Thought Series: What smooth jazz can teach us about innovation

Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


Kenneth Bruce Gorlick (Kenny G), in addition to playing the longest sax note, has sold 48 million records. There are those that will say other artists are more authentic or talented. However, there is no denying he was doing something right–forty-eight million records. He revolutionized jazz by creating a boiler plate template. Others did this too, he was just more successful at it.

Smooth jazz as a construct, brought money into the jazz industry like it had never seen. Kenny G was the best selling jazz musician of all time. His template, along with some best selling albums, created a money printing machine. He invented, for lack of a better metaphor, the $25 WordPress template for the music world. This probably makes Thelonious Monk the broken, non-deployable web site that you continue to go back to time and time again–because his is work just that good.

The template created a low barrier to entry–for the customer. While technically very gifted, there’s little that is controversial or thought provoking about his work. His music is appropriate for any venue: a wedding, getting the kids to nap, an elevator…. When Kenny G was popular other artists opted for the template in order to make money.

Among music fans, the question gets tossed around: If it’s so ubiquitous–so everything to everyone–is smooth jazz really jazz?

Right now, we are in the era of “smooth design” and “smooth products.” This translates to “smooth leadership.” Everything is very clean….very Apple-esque. It’s acceptable to everyone. It works. But, it isn’t interesting.

This happens with leadership too. “Smooth leadership” is when the leader opts for industrial model, plug-and-play tactics proven to work (from their pantheon). GE‘s calibration system was popular for a while, so Ballmer adopted it for Microsoft. It worked (said no manager, ever). It served a purpose from an operations perspective, but ruined cultures.

What do you get from smooth leadership? The same products you had before, only more efficient, cheaper, using less resources.

Up until now, a CEO was doing a good job if the company met its financial targets, the Board was happy and shareholders were rewarded. The formula of getting a good education and landing a good job continued to play out, further supporting the conveyor belt relationship between education and industry. Leaders implemented traditional business school formulas for economic success, profits increase. This myopic association reduces education to a mere employment agency.

But after a while, the job gets route. People start to feel a void every day at the office. Employees, go through the motions, doing just enough to earn a paycheck so they can find some contentment in life outside the office. The job starts to feel like factory work—precisely what our parents and grandparents wanted us to avoid!

But when is a product or brand going to stand up and be Jimmy Hendricks (only 24 million records)? or Prince (only 39 million records)? and say, “I’m willing to sell half as much, but I’m going to be unique.” This attitude made him a legend.

There is no “Kenny G experience.”

There is a very definitive “Jimmy Hendricks experience.”

The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented in every job. This isn’t about “creating great art” or being the “Jimmy Hendricks of product development, UX, or leadership.” This is about trying to innovate within a space, versus allowing the space to dictate the boundaries.

New ideas belong on a canvas, not constrained by a box.


  1. Are the ideas in your organizations doing something useful or different?

  2. Is creativity coming in last in the execution queue?

  3. The easy way is not necessarily the best solution.

“But, Apple did X. Google did Y.”

Perhaps, but these companies initially took risk and were innovative in order to achieve their simplicity. Don’t confuse ubiquity with being unique. They were unique and became ubiquitous. To follow them is to simply ride the coattails of what has come before and hope for crumbs of their revenue.

We are trying to get people through the funnel so fast, that we aren’t engaging them (as customers, employees, suppliers). Even if you are tied up in the data, the bounce rates always come back to “what is the story we are trying to engage them in?”

So take a stand – what story are you in?