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Innovation: Finding Inspiration With Bob Dylan

Published on
08 December 2016

How can companies that face innovation challenges find inspiration thanks to Bob Dylan, who was very much into radically transforming his art? Interview with Mark Smith, a professor of human resources and faculty dean at Grenoble Ecole de Management.

Mark Smith

"Innovation is not for the weak. There is considerable pressure in society and organizations to maintain the status quo. Bob Dylan was never afraid to break with the past—even when it already worked."

Can you elaborate on the connection between Bob Dylan and the business world?

For 50 years, Bob Dylan refused to be categorized. He was guided by the vision of what he wanted to do. He felt changing contexts and took the risk of losing part of his initial audience in order to innovate artistically. His first albums are characterized by the presence of a solo artist with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica.

But his fifth album offered both an acoustic side and an electronic side. It was the era of vinyl and he started building on the creative opportunities offered by electronic instruments. At the time, some of his fans didn’t appreciate the change. But it led to some of his emblematic albums such as Highway 61.

In the same manner, people didn’t suspect the need and impact smartphones would have. One company was able to detect this coming change. More recently, companies such as Airbnb and Uber have anticipated deep changes in our consumer society. This doesn’t mean we no longer need hotels or traditional drivers. But there is a profound change going on and they were able to build on it.

"To progressively adjust and improve the existing is more important than radical change." How does this statement fit with your previous commentary on anticipating radical changes?

Of course, radical change is sexy. But most of the time, improvements are done little by little. Most of the time, things work well and you simply need to adjust a little and bring small improvements to increase performance. By implementing radical change, you risk throwing out an idea before it has reached its potential. The impact on employees can be high and the human and organization cost can be too much to bear for companies. However, small almost unnoticeable changes can lead to improved products and performance, efficient systems, and perfect processes.

As an example you can look at Japanese production systems or the Team Sky in the Tour de France. For 50 years, Bob Dylan was a figure of continuous innovation. He is on a never ending tour since 1988, yet anyone who goes to a concert will know that his songs are rarely similar to those we love in his albums.

"Innovation requires you to consider a problem from a different perspective. Only by taking a step back, by observing things with a new point of view, or by leaving the usual path, can we advance."

How does this attitude fit in with innovative companies?

This attitude is represented by organizations that know how to take a step back and analyze their situation. Those that can look deeply at the roots of change. For example, you can see this with companies that allow their employees time to work on personal projects. Or companies where responsibility, creativity and autonomous thinking are encouraged. Such companies exist!

Another example can be found in transportation companies that have to meet changes created by online purchasing and a paperless economy. A large part of Bob Dylan's art is precisely about finding a new approach to creating a popular song by looking at it from a perspective that differs from other musicians. Even within a song, he has the capacity to present things in an innovative manner. Much like a cubist painting, we know what is at the top, bottom, left and right, but we also know we're partaking in a passionate story with emotions.

Innovation management according to Bob Dylan

  1. Defend a radical and courageous vision that goes against expectations
  2. Continuously adjust and improve processes, products and services
  3. Modify your perspective and look at things from a new angle
  4. Adopt an approach that is untraditional in order to encourage the discovery of new needs

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