Four Chords to Innovation

| | General Leadership

Recently I read a post by Heather Fenoughty, an internationally respected film, tv and theatre composer and sound designer. She suggests that if you have writers block when trying to compose that you find a four chord progression and play with it to make it your own. Since you can’t copyright just four chords you can avoid “a crisis of conscience”. Apparently even Bach did this!

I have come to believe that there really is no such thing as original thought, only original expression. So when I read her post and watched the accompanying video what I saw was a perfect demonstration of this in action. Click here to go check it out. It plays a series of songs that are completely different yet use the same four chords.

A great way to develop your leadership is to train yourself to think in new and innovative ways.

But that does not have to mean coming up with a never conceived of before idea. Those are far and few between. What it does mean is bringing a new point of view to an existing problem or opportunity. Sometimes it is about connecting the dots just a little differently. Other times it involves introducing a new “dot” to consider. It can also help to draw ideas from an experience, or something you read that has nothing to do with your day to day work.

Consciously seek to look at your equivalent of the same four chords and ask yourself and/or your colleagues:

1. How could I//we look at this differently?
2, What new element could I/we introduce that could give us new options?
3. How might I/we reassemble the elements we have to create something new?
4. How could I/we use what I/we learned or observed from another experience to this situation?

Your view of any problem or opportunity is by it’s very nature unique. You are the only person with your life experience, knowledge and wisdom.

The question is are you leveraging your unique perspective or are you busy trying to think like everyone else?


Enter A Comment

Mike Henry   |   15 February 2009   |   Reply

Susan, nice post. I agree that we all need to try different angles to existing thoughts. It helps being a contrarian or at least trying to take the opposing view. The longer you think on an idea, or a chord progression, the more ways you’ll think to use it. That’s similar to how George Washington Carver came up with all of the uses for the peanut; focused thought and research.

Richard Reeve   |   15 February 2009   |   Reply

A fabulous and accurate analogy that really rings true to me. While I do believe in the possibility of a truly creative thing, I think they are few and far between, even for the most gifted. Thanks for the great link as well.

prissyperfection   |   16 February 2009   |   Reply

A very thought-provoking post. I think you’re right too. There is very little new under the sun but the opportunity to noodle around with something so that it takes on a new dimension is always there.

Hmmm…I can hear the rusty hinges of the doors to my mind opening 🙂

tobeme   |   16 February 2009   |   Reply

I love this. You are correct, are we leveraging our unique perspective or are we just going along with the crowd or are we standing still as we beat our head against the wall trying to come up with that rare new idea/chord?

We have so much to offer from our perspective, however to bring our perspective to light we mush exert courage, the courage to not be take seriously, the courage to fail, the courage to be laughed at and most of all the courage to succeed!

Jay   |   16 February 2009   |   Reply

With every post you write, your leadership glows more and more. This is very thought provoking, and I bookmarked so I can read it again tomorrow, because it seems to have that flavor that only the great post have that does not quite hit you with its full strength until you tasted it again in a different light. Thank you Susan for always putting your leadership and heart out there for us!

Jerry Roberts   |   16 February 2009   |   Reply

I heard Tom Peters once say, “If two people think alike, one of them is unnecessary.”

Most of the Web is duplicate content.

What if you could only post to a blog if your idea first passed the “freshness” filter?

What if it cost us money to make a post? How much of what we write would WE pay for?

Thanks, Susan.

John Philpin   |   16 February 2009   |   Reply

The three chord trick – with the occasional ‘relative minor’ – is oft’ the starting point for a new guitarist – if they are really good they cycle back and come back to this:

Six of one a half a dozen
Black guitars and plastic blues
Hide behind a wall of nothing
Nothing said and nothing new
4 Chords that made a million
You belong there on the cover
You are the emperor in new clothes
A man who thinks he owns the future
Will sell your vacuum with his prose
4 Chords that made a million
And then a moron with a cheque book
Will take you out to lunch who knows ?
He will tell you you’re a saviour
And then he’ll drop you like a stone
4 Chords that made a million
And I have tried and I have died
Trying to get through
But in the end I can’t defend you.
4 Chords that made a million


Howard Stecker   |   17 February 2009   |   Reply

Your post reminds me of the story about John Nash the Princeton math professor who developed an original idea to help solve issues around equilibrum in markets (“Beautiful Mind” starring Russel Crowe). While his mind was challenged he developed a unique idea which solved a very complex problem. Was it truly unique or did he just see the problem from a different vantage point which allowed for the solution to emerge? Most problems we deal with today have a solution, but many times we cannot see the answer because we don’t allow ourselves to look at all of the angles. Maybe we should more often find four chords before locking in our solution. Just think of the new possibilities!

