Rock On, Part 2

Interview with Peter Cook, Author of Sex, Leadership and Rock'n'Roll and Best Practice Creativity
By Vern Burkhardt
VB: Would you talk about "creative leaders?" Are they the ones whose organizations are the most innovative?

Peter Cook: This is another of your rather tough questions.

photo of Peter CookYou have to look at the context of the organization. Leaders need to provide the right balance between structure and promoting creativity in order to meet the needs of the business's clients, customers and stakeholders.

If an organization is in need of innovation, creative leaders are required. For an organization to constantly re-invent itself one would expect the leaders to promote a creative climate. They'll use creativity and business techniques to promote innovation and constant change in a way that makes the organization sustainable. They create conditions that allow people to be more creative, and we would expect those organizations to be more innovative.

If an organization doesn't need to innovate its products or services, all a creative leader would be doing is encouraging people to create and innovate something for which there is no demand. There's not a best practice argument – it all depends on the fit between the people in the organization and the things they need to do to remain financially viable.

Having said that there aren't many organizations, even governments, that don't need to innovate. They may need to innovate in customer service rather than products.

VB: You quote Oscar Wilde as saying, "All great ideas are dangerous." What is the significance of this?

Peter Cook: Apparently he said he didn't know; he just made it up. That's one answer! However, I think the quote does have significance.

Great ideas about a society often threaten to change the social system within which it operates. If they're about a product they often threaten existing products. They often require people to change the way they interact with a service. Or they could mean someone has to change something, and since most of us are creatures of habit, we probably won't like it.

One good example of this is reported by an Irish author and philosopher, Professor Charles Handy, who said the chimney fundamentally changed the way people lived in houses and the whole social system. Up until that point everyone had to sit around a fire in one room due to the cold. In the middle of the 19th century, when chimneys were invented, houses changed because people could be in different rooms and away from one another. That's a good illustration of how an innovation transformed the way people and whole communities interacted socially. It probably changed the essence of family life.

VB: You refer to "conformist innovators" compared to "deviant innovators" in organizations. Isn't "conformist innovator" an oxymoron?

Peter Cook: I don't see it that way, but I guess it could be if all they're doing is walking the talk and not innovating.

Conformist innovators are the sort of people who carefully think about things in their organizations, and try to fit their innovations into existing systems. They do the job of ensuring the innovation fits into all the organization's constraints and structure.

Deviant innovators are the mavericks, the people organizations find hard to control but often desperately need. They're people who either come into the organization from time to time or are a useful resource in a particular department.

VB: In many cases they may not be welcome in the organization.

Peter Cook: Unfortunately the more organizations become corporate and professionalized the less deviant innovators fit in. Being squeezed out, or not welcomed in the first place, can be the result.

VB: They have to leave and set up their own businesses.

Peter Cook: Often companies want people like me to come in for a day. Although it may have been a very good day they're happy when I leave – deviant innovators stir things up and make people feel uncomfortable! I don't know how you can indicate this is intended to be tongue in cheek; I've an appalling sense of humour!

VB: "The political-correctness pendulum has swung far too far at this current time." Is this stifling creativity in Great Britain and other parts of Europe?

Peter Cook: I think it is. Others may challenge this view but if we can't discuss difficult topics we can't make progress on them.

Putting "sex" in the title has frightened a few people away from the book. But if we're to deal with difficult issues such as child pornography, feeling frightened or having difficulty discussing the subject doesn't help us move forward. There are many issues of this type in the world today. Difficult subjects require courageous conversations and avoiding them, which tends to be the product of political correctness in this area of the world, doesn't help.

VB: Why do you think political correctness is so rife, and certain topics can't be talked about?

Peter Cook: The obvious one in this country is immigration and different religions. In the UK, we have a liberal society in which we try to cope with everything. We overcompensate rather than simply saying, "If we're all here we need to work and live together."

When we marginalize groups individuals become isolated, and we loose the sense of what unites us. Political correctness reinforces groups and their separateness. As soon as you atomize groups, you breed the possibility of greater levels of intolerance of differences.

