Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 1. let others name it

The term 'leitmotiv' describes a theme or motif, either melodic or harmonic, which is associated with a particular character, feeling or event within a Wagner music drama. Interestingly and significantly, this term was not promoted by Wagner but primarily by one of his supporters, Hans von Wolzogen.

Wolzogen's contribution was small but not insignificant. He has been remembered over the centuries for this one influential word, which has enabled Wagner's music and ideas to poke through into people's everyday language: 'leitmotiv' has become a widely used term for describing anything of significance that recognisably recurs over time.

When people can take hold of an idea, analyse it and then give names to the things they find there, they begin to gain some feeling of investment in and ownership of it, which motivates them to explain, champion and support it using their own words, labels and terminology. This enables them to communicate their meaning in a committed, clear, accurate and understandable way: a way that those on the receiving end can easily appreciate and assimilate into their thinking and practice.

So, allow others to analyse your idea on their own terms and use their own terms to describe what they find. 

And watch your idea recur, spread and develop amongst them.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 13. encourage people to identify with the vision and motivations of the innovator

Previously, I described how transforming Wagner's music from a perceived life-threatening toxin into an invigorating tonic encouraged people to listen to and support it. 

The success of this transformation owed much to the fact that people were encouraged to get to know the creator of the tonic and personally identify with him: a case of trust and admire the man and trust and admire the music.

This was achieved through the written word. Wagner wrote about not only his own works but also his wider vision for the future of art and music. (Click here to see a list of Wagner's writings.)

From today's perspective, some of the things he has to say are at best dubious and at worst racist. At the time they where written, however, their overall effect was to encourage curiosity which led to interest which, for some, gradually became an identification with and attraction to the man himself.

This effect was very marked within late 19th century America, where many aspiring business leaders began to see Wagner as 'the embodiment of the American Dream' and therefore a person to identify with and emulate within their own spheres of influence.

More recently, Steve Jobs created a similar effect with his globally broadcast and distributed Apple presentations. During these presentations Steve Jobs not only talked about his company's innovations and inventions but also shared his personal vision for the future of technology and the impact it should have upon the world.

Many aspiring business leaders, seeing Steve Jobs up close and somewhat personal through his widely available videos, began to identify with and be inspired by the man, and this encouraged ever-increasing support for Apple's innovations and inventions: as with Wagner, it was a case of trust and admire the man and trust and admire the innovations. 

So, like Wagner and Steve Jobs, make a point of writing and talking not only about your innovations but also more widely about the personal visions, beliefs and values which drive you on and influence your wider thinking and actions.

Give people the opportunity to identify with the motivations of the innovator and watch it make the popularity of the innovation grow.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 12. personally, physically and directly pass the ownership of your unique knowledge and insights to others eager to take it

The 19th century conductor Leopold Damrosch was an ardent supporter and promoter of Wagner's works. He invested his entire professional life into developing a deep and practical knowledge of Wagner's music and how to conduct it.

Then, as he was struck down by pneumonia and his life was fading away, he used his remaining strength and last breaths to pass on the personal, and at the time unrecordable, details of his approach to conducting Wagner's works.

Like the steps of a ballet, the moment to moment movement and techniques of Damrosch's conducting could not be completely captured by written words or sketches. If they were to be taken and owned by someone else Damrosch would have to pass them on personally, physically and directly.

More than this, they would have to be passed on to someone eager to receive and use them.

Walter Damrosch, Leopold's son and also a conductor committed to Wagner's works, fitted the bill. During the last days of his father's life Walter sat by his father's bedside and eagerly took ownership of the personal knowledge and insights gained from a life time of being up close and personal with Wagner's music.     
Ideas and innovations cannot stand alone; they do not have an independent, self-sufficient life. They need people to understand and support them in countless subtle, often not easy to capture or define ways. If these people and their support become scarce or disappear so too will the idea or innovation.

During our lives most of us will gather and own uniquely valuable knowledge and insights which help us get to grips with and sometimes support new ideas, innovations and ways of doing things. Often, our most valuable insights are the most difficult to capture or record formally.

If we feel it is important for new ideas and innovations to survive and thrive, we must be willing to sacrifice ownership of our unique insights and knowledge about them. We must also realise that our most valuable insights and knowledge, because they are often difficult to capture or record, can be the most difficult and challenging to give away. They require that we make a determined effort to pass them on personally, physically and directly to those whom we feel are most eager to take and use them.          


Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 11. eine handlung!

Wagner did not call his music drama Tristan und Isolde an opera: he called it 'eine handlung', which is German for a drama, a plot or, most significantly, an action.

This straightforward, practical choice of words provides us with a glimpse of how Wagner viewed the creative process. To him, being creative was about not merely thinking and reflecting but also making and testing: creating a physical impact upon the world (or at least his audience), looking at the results and making changes and refinements.

