Originally published on Forbes.com.
New Order’s “Blue Monday” is the highest selling 12-inch single in history. The single was packaged in a die-cut sleeve with a silver inner sleeve, a creative presentation that was expensive to produce. So much so that every time they sold a single, New Order’s record label, Factory Records, lost money. The more the single sold, the more they lost.
Granted, Factory Records never thought “Blue Monday” would be so commercially successful. But the “Blue Monday” case highlights a common problem: extremely creative people often fail because they do not take into account practical matters of feasibility, implementation, and cost. Their disregard for practical constraints becomes their undoing.
Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, for example, supplies a seemingly endless variety of creative ideas. These innovations include releasing a Valentine’s Day album of love songs by embedding a USB stick deep inside an anatomically correct chocolate heart (the limited edition sold out), streaming a 24-hour-long song (and selling it for $5000 implanted in a human skull), embedding songs in gummy fetuses (“Eat your way to the new music!”), a collaborative album with duets with artists from different genres, such Ke$a and Yoko Ono, breaking the world record for most concerts played in a 24-hour period, and a musical based on their albumYoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. At this year’s SXSW festival, they made a splash by premiering the world’s first vertical iPhone movie.
Most recently, Coyne released a special limited edition of a comic book, The Sun Is Sick, at Comic-Con 2013, currently running at the San Diego Convention Center. The adult themed comic features 40 6 ½” x 8 ½” full-color pages.
How do Coyne and his band members prevent their ideas from becoming “Blue Monday”-like fiascos? Because they have a practical person on their team: longtime manager Scott Booker. Research shows that innovation is most successful when creative people have practically-minded people on their team. In a study of 41 teams in a large high-technology company, professors Ella Miron-Spektor, Miriam Erez, and Eitan Naveh found that the most innovative teams had creative team members as well as team members whose primary focus is on complying with the rules of the game and the constraints at hand.
Scott Booker helps The Flaming Lips turn Coyne’s many ideas into part of a thriving enterprise. “I’ve always said I’m 75% business and 25% art,” Booker told me, “And Wayne is 25% business and 75% art.” Coyne comes to Booker with various ideas. “And I throw in my two cents of, ‘We can do it like that or we could add a couple of elements that just makes it a little bit more open to more people.’”
For example, Coyne’s original concept for their album Zaireeka was that it would be 100 CDs. Booker negotiated him down to four. He figured it would be a hard sell to their label, Warner Brothers, so he decided to frame it as a marketing tool anticipating the release of The Flaming Lips’s more commercial Soft Bulletin album. He researched and then worked closely with the various departments at Warner to figure out how to produce the 4-CD set for a consumer-friendly price. Warner initially wanted to retail is for more than $60. But Booker figured out a way to sell it for less than $20. As a result,Zaireeka was profitable and sold many more copies than expected. It was recently re-released.
Idea generation requires unconventional thinking, risk taking, and a willingness to make mistakes. But turning the idea into a viable business means actually implementing it in the market or in an existing organization. It requires practical thinking. It requires promoting the idea through conventional channels. To support creative people on the team, people like Booker need the ability to speak multiple languages: the language of the creative people and the languages of the other stakeholders who are involved in turning ideas into successes. As Booker said, “I assume that what [Coyne] wants to do is the right thing to do, but I try to give an opinion in such a way that will make it easier or make sense for the rest of the team, for the record label, for the lawyer, for the publisher, for the audience, for whomever else is there.”
A team without any creative people is unlikely to innovate. But a team of just creatives is unlikely to get very far. They need people who appreciate their forward-thinking ideas and who have the skills to turn those ideas into realities. And those supporters need to take a leap of faith. “I feel like it’s my job to be the voice of reason,” Booker told me, “But only halfway. If I was a real voice of reason, none of us would be doing this at all because it’s insane what we’re trying to do. But any great start-up business is insane, really. You’re going to fail. But you might not.”