Recently I was working with a group in a large pharma company. They were trying their best to recognize everyone's needs, wishes, whims, and fancies in establishing work subgroups. They were setting up a gay science group. I have no difficulty whatsoever with gay people, but I asked them what they were doing. I said, "Don't get me wrong, call me old fashioned, but with increasingly smaller groups you're encouraging people to say they don't like the other groups. You're setting up ghettos."

The person I was dealing with hadn't thought about it this way, and he went away to consider the implications. You could even end up with groups containing only one person – as though that isn't a contradiction in terms! For example, I would be the Peter Cook group because I like to play the guitar at work, and have the right to be my own group because that's my interest. I suggested they have interest groups about work rather than personalities!

Balkanizing people into special interest groups because of political correctness results in a loss of cohesion and performance. At a global level the more we identify our differences, the less we focus on our similarities.

VB: Why do you think political correctness is so rife?

Peter Cook: Perhaps one answer, if we think of Maslow's hierarchy of needs triangle, is that 50 to 60 years ago we were worrying about the basics of life. It's a good thing that in many parts of the world most people's physiological needs have been taken care of, so they have more time to think about the higher order of things in life, such as self-esteem and self-actualization. They've got time to think about how they're treated, and who they are – which is great. But it can lead people to over-analyze life. Not that I'm against people analyzing life. It's just that self obsession does not lead us to find better solutions to the world's problems.

The pendulum of political correctness in the UK has swung a bit too far, and many people are sick of avoiding difficult issues just to keep others happy. Of course, the pendulum often swings too far and we certainly don't want it to go too far the other way. We currently have a problem with racism against people from Eastern Europe, because they are coming to the UK and getting jobs. We never seem to get it right; on the one hand we have people arguing we should be accommodating people from that part of Europe and, on the other, the reality of some people treating them badly.

We should become aware, and perhaps a bit lighter, about ourselves. We seem to be thinking we're just too important; we are all made of the same chemicals and eventually we all disappear, so we should just enjoy our life. Having traveled widely, it is all too easy to think that you are underprivileged when you are not.

photo of Peter Cook in hot tub

VB: You advise that trying to have "one vision, one mission" is unnecessarily restrictive compared to accepting the existence of multiple subcultures in an organization. Does this mean too much effort and money is often spent trying to establish a single corporate culture?

Peter Cook: Probably in extreme cases. There are organizations that have what we might call a "unitarist" approach to corporate life. The idea that everyone should identify with one mission statement is difficult because those 100 words may not resonate with every department, group, or individual. And it may not be helpful if the company offers multiple products and services in multiple parts of the world.

At the other extreme multiple subcultures leads to fragmentation, which relates to the same ideas we were talking about regarding political correctness. The academics say it's best to have a strong culture because it has economic advantages. You don't want too little cohesion, but a strongly managed culture is great until you need to change. What is needed is an adaptive organization, which nearly everyone now talks about.

Strong cultures are extremely difficult to change, and if we look at strong cultures in business and rock music they have strong brand identities. You could point to the Rolling Stones and U2 which have been successful for many years performing essentially the same music – they haven't changed very much in shape, form, or style.

The same is true of organizations with strong cultures, like as Marks & Spencer. They thought they were so invincible they would never take credit cards. The company nearly collapsed. This was not the only reason, but it was certainly a symptom of the culture. They thought they ruled their customers, they were invincible. It only managed to turn its culture around when the company nearly crumbled, because, until then, the leaders and managers couldn't see what was wrong with it. Everyone else was taking credit cards and focusing on their customers! Marks & Spencer thought its brands were superb, but no one was buying their products.

If you look at more adaptive artists and organizations, like Madonna and David Bowie, you see how people who change themselves can sustain their net present value. They're probably as successful, in net returns, as the Rolling Stones and others but they've morphed themselves several times. Adaptive organizations have certain strong points, but they have to allow subcultures where it matters.

Returning to the world of business, I was at Ford the other day and the representatives were talking about how Toyota managed to steal a march on them. Toyota can manufacture cars almost to order; they don't all have to be the same color. And they innovate continuously. Ford is now looking at that very carefully. Adaptive organizations manage to change and take the organization with them. The culture at Toyota can be summarized by their principle: "We're constantly changing." They expect employees to improve their jobs every day, their teams of workers to be onboard, innovations that will work, and everyone to constantly think about how to improve. They've taken self-improvement, perhaps, to its logical end point.

