FUTURE101
Still from the movie

Easy Lesson from Opera Singers for Innovation

innovation mindset May 12, 2023

Learn the secrets of creativity from the world of opera. Discover how foresight is a creative process and that developing new perspectives is crucial in navigating unfamiliar territory. Join me on this journey and discover how you can unleash your creativity and make decisions that will set you apart from the competition.

The Inspiration

Have you ever watched the movie The Fifth Element? It has an opera scene where an alien singer performs. To strengthen the otherworldliness of the singer, she’s hitting notes outside the range of a single human and sometimes at higher speeds than humanly possible. This was done by taping an opera singer and then resampling her notes and having an actress painted in blue perform. Yet, the performance retains the Bel Canto character of the opera we know. In this scene, the movie has found the optimal stretching of our current perspective: it’s humanly impossible but still believable so that our minds can accept it without reluctance. In strategic foresight, we do the same. We stretch our current perspective towards possible futures.

Listen to it yourself: Diva Plavalunga on YouTube. She starts singing at 01:30 seconds.

The Analogy

In opera, the best singers know how to make a piece their own. They follow the sheet music to the letter (erm… note) but improvise when the moment calls for it.

When there’s room for elaboration (a cadenza), singers rephrase the notes to fit their voice best, reflect their view on the piece, and have the desired effect on us, the public. Opera singers can convey a different perspective of the same aria with each take.

My singing teacher, the internationally renowned mezzo-soprano Daphe Beçka, once told me that singing isn't about your own emotion. Instead, it's about conveying the composer's emotion in a way people recognize at a deep level. The best opera singers stretch our current perspectives to the point of amazement but never outside the boundaries of what we think can happen.

The singers' creativity is bounded by the composer, their voice, and their skill. These boundaries make it so much easier to be creative in finding new perspectives:

  • Singers don't have to compose an entire aria from scratch.
  • Singers only have to focus on one tiny part of the aria and elaborate with much-practiced ornaments.
  • Singers can eliminate notes or phrasing that doesn't suit their voice, skill, or interpretation.
  • Singers can merely opt for optimal effects instead of maximal effects.

Operatic Foresight

Just like opera singers, we can use our boundaries to our advantage. We can take inspiration from other industries and companies and adapt their ideas to fit our unique strengths and situation. It's not always easy, but it's the key to unlocking new perspectives and, thus, new solutions:

  • You don’t have to develop a complex solution from scratch.
  • You focus on a tiny part of your current strategy, product, process, or issue.
  • You add ideas from other markets, industries, regions, competitors, or substitutes but remove everything that doesn’t suit your organization’s strengths.
  • You only have to optimize your futures outlooks, not maximize.

EXAMPLE: AMAZON

Amazon has consistently innovated and stayed ahead of the competition by taking a long-term perspective and anticipating future trends and consumer behavior. They are constantly experimenting with new products, services, and business models, such as Amazon Prime, Amazon Web Services, and their recent acquisition of Whole Foods.

One example of Amazon's foresight is its investment in voice technology and the development of its virtual assistant, Alexa. They recognized the potential for voice-activated technology and the convenience it could bring to consumers and took the lead in developing this technology. They have continued to expand the capabilities of Alexa and integrate it with more products and services, such as home automation and grocery shopping.

Amazon also takes a customer-centric perspective, focusing on what customers want and need rather than just what their competitors do. They use data and analytics to track consumer behavior and anticipate future trends, allowing them to make strategic decisions and investments.

EXAMPLE: JUMBO, THE DUTCH SUPERMARKET CHAIN

In 2012, Jumbo introduced a new store concept called ‘Jumbo 3.0’. They combined the traditional supermarket with elements of a fresh market and restaurant. Whole Foods Market inspired this from the United States and nonexistent in The Netherlands. However, Jumbo adapted the concept to the Dutch market by, for example, paying more attention to price and by focusing the shopping experience more on families and children. By implementing this concept, Jumbo was able to stand out from the competition and increase its market share.

Tune In for the Lessons

  • Foresight and developing new perspectives are crucial in navigating unfamiliar territory and making strategic decisions that will set you apart from the competition.
  • Boundaries can be used to your advantage in creativity and innovation. Focus on a small part of the problem and optimize rather than trying to maximize everything.
  • Take inspiration from other industries and companies, but adapt their ideas to fit your unique strengths and situation.
  • A long-term perspective and anticipating future trends and consumer behavior are essential for staying ahead of the competition, but those will only work if they are optimally stretched: futuristic and different but still recognizable and believable.

Take the Next Step

You can start applying these learnings by setting aside little pockets of time for strategic thinking and planning. This could be a 10-minute closing to a weekly meeting or simply some quiet time to reflect and consider new ideas.

During this time, try to focus on one specific problem or challenge and use the boundaries and constraints of the situation to spark creativity and innovation. Consider different perspectives and gather inspiration from other industries and companies, but always consider how these ideas can be adapted and tailored to fit your unique strengths and situation. Then stretch the idea to the point that’s ambitious, but still doable.

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