In the Moment

Listen, Sense, Act: What musicians can teach us about innovation

Erika Bailey

As a professional musician turned Innovation Designer at The Moment, I’m always looking for when my chosen fields connect or collide. For quite a while, I kept my musicianship to myself when selling my consulting services lest I be considered a flaky artist who doesn’t know business. Now, given the encouragement of my team at The Moment, I’m coming out of that particular closet to make explicit the value my two fields. Music and innovation work are not different but instead are connected on a creative spectrum and capable of informing each other in limitless ways.

Invoking music and musicians when talking about innovation and creativity is not new. Likely we have all heard the comparisons between jazz musicians and innovators, both with abilities to be limitlessly creative on the spot. Many of us might have also been a part of workshops were we are to access our creative side through drum circles and/or musical exercises. I find these techniques to be basic at best, and misrepresentative at worst. The value in what we can learn from musicians is not just in playing with notes and feeling free and creative.

Musicians can teach us how to engage fully in the co-creative processes of good innovation work. They also teach us about having a craft, about failure, perseverance and ensemble.

Any ensemble performance is a series of moments where performers connect and communicate needs, wants, intentions, and questions through melody, rhythm, timbre, dynamic, and tempo. If a piece is well prepared, and the technical facility of these musicians is excellent, most of these moments slip by easily, largely unnoticed as simply par for the course. Then there are decision moments: how fast? when to start? what is the change we could make? what is the lyric inspiring me to do? Those times are memorable. In a split second the ensemble goes through a collective process I like to call Listen, Sense, Act.


Listening in the world of music needs no explanation. Listening in some way, whether it is with our ears, or for hearing impaired people with their sense of touch and sight, is core to the practice. Playing in ensemble is an exercise in deep, thoughtful, and skilled listening.

In innovation work, listening can be expressed in a number of ways:

  1. Empathy: listening to the humans for whom we are designing.
  2. Collaboration: listening to one’s design team and their diverse perspectives.
  3. Design research: listening through good design research — using design research tools like those used and developed by Suzanne Stein, to know your customer and stakeholders, to reframe problems, and to discover opportunities previously hidden from view.

A common mistake with beginner innovators is to forget this part, and jump right into ideas. This leads to ideation on the wrong stuff, and to solutions that no one really cares about or will buy — because we didn’t listen to what people are saying.


In music and innovation work we sense when we take the data and information gained through listening. We take a step back, and figure out what it all means. Musicians do this in macro cycles, looking at a piece of music, a movement, a style, a genre, or a technique. They also do this in micro cycles, interpreting the ensemble contributions of others, and figuring out what to do next.

Innovation sense-making is the stepping back and drawing insight from empathy and design research. What does it mean? What new and surprising thing have we learned that will guide our work going forward? What does this say about other opportunity spaces? What are the connections with our problem and other sectors or industries? Good sensing work leads to better problem framing, and ultimately better ideation. If you’re working on a better and more relevant problem, you set yourself up to have better and more relevant solutions.

Sensing is also the “art” of innovation work. Many of us organize our lives around quick solutions, and are out of practice with taking the time to truly understand a problem space. Developing skill in sensing is a competitive advantage to any aspiring innovator, like musicality (the art of really knowing what to do with a piece of music) is for musicians.


Music is merely academic if left on the page. Innovation is merely conceptual until we implement.

The gap between ideas and innovation implementation is a hot topic right now, and can be a difficult chasm to leap. Musicians bridge the gap through iteration (small performances that build and build to bigger ones with more at stake). Skilled innovators also iterate to bridge the gap to innovation (small tests that build to a pilot, and eventually to launch).

The acceptance that we must first fail in order to succeed, and that our best learning comes through failures is key to this concept of moving ideas to action. What often holds potential or new innovators back is the fear of being wrong. If musicians held themselves to that, we would never hear a band play, or an orchestra tune up, or a busker put fingers to strings.

 Music is merely academic if left on the page.

The craft

It is easy to see how musicians hone their craft. We practice, we listen to the masters, we get coaching, we have teachers, we try and fail, then try again. This is also how we should look at what it is to be an innovator. Let’s leave behind the notion that one either “is or isn’t” innovative. Just like a young musician learning Twinkle twinkle little star is still a musician, a beginner innovator is still an innovator. Honing one’s innovation craft is the product of a lot of learning, and a lot of intentional seeking out of information, feedback, coaching, testing, and iteration — so don’t expect an easy ride to excellence. Great innovation work takes time, effort, willingness, and help to develop.

Innovation is a craft. There are many seasoned experts, and even they have something to learn. Pablo Casals, the famous cellist, once responded to the question of why he still practiced (well into his 80s) by saying “Because I think I’m making some progress”. In a testament to learning through tests, Thomas Edison once said “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. As innovators, we would do well to seek to learn in every opportunity, incorporating old techniques into the new, and being voraciously hungry for the next chance to learn.

As part of my development as a continuously learning innovation professional, I have gone back to school…literally. For the first time in 30 years, I’ve taken up a new instrument: the violin. Week by week, I’m faced with being a beginner in a field where I have often been the expert. I’m listening, sensing, and acting in new ways every day, and I feel what it is like to be that new learner all over again. In doing so, I am developing a deep empathy for those just beginning their innovation path, and a renewal of the joy I once felt as a child learning the piano.

Whenever I stretch and grow in my innovation practice, I experience an old feeling usually felt behind the curtain, as I prepare to go on stage. Why do I do this to myself? I ask. Why can’t I just find a less risky, easier existence? Then I get out there and begin to share all that I’ve learned, and all that I’m creating with the audience, and I know. I do this (music and innovation work) because it is inspiring, creative, and meaningful to the world. What lucky people we are to be able to participate.

This post is a companion to a talk of the same title that I gave at Spark the Change 2016.

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