Business and organisation development requires change.  Change requires agility, improvisation and rapid learning.  Where then do we go in search of excellence in these fields?  Well, we could look to business academics or a textbook for insights into best practice and so on.   However, in my experience, this ‘sport’ is one learned through experience and practice rather than from theory or a textbook.  So, I want to ‘take you higher’ by looking at the example of effortless mastery via the artist called Prince.  If you are not familar with his work, check out this video:

The name Prince is synonymous with improvisation, agility and rapid learning in music.  From classy pop classics such as ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ and ‘U Got The Look’ through to high class jazz, soul and funk, working with artists such as Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder and George Clinton.   It is Prince’s agility in terms of working across multiple genres that I want to turn my attention to in this article, as this is the core skill set behind becoming a true learning company.  Let’s examine the anatomy of Prince’s performance to discover his secrets.

Unlike many performers in rock’s monarchy, a Prince live performance is often different every night.  This is because he operates from a menu of 300 songs, which the band may be called upon to play at any time.  Many other artists prefer to perfect and then repeat their set night after night.  How does Prince achieve such amazing levels of agility?   Here are three insights for being fast, nimble and continuously innovative:

1.    Blood, Sweat and Tears – Improvisation requires Perspiration

To reach mastery in improvisation paradoxically requires intensive detailed preparation.  What looks like a seamless performance is the result of many hours of preparation and Prince is meticulous in this respect.  In business this has been referred to ‘the 10,000 hours effect’ by Tom Peters and, more recently, Malcolm Gladwell.  The idea of prepared spontaneity contradicts what some so-called creativity and innovation gurus say on the subject, yet we constantly see parallels across many industries.  Sloppy creativity produces sloppy results in many businesses.

2. Improvisation needs structure

Prince uses significant elements of structure to achieve a seamless performance.  Although his performances look completely rehearsed, many are loosely coupled jams.  To achieve this level of performance, Prince leads the band using a series of codes that signal musical changes which the whole band understands.  For example, when he says ‘on the one, bass,’ the whole band stops playing except the bass player on the first beat of the next bar.  This allows the band to change direction at extremely short notice within the piece and yet, to the casual observer it looks completely rehearsed.  Leaders need to be adept at developing and utilising shared symbols, signs and codes.  Compared to most businesses, this is a remarkable achievement.  Imagine what would happen if the drummer had to send the guitarist a memo to request a change in tempo or direction within the performance? Imagine also what would happen if they had to hold a focus group to seek approval from the bass player and their family before asking the other members about the set list.  The smart HR leader finds simple but highly effective ways to communicate change in ways that all understand, sometimes through symbolic action more than formal written communications.

3. Improvisation requires mastery of your discipline

Prince is a master of fusing musical genres and influences outside his core style to innovate.  This enables him to still exert a major influence on artists of the 21st Century, such as Lady Gaga, Beyonce and many others.  In business, the ability to cross mental boundaries is the parallel skill set, as exemplified by companies such as 3M and Google.

For more on becoming an agile, ingenious and innovative company check out the book “Sex, Leadership and Rock‘n’Roll”.  In my work with pro musicians, they also draw a distinction between Prince’s level of risk taking on stage versus other artists such as Celine Dion, who aims for a perfect, polished performance which can be reproduced night after night.  Both approaches are valid and rest on thorough preparation if you want to reach out for excellence.  An object lesson for all.  Perspiration is much more important than inspiration if you want to be an agile company that learns in the heat of the moment.

To finish, here’s another clip of Prince working the band: