Once upon a time

In my second year of college I started an independent study course with an associate professor to learn music composition.  I’d had years of study, and I figured I knew just about everything there was to know about the theory of music by that point.  I regularly spent hours in the practice room catacombs writing through-composed rock operas that would one day fill arenas of people all singing along.  I didn’t really need composition lessons, but I figured, what the hell, I’m good at this. I’ll get an assignment day one, turn it around in an hour and spend the rest of the week writing my own stuff.  Easy A.

On day one, I showed up and the professor asked me to play some of my music, so he could understand where I was in my development as a composer.  I played a handful of my latest hits.  These were pieces that all of my friends loved.  One was raucous and loud, with a catchy melody and wild bluesy piano riffs.  One was sweet and quiet, and guaranteed to make every girl’s mother cry.  Some were upbeat and fun, and some were boisterous and stirring.  I chose these pieces to show off my range of styles and emotions.

The professor was very complimentary.  It clearly wasn’t the kind of music he wrote or listened to, but he could appreciate my passion and recognized that I had talent.  He thought about it for a moment and said, “Okay, here’s your assignment for the week, I want you to write a melody.”

“Great, yep.  Any particular style?  Time signature?  Key?”

“Nope, I don’t care about any of that. But I want it to be a single stand-alone melody of at least 32 bars.”

“Cool, uh huh.  Got it. Can do.”

“Using only two intervals.”

I swear someone in the other room pulled a needle across a record at that very moment.

“Excuse me?” I was dumbfounded.

“I want you to write a melody of at least 32 bars using only two intervals for next week.  And I don’t care which two intervals, but once you establish two intervals you have to stick with them.”

For those of you without any musical training, an interval is the difference or distance between two notes in a scale.  For example, if you know the melody to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.   The first Twinkle is on one note.  The second Twinkle is on a note exactly a Perfect Fifth above the first note.  Little is a Major Second above the second Twinkle.  It would be as if I got to the word Little and could only use Major Seconds or Perfect Fifths for the rest of the melody. In the case of this particular example, I’d be fine until I got to the word Wonder, then all hell would break loose.

I did nothing but work on this ridiculous melody for the entire week.  It didn’t make me feel anything.  It had no soul.  It was all tension and no release, and it made me and everyone who heard me writing it, uncomfortable.  When the assignment was complete, it was unusual and I didn’t love it, but I didn’t completely hate it either.  There were passages that I actually really liked a lot.  They should have ended somewhere else or gone slightly higher or lower one point or another, but otherwise it was an interesting bit of music that I never would have written in a million years if I had had all intervals at my disposal.  And it met the requirements of the assignment.

Lesson from a Former Life #2:  Limited options force creativity and innovation. 

I see a lot of people in innovation roles looking for point solutions.  They have problem X, they need a tool that specifically and explicitly solves problem X. It must be inexpensive, attractive, stupid easy to use, and solve the problem in exactly the way that the CEO/Partner/Manager wants it to be solved.

That’s not innovation, that’s procurement.

Every problem that lands in your innovative lap can be solved by some combination of your existing resources, time, and money. Innovation begins with an inventory and the creation of a resource map. You must first understand what tools and resources you have available (your intervals), what they can do, how they can integrate, who knows how to use them, how they are licensed, etc.  As problems come in, you should be able to overlay them on your resource map and fairly accurately provide a cost and timeline for solving the problem completely in-house.  Often this will not be the most attractive option, but it will provide a good baseline for what you can do with existing resources.  Even if the baseline solution you come up with is completely ridiculous and you don’t want to share it with anyone outside of your immediate team, the exercise is invaluable. It makes you look at your toolset in a completely different light. You’ll have a much greater understanding of your internal capabilities. You may find solutions to problems that you haven’t yet been presented. And occasionally, you’ll find a simple solution that uses only the resources you already have at your disposal.  While it may not be incredibly sexy, it might just be good enough.

And that’s innovation.

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Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is Principal at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy specializing in cross-platform solutions and support.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for more than 15 years. In 2015, he was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, he was an Innovation Architect, Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, a Fashion Merchandiser, and Theater Composer, among other things.