Kind of Blue: Pushing Boundaries with Miles Davis

Since it hit the airwaves half a century ago, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis has influenced the hearts and minds of jazz fans everywhere. Its songs became instant classics, and it has also converted many a nonfan to appreciate the music's subtlety and complexity. In a new business case, HBS professor Robert D. Austin and Carl Størmer highlight the takeaways for thoughtful managers and executives from this story of creation and innovation.
by Martha Lagace

Ask jazz fans the world over to name their favorite compilation, and chances are their response is Kind of Blue. With music that is sophisticated and sublime, spare yet complex, trumpeter and composer Miles Davis (1926-1991) reached dazzling new heights of creativity when the album was recorded in only two short sessions in 1959.

At the age of 32, Davis coaxed innovative ideas out of his players—among them greats including John Coltrane and Bill Evans—that took everyone by surprise. He also remade the industry, introducing longer, more contemplative songs like the now-classic "So What."

Since 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Kind of Blue, it's a good time to ask: How did he do it?

One of the answers is "radical simplicity," according to HBS professor Robert D. Austin and Carl Størmer, founding principal of JazzCode, a consulting and entertainment firm specializing in improvisational collaboration and communication in high-performance teams.

In their case, "Miles Davis: Kind of Blue", they reflect on the beauty of the music as well as the unusual story behind its creation. And they suggest that nonmusicians—such as managers who aim to spark and sustain innovation for competitive advantage—can learn a lot of new notes from Davis's example.

"The album Kind of Blue was also a commercial success—the most commercially successful jazz album ever, in fact, which makes it worthy of examination in a business context," Austin says.

Adds Størmer, "There are probably business benefits in relying on radical simplicity to free and empower employees in a similar way."

Our e-mail Q&A follows.

Martha Lagace: Miles Davis defied the critics who thought he had peaked with Milestones. With Kind of Blue he put aside his past success and strove for even greater heights. But what do his efforts for Kind of Blue have in common with business innovation?

Rob Austin: We conceived the case to get at questions about how the creative process "detaches" from past successes enough to leap to new levels of success. In product development terms, you might call this something like "jumping to the next S-curve."

By the "S-curve" we mean the pattern that new innovations typically follow when they are introduced. At first a few people, early adopters, take them up and use them (the relatively flat bottom of the S). Then more people jump on board, and the take-up of the innovation accelerates (the steep middle of the S). Finally, the innovation starts to saturate the market, as everybody who wants one gets one, or every product in the category comes to include the innovation (the relatively flat top of the S).

“Miles Davis forced the musicians to approach the music without any expectations or preconceptions, often by giving them minimal sketches and sparse instructions."—Carl Størmer:

Companies experience a lot of success on the steep part of the S-curve, but then need to figure out the next big thing as they flatten out at the top. Often companies that have become so geared around success from a particular innovation have trouble getting a new S-curve going. Artists do, too. People want to stay with the thing that has brought great success.

But there are some artists who seem to have a particular knack for moving on, jumping to new S-curves. These people—Miles Davis is one, but there are others, such as Pablo Picasso—seem to be willing to abandon past successes in the pursuit of something new and more exciting. They seem willing to disappoint their truest old fans—if that's what it takes to make something truly new. Miles had reached the pinnacle by playing and innovating in the bebop tradition. But in Kind of Blue he walked away from all that, in the direction of a very different sort of music called modal jazz. It's not a small difference. Listen to an example of each, and anyone can hear it. The case is aimed at trying to see how he did it.

Martha Lagace: What about the creation of Kind of Blue piqued your curiosity?

Rob Austin: A few things. The first is, as I've mentioned, that it was a dramatic break from his past, very successful style. How that break came about is interesting. Kind of Blue was also a commercial success—the most commercially successful jazz album ever, in fact, which makes it worthy of examination in a business context. Davis himself is a fascinating example of a "manager" of creative people and processes. His ability to nurture talent is legendary. Just about anybody who is anybody in jazz can trace some lineage back to "Miles University." Finally, the process that led to Kind of Blue is an example of pushing boundaries and taking experimentation right up to the edge of failure in the pursuit of something new; Davis pushed his musicians "to the edge," but he did it in a way that effectively managed the risks. This might be something we can learn from in business as well.

Kind of Blue album cover  

This year is the 50th anniversary of the release of Kind of Blue. And it still sells in huge numbers. Talk about a long tail!

Carl Størmer: There's an interesting question, too, about whether the seeds for your jump to the next S-curve are there in your past work, and how you might find and build on that. If you study Milestones, an album Miles made before Kind of Blue, you notice that the title track is a modal composition, a forerunner of what came into full bloom with Kind of Blue. How he found that seed, extracted it, played with it, built upon it—all fascinating stuff.

Also, Miles was on a trajectory, pushing the boundaries of bebop toward greater complexity in the music. He had a fantastic band, so nobody could take this trajectory where he and his band could. But when he jumped to the next S-curve, he actually turned around 180 degrees and went the opposite direction, toward simplicity—simplicity that empowered and freed his players to improvise and create, rather than pushing them to the limits of their technical mastery. He gave them some slack to work with, and asked them to do unusual things with it. It's interesting to think about and look at examples of companies that have the will to turn 180 degrees, of course, but also there are probably business benefits in relying on radical simplicity to free and empower employees in a similar way.

Q: Aside from inspired musical choices, what leadership decisions by Davis enabled this creation?