He wanted to change musical and dramatic practice so built a theatre, Bayreuth, within which he modelled, tried and tested his ideas. He wanted to write a major work based on the story of Tristan and Isolde so composed fully realised and performable songs, the Wesendonck Lieder, to capture and refine his thoughts.

So, like Wagner, remember that innovation is about not only thinking and reflecting but also doing, trying, testing and refining.

It is 'eine handlung': an action

Monday, 25 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 10. continuously introduce and adapt

It is often overlooked that innovations recognised as valuable or even great can fade from popular consciousness over time.

Paradoxically, it is some of the most high profile and awe inspiring innovations that can be most prone to fade: their almost mystical or legendary status giving them a rarefied aspect that distances and then wipes them from the everyday person's everyday life. Think about the Apollo moon landings; consider the supersonic airplane Concorde; reflect upon the ground breaking skyscrapers within the elite business districts of the world that no one looks up at any more.  

Supporters of Wagner and his music were certainly aware of this danger, and they took steps to address it. They continuously introduced Wagner's music to new generations of audiences and found ways to adapt it to changing habits and needs.

For example, during the early 1930's (long after the initial introduction of Wagner's works) Leopold Stokowski arranged, conducted and recorded what he called 'Symphonic Syntheses' of many of Wagner's operas. These came at a time when performances of Wagner's operas were on the wane and there was a danger they might fade into the mists of half-remembered musical history or, at the very best, become a high class side-show for a self-styled Central European musical elite.

These Symphonic Syntheses could be performed in the average local concert hall. They usually gave the vocal lines to the strings or some other instrument and, importantly, their self-contained and carefully structured nature provided a satisfying listening experience that could be broadcast far and wide over the radio and distributed through recordings.

Leopold Stokowski successfully introduced Wagner's music to new audiences by effectively adapting it to people's lives and listening habits, including those habits encouraged by new technology.

Wagner's works did not retreat into a half-remembered golden age of music but gradually caught up with and came within reach of people's daily lives (or at least their radios and gramophones).

Today, Wagner's operas (and Leopold Stokowski's Syntheses) are performed and broadcast around the globe.

So be aware, like Wagner' supporters, that valuable or even great innovations can easily fade and be forgotten. Plan for the long-haul and work at continuously introducing your innovations to new people, and find ways to adapt your innovations to the circumstances and technologies that are changing the way people use and interact with them.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 9. do something concrete and obvious that gets a reaction and eventually encourages change

Wagner put the action and narrative of his music dramas above all else; an audience was not to be distracted from the action unfolding upon the stage.

How best to make this happen? How best to make sure audiences and performers got the message?

Wagner did something concrete and obvious: he redesigned and rebuilt the orchestral pit, hiding the conductor and orchestra from view.

This caused some extreme reactions. On seeing the newly constructed pit which would hide him and his orchestra from view, Auguste Vianesi (the first Music Director and Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, New York) demanded that it be demolished and replaced with a traditional space which put his conducting front and centre of the action.

This was duly done, but merely one year later Vianesi was gone and a pro-Wagner conductor (Anton Seidl) had replaced him.

And the hidden orchestral pit had been reconstructed!

Doing something concrete and obvious that initially caused a negative reaction eventually resulted in, what was for Wagner and his supporters, a positive change.

What concrete and obvious things can you do to ensure people 'get the message' about your idea or innovation? If what you do is concrete and obvious enough it will get an initial 'knee-jerk' reaction, which is likely to be negative. Be prepared to wait a while. If your idea is a good and useful one, initially unfavourable reactions may well transform into lasting and positive change.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 8. turn a toxin into a tonic

For many concert goers and music critics of the later 19th century, Wagner's music was considered toxic. 

The complexity of his works, their extreme emotional intensity and their long duration were thought dangerous to both body and mind. 

For those looking for the toxic qualities of Wagner's music there seemed to be convincing 'evidence'. The first tenor to sing Tristan in the music drama Tristan und Isolde died after only 4 performances. His opera singer wife, who was cast as Isolde opposite him, was distraught. In fact, she was so psychologically scared by the experience that she never sang again and was mentally unstable for the rest of her life.

Then, the American conductor Theodore Thomas realised that these apparent toxins could, if given to the right people, become tonics for body and soul.

Anyone needing to feed off emotional intensity; anyone needing to cope with complexity and enhance endurance: surely these people would benefit from a properly administered dose of pure Wagner?

The young nation of America had just such people: the up-and-coming business entrepreneurs (mainly men), who provided the vision, vitality, commitment and determination that was powering America into the forefront of the latter 19th century and the century to follow.

Wagner's music was transformed into a tonic which could 'saturate the human system, stimulating and revitalising weary entrepreneurs'.

So, like Theodore Thomas, seek to turn toxic ideas into tonics. How could their apparently poisonous traits result in benefits for a specific group of people?