How can a business foster a culture where innovation actually occurs? How does one create the environment in which new, actionable ideas flow?

The secret lies in challenging highly developed skills with a tolerance for – no, an embrace of – ambiguity.

Artists know this. Consider musician Miles Davis. He learned the trumpet as a child and played in school bands and orchestras before being accepted into Juilliard. He honed his talent with the help of the best teachers and conductors, developing competence and the beginnings of artistry. With that foundation, he intentionally challenged – provoked — himself and other musicians to stretch beyond the safety of what was expected, and he became an icon of jazz.

Jazz artists, like other innovators, practice provocative competence, which is the capacity “to create the discrepancy and dissonance that trigger people to move away from habitual positions and repetitive patterns,” according to jazz pianist, author, and management professor Frank Barrett.

Provocative competence builds the muscle of creativity, which in turn gives rise to innovation. New ways of doing things grow from new perspectives.

Provocative competence in marketing

In marketing, creativity gives rise to fresh designs, engaging content, and memorable branding. Employed with skill, these “innovations” result in increased name recognition, revenue, and customer loyalty.

Creativity enhances every other aspect of business as well. “Companies who are creative are more successful,” says Tucker Marion, director of the Master of Science in Innovation Program at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. In Northeastern’s blog, Marion cites a Forrester survey pointing to benefits that include increased revenue and market share.

How to nurture provocative competence in your business

Build a diverse team. A jazz combo isn’t all drummers. Recruit skilled team members with differing perspectives and strengths. An outside consultant who can bring fresh eyes and broad experience often provides the catalyst needed for creativity to flourish.

Reward failures. Yes, you read that right, failures. When people try something new, even if it doesn’t work out as hoped, recognize the courage to create. You will reward success as well, no doubt, but eliminate the fear of failure or it will defeat innovation.

Reframe projects as experiments. Expect both you and your employees to learn something from everything you undertake. If things become too predictable, intentionally change something up or set a stretch goal to get you beyond the known. A huge part of what consultants do is facilitate experiential learning in the context of the project at hand.

Default to yes. Try “Yes, and. . .” instead of “I’ve never seen that work. Why should we think it will now?”

A cynical attitude shuts down innovation. Jazz improvisation starts with the assumption that “a way can be found to make the situation work somehow, that there exists an opportunistic possibility to be gleaned,” writes Barrett in a Fast Company article, “If Miles Davis Taught Your Office to Improvise.” A good consultant will help a business find an innovative path around and through obstacles to their goal.

Share the solos. Jazz musicians jam together, but each also gets a turn to shine — first the pianist flies over the keys, then the clarinetist wails, then the guitar riffs, and so on. They listen to and feed each other. Innovative teams smoothly pass leadership as the moment requires as well. They have confidence in each other’s skill levels and realize that collaborative success is generous.

Business tips from the jazz world

Josh Linkner is a jazz guitarist, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist. He shared 11 tips from the jazz world for business leaders in an Inc. article. Here are three:

Practice, practice, practice. Only highly skilled musicians are good improvisers. In your business, the more experience and skill you develop, the better prepared you will be to adapt to and lead change. Look for the same in any consultant you work with.

Know your audience. Who will appreciate what? Will this crowd be open to avant garde, or is a little variation on old standards all they’ll want? As marketing advice, knowing your audience is spot on.

Be fresh or disappear. What can you change to delight and re-engage audience members, even while you keep the same theme? Without updates, anything we produce eventually turns into background noise, especially in today’s crowded and rapidly changing digital market.

How can you make provocative competence work for your business?

Is it time to shake up your own perspective to see what marketing innovations might emerge? Lumen Marketing and Communications can be just the consulting partner you need to help you see with fresh eyes. Contact us at 720-722-2987 or click the blue button below to request a meeting with our team.