VB: You say, "Under pressure there is a great tendency to make binary on/off decisions; it is this tendency that separates professionals from amateurs, sheep from goats, leaders from managers." How can leaders resist this almost instinctive reaction to move quickly to action?

Peter Cook: Simply by becoming aware of whether it's a short- or long-term fix.

I went to see Tom Peters the other week and you'd expect him to talk about business process re-engineering, net present value, and other similar things. What he talked about was the need to press the stop button. Don't carry on; let's stop. Let's think about this, it's a big one.

How do we become aware of something, and think about what questions to consider. Is it one that requires only a yes or no, or is it one that needs a big think? Good leaders are good at this, and they need to encourage their employees to also become good at identifying when to press the stop button.

VB: Tom Peters has been a business guru for a long time. Is he still relevant?

Peter Cook: Very much so. Tom Peters wrote tremendously compelling books, which offered us a chance to think carefully about our own approach.

Some people criticise him for describing great companies that are no longer great or even still in existence. Yet he didn't propose his ideas as a recipe. In his books he talked about what worked, and it wasn't always the same message. Because it was so well written it was adopted by people as some kind of new bible. People then feverishly copied what they thought the recipes were into the wrong places, and found, for example, that one major recipe didn't work in a local government department.

Tom Peters said what has happened to the world economy doesn't mean capitalism is bad. It just means the people whose actions led to the financial meltdown didn't have any humanity in their decisions, and we need to re-examine this. He said we need more ethics and humanity. He talked about what we spend our time on – it wasn't the sort of things you'd expect him to talk about.

Peters has perhaps calmed down a bit, and he's emphasizing things like thinking, and learning to push the stop button. Are you driving the company into oblivion? To me that is an important concept – the stop button. Stop and think.

VB: Business leaders over the years have indicated that the things that "bug" them revolve around relationships, motivation, leadership and getting high performance. Is a lack of innovation in their businesses increasingly becoming something that bugs business leaders seeking high performance and profitability?

Peter Cook: In this country business leaders still have their heads down. They're asking, "How can we save money and survive?" So at the moment I don't think a lack of innovation is bugging them a lot.

The people whose business it is to be innovative are bothered about it, because the onset of greater regulation in certain markets, as a result of the shenanigans that took place, will inevitably make it more difficult or costly to innovate. It's a case that the pendulum related to regulations may swing a bit further back than needed, and this will make it harder and certainly more costly to innovate in certain sectors.

As a case in point, in the past few weeks I've been asked to do seminars on creativity in what might be considered the more go ahead businesses. The better-managed businesses understand that this isn't the time to throw the baby out with the bath water – we've got to get better at innovating.

But there's no doubt about the impact the current economic situation is having, and many wonder how we got into it. I recently spoke with Gillian Tett, economics editor of the Financial Times, who has written a book called Fool's Gold. It's about how the packaging of derivatives was done in a hotel in Florida by a bunch of young people using a brain storming approach. The implication is this condemns brainstorming although she didn't quite say that. I told her, "It doesn't condemn brainstorming. It condemns the people in the organization who sent the people who weren't bankers away for three days." She replied, "They spent all their time in the swimming pool!" It actually condemns the people who didn't send experienced people with them to keep a handle on what they were doing. And it condemns the consultants who let them spend more time in the swimming pool instead of doing the hard work and thinking.

I don't know if you know the story but they came out with a financial instrument around derivatives that was appropriate for certain products, and they had a whole set of rules worked out for when it should be used. They people who came up with this innovation weren't the problem. Some people spotted this mechanism in the financial markets and said, "Hey, we can extend this into mortgages. Maybe there's no value in these mortgages but nobody's going to notice." The problem is these people were using their unfettered creativity to extend an innovation, which was initially well designed, to any market space. Perhaps the real idiots in this case were the people who decided there was money in those hills and did it without concern for the long-term value of the derivatives.

VB: Being motivated by greed.

Peter Cook: I think that's probably it.

