Like a virgin

Oct 25 2006 by Max McKeown Print This Article

In 1985, Madonna Louise Ciccone joined the best selling singles of the year for the first time with "Borderline", joining Deniece Williams, Cyndi Lauper, Sheila E., and Nena's "99 red balloons".

Fast forward to 2005 and once again she appears on the list with "Hung Up" in the company of Natasha Bedingfield, Ciara and Kelly Clarkson.

So why has Maggs managed to thrive over two decades, selling more than 200 million singles (making her the most successful woman artist of all time) while others around her have faded away?

The reason usually given is "reinvention", of which craft Ms. Ciconne (or should we say, Mrs Richie) is judged to be a master craftsman or mistress craftswoman - in stark contrast to many of her fellow musicians.

Having that first hit may have involved hard work, but no-one can be sure what will rock and what will rot. In the language of population ecology, the first hit is the result of a more-or-less chance series of mutations that produce something that better fits the environment, or appeals to the music buying public more than the next 180 seconds of licks and hooks.

Who would have guessed that impeccably posh ex-soldier, James Blunt, would have penned a successful album, that three mouseketeers would dominate the pop charts, or that an animated frog would outsell serious muzos Coldplay?

The reason that one artist stops being successful is a little easier to understand since mutations (new pop acts) are constantly bubbling up, both as a result of individual ambition and the constantly evolving musical taste of the buying public. Allied to these are the new waves of toddlers and teenies who know little about the past and so tend to buy the present - or at least insist that someone else buys it for them.

Constant competition in a changing market means that only an act that can change will maintain its position in the charts. Unfortunately for the groups in question, they often don't know why they have been successful - it just happened that way - so find it hard to modify what they didn't design in the first place.

Even worse, they rarely have time to do any mutating of their own since they are busy with tours, interviews, video shoots and music award ceremonies. There are no "free floating resources" left with which to find new habits, hooks, or fashions (Craig David, teenage drum-and-bass sensation even wrote a song "rise and fall" about losing his grip on what is hot).

The same stuff happens with organisations and with our individual careers. Success (particularly big success) can be fleeting and mysterious. It reduces the range of variation (in the genotype of the firm and the phenotype of its members) in the service of efficiency.

Lacking either the time or the humility to consider other options, the firm will naturally lose its competitive position when the market shifts from beneath it. Structural inertia kills the future of a firm just as surely as three chord monotony will eventually bring about the demise of a band.

Being very good (or even better) is not enough. You have to somehow become the hub of things new that are as popular as the old things were. Sure it's a risk Ė the so-called 'liability of newness', but then so is staying the same. Yet it is a risk that can be reduced by understanding how the reinvention queens and kings keep all virgin fresh while building on past success.

The most important skill that they have is an ability to spot, attract and trust new talent. Madonna does not work alone. Her reinventions have come about by listening to those who are listening to music trends and then being credible enough to attract producers and musicians who benefit from working with her without losing kudos among their peers.

In other words, she shares her success and has the reputation of being good for other people's careers Ė not just her own.

In the just the same way, you and your organisation needs to get risk losing a little bit of daily efficiency using current ways of thinking to listen to the listeners, to understand shapes and trends and patterns in the environment and take part in redesigning in ways that will require the spotting, attracting and trusting of new talent along with a willingness to share success.

Sure that might mean the strategic equivalent of crucifixes, then pointy bras and purple leotards, but it will also mean world-beating reinvention.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.