Carl Størmer: Davis was looking for ways to break out of the straitjacket of bebop. Even on Milestones it was evident that he was looking for something new, and that simplicity might be one way out of the current corner he'd worked himself into. Most of the songs on that album are based on a very simple blues structure. I also think he wanted to find ways to more fully realize the incredible potential of his team—John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, et al. How could he give them more freedom, more empowerment? Maybe he realized that playing easier material would in itself help emancipate the players—even if he was dealing with the best talent in the business.

I think the experience in Paris where he composed and recorded a film score for director Louis Malle (for Elevator to the Gallows, 1958) in a single night was important. There he might have realized that simplicity was one way to create great music in a very short time. Maybe he realized that this recipe could be improved further: get good songs, simplify them as much as possible, get the best players in the world, and force them to listen to the music by not telling them what to do.

Rob Austin: The "business" version of what Carl just said might be: get great materials, simplify the task down to its essential elements, put your smartest people on it, and force them to listen—to each other, to the interaction between the company and its customers, and to the market.

Q: Kind of Blue was recorded in two short sessions of only five and three hours, respectively, and Davis often used only the first takes. What about short sessions and first takes helped the musicians' creativity to flow?

Carl Størmer: As in conversation, everything in jazz is about the interaction that takes place between the players. The legendary recordings of jazz are the result not only of superb individual performances, but of great listening and interactions within a small number of improvisers as well. In order to make this work, the players adhere to a set of shared codes—almost like language—consisting of, among other things, key, tempo, groove, rhythm, song form, tradition, and harmony.

Miles Davis was known to have a preference for first takes. First takes often end up being the best takes because they have a magical quality that only exists when musicians are approaching something without an overly detailed plan. Working without a script or with a very loose script forces you to listen intensely to ensure that your own contribution is contextually relevant to what everybody else is doing in the moment. Very often, this openness is gone after the first take. On a second take, many musicians will try to improve their own performance, and just by focusing on their own performance they will lose some of their ability to listen to everyone else. As a result, each individual performance might be more perfect on a second take, but the enhanced individual perfection comes at a collective price often resulting in a decrease in the interaction quality. The end result is music less spontaneous, more stiff, less alive.

Rob Austin: This is something we've studied in other contexts as part of a larger project on innovation. One of the big problems in innovation is how to free yourself from preconceptions, to get outside your expectations and normal tendencies, so that you can create something really new, without creating more risk and problems than benefit. Often it can be risky to push people or a process to "the edge," so to speak—something might break. But what we've seen in various cases is people, teams, and companies coming up with strategies to get out to the edge, without causing a mess or without suffering serious damage when you do make a mess. We see, for example, people getting really clever at experiments with cheap parts, or doing the edgy, risky things inside a computer-based simulation.

Miles Davis shows us another way. Get really good people and put them in situations they can handle, but also circumstances that challenge them and their preconceptions. What would happen if you put great people on a business problem and refused to let them solve it in a habitual way?

Carl Størmer: Miles Davis forced the musicians to approach the music without any expectations or preconceptions, often by giving them minimal sketches and sparse instructions. He would more often tell them what not to play. Think about how valuable it would be for teams of business innovators to be free of preconceptions but as skilled at their task as Davis's musicians were.

One more thing: I think time pressure is also important. Often, short sessions are a result of busy players, expensive studio time, and booking schedules being made on short notice. Not so different from the way a lot of things happen in business. This results, sometimes, in mistakes. But in jazz, we often do something interesting in the aftermath of mistakes: we repeat them. For instance, on the song "Freddie Freeloader" Davis comes in one bar early at one point. The band adjusts to this unexpected entry by the leader in such a seamless way that very few people notice the subtle glitch. This is the power of collective improvisation: Everybody listens to everybody else and adjusts to what they are doing. In jazz, the short session has always been the norm.

Q: What aspects of Davis's innovation seem unusual compared with companies and creative enterprises you have studied? Are there aspects of intellectual property rights that arise from this case, given the contribution of all the musicians?

Rob Austin: Well, Miles Davis certainly had an unusual leadership style, if you think in a managerial context. For one thing, he often didn't say very much, and when he did speak, he sometimes provoked people. Provocation is, of course, one way of jolting people into doing something new. As I've mentioned, we've definitely seen some parallels between how Davis worked and how companies push to "the edge" in search of innovation. What is particularly remarkable about Davis in a business context, though, is how radically he detached from his past to make a more interesting future. The inability of business to do that has often resulted in infamous episodes. For example, IBM's refusal to "cannibalize" its success in mainframe computers by pushing PCs and the Internet eventually got it into really big trouble in the early 1990s.

Carl Størmer: On intellectual property rights, the extent to which improvisers should receive partial ownership is an unresolved issue in jazz. It is generally accepted that Bill Evans, the piano player on the session (except on "Freddie Freeloader," where Wynton Kelly plays), was the composer of both "Blue in Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" and an important collaborator on some of the other material. However, he never received proper credit. (Miles Davis is listed as the composer of all the songs on the album.) It's often been true that individual musicians don't receive royalties.

Rob Austin: Just as individual employees often don't when they invent something on behalf of a company.

I'd say there's also an issue that interacts with the inclination of people like Davis to try new things. What seems to matter most to Davis is pushing into new, interesting territory—creating something new. What matters as well to a business is capturing the value that is created by the new thing, or by its introduction. It might be hard to get people like Davis to care as much about "value capture" as they care about "value creation."

Q: What are you working on next?

Rob Austin: My work focuses on the role of aesthetics in business competitiveness, and I'm continuing to play around with the case as a literary form. I'm working on a project right now, for example, where we are trying to translate one of my cases into a "graphic novel."

Carl Størmer: I'll keep working on ways that jazz and improvisation inform management action and decisions.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.