VB: In what countries do the messages in your book seem to be well accepted? What about in the U.S. compared to Europe?

cover of Sex, Leadership and Rock 'n' RollPeter Cook: Mostly in the western world. In some developing countries, such as Africa, where rock music isn't so popular they may have difficulty with the metaphor. I have Google analytics so I know where people who look at my website are from and, generally speaking, it isn't in what is called the third world.

Otherwise it's quite universal, including Eastern and Western Europe and Asia. The book has recently been translated into Korean, which I'm surprised and proud about. We shall see how popular it is in South Korea, which is a western economy in every sense of the word.

The U.S.? I'm happy about the response but the title is getting in the way of some on the east side of the U.S. in the corporate companies with huge HR departments, and with lawsuits and lawyers. Do you understand what I'm saying?

I had a funny conversation with representatives of a company who wanted me to go over there – to eastern U.S. – to make some presentations. The HR manager was the guardian of all things legal, and he was on a conference call with me together with their vice president of R&D. The VP hadn't read the book, so it took 20 minutes to find out his real issue. He said, "I love the idea because I'm a musician in my spare time. But I'm a bit worried about some of the words you've got in the book." When I asked him which they might be and told him there wasn't anything in the book about sex he seemed a bit disappointed! He had assumed the contents by the title. I advised him the book is, as I said earlier to you, a bit naughty but not nasty. And I asked, "You're from the country that made popular Sex and the City; how come my book isn't acceptable? He laughed and said, "That's a point."

The VP of Research concluded that the book and the metaphor would be fine when I told him what it's about. "Sex" is about relationships; it's not whips and bondage. "Drugs" are about getting happily addicted to things that give you high performance, not about smack, crack and cocaine.

As I said earlier, I wouldn't have changed the title if I had it to do over because it's still a good attractor. At one time I considered the title "The Chemistry of Physics and Biology of Leadership." Biology was going to be sex, physics about matters of leadership and the drugs analogy, and chemistry was going to be Rock'n'Roll. But it didn't fit. I would have had to write a whole different book. I tried writing with that title in mind but found it didn't quite work. So I did consider the safer alternative, but we've gone for a Benetton approach to leadership, for good or bad.

VB: In Sex, Leadership and Rock'n'Roll you quote Frank Zappa, "without deviation, progress is not possible", and say you have not yet worked out the transferability of his "Hot Rats" wisdom to business improvement. Have you worked it out since the book was published?

image of Peter Cook playing guitarPeter Cook: No, it's one of those bits of Anglo Saxon irony. It's one of a few things I put in the book for people to puzzle about!

VB: Is having a Management By Attitude a better MBA than a Masters of Business Administration?

Peter Cook: No, you need both. Attitude is what you learn when bottles are thrown at you during gigs – you learn to not upset people or to dodge the bottles. There is a choice. You learn how to market your gig from knowledge acquired through an MBA, a proper business approach. If you only have attitude you haven't got it all.

I have, perhaps, created an imbalance by suggesting the rock thing is more exciting, but you'll notice there's a lot of stuff on the left-hand pages of the book that wouldn't be out of place in an MBA course. I tend to have picked up what I call all the oldies of the great thinkers. I haven't invented new trendy or unconventional models. I've picked up a lot of things that work and, in some cases, have been forgotten. I've been quite traditional in a way. The book takes some of the best MBA-type ideas and mixes them with other ideas, rather than including the latest fad.

The right-side pages are where I permitted creativity to flow, where the metaphor gets explored verbally and visually.

VB: Turning for a moment to another of your books, Best Practice Creativity published in 1998, is it still recommended reading?

Peter Cook: The book is hard to come by because the publisher no longer prints books in that specialized field. It is possible to get hold of used copies, and I believe it's still available from

I can't possibly recommend it as I wrote it! But I still like it when I read it. The other day a couple of people from a large company asked about it, because the company boss thinks it's absolutely brilliant. He works in a research and development laboratory and thinks it's better than Sex, Leadership and Rock'n'Roll because he's more interested in the academic side of things.

Best Practice Creativity is, however, a little dated and since I now have the intellectual property rights I'm re-writing it, with about 90% being changed, as a new book on innovation and creativity. So it'll have a different flavor – most of the material from this prior book will be on the cutting room floor. I'm modernizing it because the case studies are out of date.