Liara Covert   |   17 February 2009   |   Reply

Lao Tzu tells us that “to lead people, learn to walk behind them.” One understanding is to use one’s power to lead life with love, not force. Empower people to learn for themselves, do not show them the way. Lao Tzu also cautions that use of language leads the mind astray when a person allows words to distract one from the natural processes of reality. A process of awakening is ongoing.

Henie   |   19 February 2009   |   Reply

I love this, Susan!!!!!!:~) BRAVA!!!!! :~)

“We all see the same rainbow but at different hues of the spectrum!” ~Henie~

semazza   |   19 February 2009   |   Reply

Thank you all for your comments and for thinking with me here.

@MikeHenry The many uses of the peanut is a great example of innovation by working with what is right in front of you. And taking the opposing view, even if it isn’t your personal view can be so useful.

@RichardReeve I do believe in the possibility of a truly creative thing yet even the most remarkable ideas don’t usually come from trying to create a truly creative thing!

@GwynT We all have a bit of rust – that’s why we need each other to bring the oil can 🙂

@tobeme (whose name I hope to learn someday soon) Courage is most certainly required!

@JayFrawley thank you for your kind & encouraging words

@JerryRoberts Great quote. Interesting how not challenging the status quo thinking seems to keep us safe when it actually makes us obsolete and in the the blogging world invisible.

@JohnPhilpin thanks for the lyrics. At some point you and I need to have a conversation about how fractiles apply to management /leadership theory.

@HowardStecker A Beuatiful mind – fabulous movie and great connection to this conversation. Perhaps we need to bring more discipline to challenging whether we have considered thinking from more angles. All too often we lock on the easy solution and it is not always the one that will make the biggest difference.

@Liara Innovation can certainly not be forced. And by consciously “walking behind” as leaders we can benefit from the perspectives that we don’t usually hear because they are waiting for us to give the “right” answers.

One final thought…perhaps leading is not about having the answers but rather being able and willing to tap into the perspectives available to find the optimal way forward.

Connie Hagelin   |   19 February 2009   |   Reply

Leadership…what resonates the most for me is having the courage to always put forth honest dialogue. This can isolate the truth-bearer but in the long run, I feel it grinds on people in a way that produces an effect. The truth is our strongest force and wil eventually bring forth the conversations that need to be. It is sometimes in our rawest revealings that we inspire others to be likewise. It is not about getting people to agree with us, but rather getting people to put forth their own, honest opinions. Then and only then can we have a dialogue.

Elaine Fotiadis   |   20 February 2009   |   Reply

For more on this thinking that there are no “new” ideas” check out a book by William Duggan called Strategic Intuition. His theory is that no great idea is original; That great ideas (e.g., Google, Apple – Macintosh computer) come about by combining elements of things that already exist. He also asserts that brainstorming meetings typically don’t produce great ideas – but that somebody comes to the meeting with an idea already in mind. He continued by stating that great ideas come when your mind is most relaxed (falling asleep at night, in the shower, driving to/from work). I can attest to that!

Ross Strader   |   21 February 2009   |   Reply

Susan this is a great post. The paralysis of looking for the original idea threatens the opportunity to contribute your expression.

I’m glad to find your blog. I look forward to learning from you.

Ken Kaufman   |   21 February 2009   |   Reply

“Your view of any problem or opportunity is by it’s very nature unique.”

I believe this to be true! And another great quality of a leader is someone who values the unique ways others approach problems and opportunities and they surround themselve with people who have similar values but very different perspectives on problem solving.