Bebop Your Way to Creativity and Innovation
By Guest Blogger Deirdre Reid, CAE 

Music comes and goes, yet some old classics can still get you dancing around the living room. However, in the association world, old tunes don’t always play so well in the new reality. You can’t rely on “the way we’ve always done it” when change is a constant and affects the way you and your members do business:

  • Social, mobile and other emerging technologies are changing the way we connect, work and find resources.
  • Younger generations often have different expectations for the membership experience.
  • For-profit organizations are making inroads on associations’ traditional territory.

The need to evolve is there, but what if the budget isn’t? That’s where creativity and innovation come into play.

John Kao, a jazz musician and “one of the world’s leading innovation authorities,” wants to rescue the overused word “innovation” from meaninglessness. At ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference, he used jazz improvisation as a metaphor to move us from just “getting innovation” to “getting innovation done.” In between playing jazz interludes on the stage’s grand piano, Kao gave us new hooks from jazz on which to base the practice of innovation.

“Jazz is a mental attitude rather than a style.”

~Bill Evans

Innovation is more likely when it’s part of your organization’s culture.

  • Does your organizational culture tolerate failure, messiness, and uncertainty?
  • Are you and your board open to hearing new and different voices, perspectives, and opinions?
  • How comfortable are staff and members with proposing ideas that are against the norm? Are those ideas shot down? Or explored?
  • Is “the way we’ve always done it” assumed to be the right way or are you open to new ideas?

Innovation comes in many guises. Some associations talk about setting aside an innovation fund for pilot programs. But Frank Fortin at the Massachusetts Medical Society was eager to first take on less sexy, but crucial, foundational tasks, like cleaning data, that would pave the way for bigger steps.

“Tomorrow you’ll wish you had practiced harder today.”

~Tommy Smith

Kao told us again and again that innovation is a capability. He likened it to jazz improvisation of a standard. In both cases creativity is applied for a purpose – to create value. The only way to build that innovative capability is to practice, practice, practice.

“Play the notes you don’t know.”

~Miles Davis

Associations and boards are used to being the authority. It’s difficult to try on a beginner’s mind, but, Kao says, that’s what you need to do to be innovative. Start with a clean slate, free of preconceptions. Admit you don’t know and that’s okay. When you have this attitude, it’s more likely new ideas and approaches will emerge.

“If you don’t make mistakes you aren’t really trying.”

~Coleman Hawkins

That’s a tough sell. Nobody wants to be the one in charge when mistakes are made. The secret is to find the sweet spot – the appropriate amount of risk.

Jazz is a balance between structure and freedom, sheet music and wildness. But, in the best jazz, there’s an underlying grammar. Once you understand the theory, you can throw the rules away and improvise. What rules or “best practices” can you throw away?

Do you have a wood shed? For jazz musicians, the wood shed is a safe place to experiment out of the spotlight. It’s a place to make and learn from mistakes – a lab of sorts where new ideas can play out and bear fruit away from the harsh glare of critics.

“You can read all the textbooks and listen to all the records, but you have to play with musicians that are better than you.”

~Stan Getz

Play up. Surround yourself with those who challenge your skills and comfort zone, who stimulate your brain, and take you in different new directions. Feed your creativity by feeding off the creativity of others.

“We are limited only by our imaginations.”

~Bill Frisell

We’re all innately creative. Unfortunately that creativity has been beaten down by years of educational and professional conformity. It’s time for you and your staff to discover and tap into your inner creativity. How? Find ideas and inspiration here:

How do you exercise your creative muscle?

AENC member Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer who played a mean alto sax in high school jazz band.