David Bowie taught me everything I need to know about innovation

David Bowie taught me everything I need to know about innovation

Growing up in India, with neither iTunes nor YouTube, I was raised on a music diet of the old-fashioned essentials that played on the radio — the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan. Our extreme boundaries were set by the likes of Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin. And when we truly wanted to take a trip to outer space, there was David Bowie. If “innovation” were a person, he or she would have looked like David Bowie.

Here are seven lessons on innovation that I would draw from Bowie’s life and work:

1. Sense the zeitgeist; never stop reinventing yourself.

From his early days as Davie Jones, so hard to distinguish from scores of others making the rounds at that time in the early 60s, Bowie morphed into the Space Oddity persona (“Major Tom”) that captured the zeitgeist of the time. This was the era of Stanley Kubrick capturing imaginations with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, a year later. Then, of course, came Ziggy Stardust, with the red mullet and glam outfits. Bowie went on from that phase to his Orwellian period, the R&B phase, the Thin White Duke, and on and on.

Coupled with his fluid sexuality, agility to leap across musical genres, and different forms of media, this was an artiste who never got comfortable no matter how successful he was.  His reinvention is so consistent, there is even a website, Supbowie.com, that tells you what Bowie was doing at your age. At my age, he was offered a knighthood that he declined, saying: “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”

2. Look ahead; work backwards from the endgame.

Bowie’s insights into the future course of the music industry’s competitive dynamics were striking. The 21st century had barely gotten off to a start; the first wave of the Internet mania had collapsed; Apple had barely released the iPod; and it was in June 2002 that Bowie predicted: ”Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity.” He followed his own strategic advice to “be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left.”  Bowie’s ability to sense the future, willingness to experiment and great timing kept him evergreen no matter how music fads and the music business changed.

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