plenty of cover bands playing bars all around the world that don’t do anything special. The just play the songs as closely as to the original versions as they can. The thing that is great about Nouvelle Vague is that they are extremely skilled at finding the the critical core of each song that they play.

    In his great post How to Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon included this picture:

    And he said:

    It’s often what an artist chooses to leave out that makes the art interesting. What isn’t shown vs. what is.

    In this age of information overload and abundance, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s important to them.

    This is true for innovation as well. The key to connecting ideas is to get to the core of the ideas that you are adapting. If you just copy an idea in its entirely, there’s no creativity involved, and no innovation. You must subtract to innovate through combination.

  • You can’t just copy ideas, you have to create ideas of your own: you might argue that doing Bossa Nova covers of 1980s punk and new wave songs creates more novelty than value, but I love the Nouvelle Vague. It’s definitely novel, but in their best songs, there is something fascinating going on – these songs are interpretations that genuinely add something good to the originals.

    This illustrates the innovation idea called absorptive capacity (Paul Hobcraft has done a great job of explaining the ideas behind absorptive capacity). The basic concept is that in order to absorb knowledge and ideas created by others, you have to be generating new knowledge and ideas yourself first.

    This is a critical point if you innovating through any form of collaboration. You don’t gain an advantage by collaborating unless you’re capable of developing and executing good ideas on your own.

So the key to stealing like an innovator is this: don’t just copy ideas, connect them. Connect ideas from the outside with the internal capabilities that you use to create unique value.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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3 thoughts on “How to Steal Like An Innovator

  1. Tim, thank you for inspiring me to purchase this song — now I have a new tune in my playlist for innovation! :)

    This post drives home for me the artistry involved in building new things out of existing whole pieces. I think it is easy to get paralyzed by the weight of “Innovation” when we are surrounded constantly by ways to move beyond what we see and to create something fresh out of other creations.

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