VB: When will it be published?

Peter Cook: Sometime next year, I think. I'm not rushing it. I sometimes do things in a rush of intuition, but this book is going to be quite carefully thought out. I haven't formulated the overall approach but am thinking that maybe I'll write a book that's essentially romantic. I don't mean love will be involved or anything like that, but a book that looks at the humanity of innovation rather than the techniques. It won't necessarily have a Rock'n'Roll flavour. It will be about things like looking after the planet and people, and the human politics of innovation.

Post this financial crisis we have an opportunity to examine some things that will affect our long-term future, not in a campaigning way such as is followed by the likes of the Green argument about the planet. It doesn't have to be an emotional argument, but it might be a more emotional book on innovation than one that emanates from a business school approach. The emotional aspect of Sex, Leadership and Rock'n'Roll might be retained.

I've got a working title – "The Romance of Innovation" – but I'm absolutely sure it won't end up being called that.

VB: Are any of the 101 ideas for increasing organizational creativity in Best Practice Creativity personal favorites?

Peter Cook: Yes, I like the one that encourages people to believe they can achieve the impossible and gets them to commit to stretching targets. There's a quote, "If you play at becoming a genius you become one."

I say unfettered creativity can be dangerous but too many times organizations do unfettered boredom and don't take any risks at all.

If you practice at something you don't yet need, sometimes you get good at it. That's as true in learning music as for any other business or art form.

VB: In your Blog you indicate you were a keynote speaker at the Informatology Conference in London, England in April. What was your presentation about?

Peter Cook: The title of my presentation was "Sex, Leadership and Rock'n'Roll: Leadership Lessons from the Academy of Rock." The message I liked the best in the presentation is leadership concerns changing the riffs your company plays. I compared companies and musical groups that repeat themselves, and have successful and strong cultures. They are creatures of habit – they stay in a pack. Band examples are U2, the Rolling Stones, Oasis, and the Beatles. Corporate examples are Sony, Virgin, Ikea, and Ryanair.

And there are companies and bands that have broken away from the score, but they've kept their audiences – they're still successful. Madonna is in this group as are Prince, Queen, and David Bowie. Toyota, Nokia, Skoda Auto, Pilkington Activ, and First Direct are corporate examples. They're more nimble organizations. It relates to changing the risks your company can play in, extending your repertoire, and finding ways of combining things that are interesting and that people want.

I also have a series of conferences coming up.

VB: What are some of the most memorable musical experiences you've had playing in a band?

Peter Cook: Ah, crumbs. When I was caught half way between thinking I would have a career in science and thinking I might like to be in a rock band I made the right decision. I like being able to feed my kids more than I like driving around to gigs.

When I was twenty something years old and doing gigs I got to play with a band that had a lot of success over here, Classix Nouveau. We played a huge gig at a university. We had a proper sound system so suddenly we thought we'd arrived. There were sandwiches and beer in the dressing room. We thought this is "it", and we're going to move on to bigger and better things. But it was only for that one night! It was memorable but that was it.

The other experience may be slightly more poignant. I'm a good friend of a chap called Bill Nelson who was hugely successful in the late 70's. He's in his 60's now, and is still a virtuoso guitarist. He's performed with David Bowie, and is admired by artists like Sir Paul McCartney, Brian May, and Brian Eno. He's single minded. He's authentic. He's not a rock star in the traditional sense. He had Rolls Royce's and six sports cars in 1977. He dumped it all because he didn't like the Rock'n'Roll circus. He is true to himself, he's not particularly rich now, but I think he's happy because he's got balance. Interestingly, all these years after his fame in the north of England – Yorkshire – there's about 30 people from the U.S. who come by plane every year to see him. They stay with us. They're great people, and it's a long time for his message to have stayed alive.

I played some of his music at my 50th birthday, and I don't have access to a 24-track digital recording studio. Bill said he enjoyed it. That was very important to me. It was gratifying to get a complement from a rock star who is, in many ways, monumental in terms of his influence on many people.

