Four Lessons David Bowie Taught Us About Innovation

Ross Mitchell, Greg VanderPol


Innovation thrives when it is built on a diverse foundation of ideas and inspiration.  Just as multidisciplinary teams, and those that reflect a large variety of backgrounds and points of view perform better than homogenous ones, a broad base of influences allows us to find analogies and draw inspiration from disparate sources.  As an experimental and successful artist, David Bowie is an example of the spirt of innovation. 

One of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Bowie’s success was due in large part to his continual innovation and reinvention of music, style, and public image.  His life and work offer an important perspective on how to engage more effectively in innovation work, and how to thrive in changing business climates.  Following are a few of the lessons we can learn from Bowie.


Boldly cross boundaries

Bowie’s sexual fluidity, constantly evolving public image, work in a variety of musical genres, and experimentation in other forms of artistic expression kept him from easy definition and by extension, categorization.  Unlike many companies that struggle with innovation, Bowie was successful because of his sincerity.  Always committed, Bowie never came off as exploitative or co-opting.  In contrast, many organizations innovation efforts not only feel insincere, but actually are insincere. 


If new technologies are destroying your business model, create a new one

In 2002, Bowie told the New York Times, “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” and that musicians would need to “be prepared for… a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left”.  Rather than refusing to acknowledge changing markets, or trying to resist the inevitable change, Bowie looked for the opportunity and adapted to the market.  In other words, business changes were not a problem for Bowie. 


Venture outside your core

Demonstrating that staying relevant meant moving outside of the core, Bowie adapted to changing tastes and experimented in a variety of genres, from Folk to Post-Classical, effectively keeping his output fresh for decades.  As Billboard magazine noted, “Bowie influenced more musical genres than any other rock star.”  By staying relevant, and venturing outside of the core, time and time again, Bowie accomplished what many organizations struggle to do – he retained his audience and built on their engagement, added additional audiences in different demographics, and effectively influenced the culture around him.


Have a strong point of view, but know what your customer wants

As Bowie’s willingness to experiment with new and popular genres demonstrates, he always had his eye on how tastes were evolving. At the same time, he was sincere in his own artistry, and was not afraid to challenge his audience. As Bowie recalled, “My own success as a songwriter and performer, I think, really flies or not on whether I’m doing it with personal integrity. All my biggest mistakes are when I try to second guess or please an audience.”1

Bowie was at his best when he worked with his natural skills and was true to his creative sensibilities.  In much the same way, companies should have a considered understanding of their strengths and positioning, as well as how their resources may be redeployed in the future.  It also means that companies need to be true to themselves, which requires that they are authentic to their audience as well as in their internal culture.