Steve was supposed to be in bright colored lights on stages across the U.S. along with Liz Phair and Alanis Morrisette. Instead, he was on a video call with me, trying to find a camera angle that didn't make him look like he was in witness protection. A founding member of the alt-rock band Garbage, Steve Marker had generously agreed to an interview on one condition: that he could read an advance copy of my book, Two Beats Ahead, before we talked. This made me sweat, not because he was a rock star—my co-author and I had spoken to many of them while writing—but because he was the first rock star reading the book about the inventive mindsets of musicians. It was like waiting on Julia Child for feedback about the omelet you just served her.
“I’m enjoying your book so far,” Steve said. My shoulders relaxed.
I first heard Garbage on college radio in the mid 90s. The band had an unmistakable sound—a combination of shoegaze, hiphop, and electronic dance, with the pouty attitude of the Cure reinvented by a feminist fatale. It was an unexpected direction for the band given that Butch Vig, another founding member, had rocketed to fame as the producer of Nirvana’s major label debut, Nevermind. Grunge—as that Seattle sound was called—was nowhere to be found on Garbage’s debut. And it turns out, that was by design, or as Steve implied, maybe an un-design.
“You know, it was interesting reading about the intention that so many artists have had in making their music,” Steve told me. “It wasn’t like that for us. We didn't have a written-out plan or even something we really talked about that much. It was just a combination of everything that we loved.” He shared a story about Butch seeing My Bloody Valentine in New York and being blown away by their white noise and pop melodies. He mentioned Public Enemy and their gritty noise loop samples. He talked about 60s rock.
“Garbage could have turned into a totally pop thing. Or it could have turned into a noise experiment that would have been an interesting album to listen to once or twice. Luckily, we found a combination that worked for us. A lot of that had to do with Shirley [Manson], as she brought this whole other thing into the mix that we couldn't have planned. The combination of all our different influences is what the band became.”
Well, maybe there wasn’t a plan, but there was definitely a principle of designing the conditions for creativity and letting the outcome emerge from that. Steve and the band had figured out how to bring together all the things they loved, and at the same time, reject all the things that were popular in the mainstream. They chose a new path, which became their own path to mainstream success. Their debut sold 4 million copies in its first 12 months.
As I reflected upon how this happened, I was thinking about the numerous client teams that I’ve worked with under rapid deadlines and inflated expectations.“We want to be the next iPod of banking!” they say. The bygone days of Bell Labs open briefs feel like business mythology now. And yet, that was exactly the situation Garbage had. “We were lucky enough to have somebody say, ‘Okay, go make a record,’ mainly because Butch had a great reputation. We had the luxury to take as much time as we wanted to figure out what we were going to be.”
In Two Beats Ahead, Panos Panay and I interviewed Imogen Heap and Steve Vai about music and product breakthroughs they had in their own careers. We also spoke with folks at Amazon’s PillPack about launching their startup idea. What ties these stories together are mindsets of curiosity and learning. Experimentation wasn’t confined to any single part of a workflow or to particular roles. It was more like a cultural attribute, the water they swam in. For Garbage, that culture looked like persistent play. Steve illustrated this with a story about making Garbage's first record.
At the time, they were often just sampling other people’s songs to find elements they liked. During one session, he grabbed a handful of CDs looking for a beat and happened to play “Train in Vain” by the Clash. “Right there, we had a good four-bar loop to use as a click track...I put down a bass line and that was the foundation of the song right there.”
The next day, Butch came up with the lyrics:
you stupid girl
pretend you’re high
pretend you’re bored
“It can take minutes or months to make a song,” Steve continued, “and you’ve just got to stay open to letting it make its own path.”
I can imagine someone reading this and thinking to themselves, “So that’s it? The secret to innovation is to try a bunch of random stuff until it works?” But remember, this wasn’t just any band coming up with songs. This was Garbage. And this led Steve and I to an interesting discussion about team dynamics and experience.
“I guess we were lucky that we all worked with bands for 10-15 years before Garbage. We were in dozens of bands that hated each other. You learn by doing that.” He went on to talk about fluidity, respect, and vulnerability—the essential chemistry of the band.
It would be misleading to suggest that musicians somehow have a more natural ability to collaborate than others. It's not about an inherent gift. We all know the stories of a band breaking up over creative differences, sometimes with incredible public meltdowns. The reason musicians have so much to teach us is that the conditions in which they work are the ideal classroom for these mindsets.
Great creative talent is in every company, but the structures and social norms of the organizations often dictate who is permitted to collaborate. I’ve been in situations where clients have asked me not to talk to their colleagues because they didn’t trust them. I’ve seen departments make competitors of one another because they were incentivized to do so. I’ve been in buildings that have rooms dedicated to innovation rather than cultures committed to it. To get the best teams, it's often left to the creativity of the project leader to work around these organizational constructs and find the ideal contributors, no matter where they are in the organization.
Garbage set themselves up without defined roles—except for Shirley, who always sings. Otherwise, roles and contributions are left up to the person with the best ideas. “Being in a band is the most fun thing I can imagine doing. It's a dream come true from when you were a kid. And I've done it as a job, as my livelihood for a long time. It's amazing,” Steve shared with a smile.
Those words, “I’ve done it as my job,” have stuck with me because they really are the premise of Two Beats Ahead. We often don’t see the musician’s life as a job. And yet the mindsets that Steve and Garbage bring to work are the mindsets that we are regularly striving for in the corporate world. We’ve categorized the rock star life as something else. But on my best days, I’m working just like those legendary musicians, pursuing curiosity, building on new ideas with my teammates, and trying to get the video lighting just right.
Two Beats Ahead: What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation, by IDEO partner R. Michael Hendrix and Berklee College of Music Senior Vice President for Global Strategy and Innovation, Panos A. Pany, will be available worldwide in April.
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