Business lessons from David Bowie

DavidBowieDid you manage to make it to the acclaimed ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London? Bowie is an incredible talent, combining undeniable song writing ability with outstanding creative flair. He is a true innovator, whose fame has real momentum through constant reinvention. Whilst the days of the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane may be over, Bowie is arguably as well known now as he has ever been.

Whilst exploring the exhibition my mind turned to thinking about what business might be able to learn from him. In a world where pop stars increasingly come and go, David Bowie’s (talent based) fame has endured. This post takes a look at why, and what lessons business can learn.

Industry Disruption

The music industry has been heavily disrupted over the last decade. Digital innovation has forced industry giants to adapt their business models as new entrants have driven structural change in the market.

But it’s not just the music industry in which the pace has changed. I’ve used this visual before, but as it so succinctly demonstrates, we live in a world where it’s not just pop stars that come and go: perhaps it is a crude measure, but the average lifespan of a company in the US S&P500 was 75 years in 1957, by 2012 it was just 15 years.  Tim Kastelle points out that it is evidence like this that Rita Gunther McGrath has used in her new book The End of Competitive Advantage to argue that traditional competitive advantage is dead: companies can no longer assume that they will enjoy such a long stay at the top.

So, from a man who has stayed at the top for so long, what can we learn? During the exhibition I discovered the key elements of Bowie’s own competitive advantage which appears far from dead.

Creativity

A poster board in the exhibition explained that all artists take ideas from the world around them [but] few spread the net so wide or create something so new with what they find”. Bowie visits galleries all over Europe, reads books, watches films, engages with the avante garde and loves music, not just his own. He seeks out new ideas and finds inspiration all around him.

The poster board went on to explain that his skill in filtering [all the ideas] to find exactly what he needs is the major contributor to his success. Unlike many stars he never bows to the expectations of the record company or sticks to a winning formula. For Bowie that’s the moment to move into something else”.

The takeaway: what are you doing to foster your own creative thinking and that of your employees? Are you following convention or seeking to redefine it?

Collaboration

To realise his vision, Bowie works with choreographers, artists, photographers, designers, producers and other musicians. He shows a particular talent in finding the right voice to express what he wants to say and apparently strips out any material that does not support his vision. He understands that he cannot achieve his vision alone but must work with others who contribute their own specialisms.

The takeaway: are you collaborating effectively or even at all? Have you found the right people with the necessary skills to take you and your business where you want to go?

Innovation

Innovation is the glue that binds together Bowie’s talent.  We know that innovation is a process not just an idea, and Bowie has demonstrated time and time again his ability to follow that process from conception through to execution. Influenced by the writer J. G. Ballard, Bowie considered himself an ‘astronaut of inner space’, “an explorer of psychic areas, not convinced that all human endeavour is progress. [Bowie] thinks pop needs an overhaul and that the medium is the message”.

The Takeaway: innovation as a process is about more than just good ideas and requires many elements to come together. What do you need to bring together in your business in order to drive innovation? Are you an astronaut of inner space?!

Conclusion

For the curators of the David Bowie exhibition, he “set a benchmark for creativity and innovation in the medium”. That seems very hard to argue with. But to achieve this Bowie understood that he had to pull different elements of his ‘art’ together: “it has to be 3 dimensional… I’m not content just writing songs”.

David Bowie remains as influential now as he ever has. How will you ensure that your business develops and maintains it trajectory? Creativity, collaboration and innovation are the three lessons that I have drawn from Bowie for this post. Uncannily, they are commonly promoted business attributes. If you have read all the way to the end then you are likely a fan of the man so I will leave you to think about what else business can learn from him.

This post is also available on Innovation Excellence to which I am a regular contributor. I was ranked No. 12 Innovation Blogger for 2013.

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