VB: Did IBM executives actually burn your Fender Stratocaster guitar? If so, how did that come about?

photo of burnt guitarPeter Cook: They did. It was in the University of Cambridge, and unfortunately we had no video camera at the time to record what happened. The short version is the IBM executives were on an MBA program with me as the instructor. They asked if after our daytime studies we could experience musical creativity by having a jam session. I put one on for them, and we had a good time. Quite a number of drinks were consumed. While packing up, one of the executives dropped my guitar on the floor and the head broke off. He turned the colour of death and said, "I'll buy you a new one." I said, "You'll buy me a drink and that's the end of it." It was my best, first guitar so I was a little upset but it was my fault as I had given him the guitar to carry.

Earlier that day, I had been asked if I would do something involving innovation and creativity on the final day that would be unforgettable for the 150 people in the seminar. I hadn't decided what to do until about 2 a.m. when I was tidying up after getting ready for the final next day. When I looked at the broken guitar in the corner an idea suddenly came to me. The following morning I asked the small group I was leading to sell the idea of a full group song performance on the rooftop of the University, accompanied by a guitar playing 'The Star Spangled Banner' at concert volumes. We would burn the guitar as the finale à la Jimi Hendrix. They agreed. I said, "You can light my guitar." And they did.

VB: And you were minus one guitar.

Peter Cook: Well I plugged it in, found it still worked, and so I put it back together. The result is I'm up one guitar. And it's even more special since Bill Nelson signed it after it was repaired.

VB: Do you find your Blog is useful in communicating your message.

Peter Cook: Not particularly, because it isn't a blog in the normal sense. People can't contribute so it's really a diary. Some say they quite like it, so I suppose it's useful even though it isn't interactive. If it were interactive I probably wouldn't get around to doing any work!

VB: Thank you for talking to me this morning. We'll look forward to the release of your next book, which most likely will not be called "The Romance of Innovation." I hope we will be able to do an interview for IdeaConnection when it hits the continents and streets.

Peter Cook: Thank you for covering my work.

Musicians crucially understand the impact of atmosphere on performance. Ask yourself, how does your business get into a high-performance groove? Rock on!

Peter Cook employs a music analogy to shine the light on a range of business issues such as strategy, creativity, innovation, leadership, relationships and change. His analogy, Rock'n'Roll, is not restricted to just that genre of music; he means it to refer to any form of music that uses both improvisation and structure. As he says, "Rock'n'Roll includes soul, blues, salsa, funk, hip hop, drum'n'bass, gamelan orchestras and so on."

His book offers parallel lessons for leaders drawn from the twin fields of the business school and the arts, especially music. He says the Rock'n'Roll analogy "scores well." In music, score + improvisation = performance. In business, structure + creativity = innovation. A complete absence of structure leads to chaos and there are very few businesses that are able to operate in this way

Peter Cook's Bio:
Peter Cook is Managing Director of Human Dynamics, a creativity and innovation management consultancy, which serves organizations such as Pfizer, Kent County Council, Glaxo Smith Kline, the Open University Business School, Unilever, Nat West Bank, Electronic Arts, London Metropolitan Police, and Johnson and Johnson. He has over 20 years of business, academic and consultancy experience, including leading innovative new product development teams to bring multi-million dollar life-saving drugs to the market, acting as a manufacturing trouble-shooter to businesses around the world, internal business and organisational development consultancy, and designing and delivering learning and development programmes. Cook also records and performs music as part of his leadership and creativity training.

Peter Cook started his career as a chemist, has a master's degree in business administration from the Open University Business School, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. He has a "university of life" qualification in international troubleshooting and leading rock bands. He plays instruments in his spare time and organises jam sessions around Kent. He is tutor on a number of Executive MBA programmes, including 'Creativity, Innovation and Change' and 'Human Resource Strategy' programmes.

Peter Cook is a noted speaker and writer on the subjects of strategy, creativity, innovation and the leadership of change. He has been invited to speak at major conferences for organisations as diverse as British Telecom, Allianz Cornhill, the United Nations, and London Business School.

He is author of Best Practice Creativity and Sex, Leadership and Rock'n'Roll: Leadership Lessons from the Academy of Rock.

Share on      
Next Interview »