Sam Phillips on Innovation

In the 1950s, a music fad called “rock ‘n roll” swept the nation. At the forefront of this revolution was Sam Phillips, a record producer credited with discovering such legends as Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, and most notably, Elvis Presley. If you’re wondering how one man can have such an impact, he did it through innovation.

When Elvis first walked into Sam’s record studio to audition, his first inclination was to mimic his hero, Dean Martin. Elvis did a pretty good job replicating Dean’s voice, but Sam was not interested in imitation, he wanted innovation. Sam wanted artists who had an original sound. Thankfully, Sam gave Elvis another chance with the instruction that he needed to sing like himself.

In the book The Innovator’s Dilemma, the idea is presented that true success is not based on finding what the customer wants, but on what the customer does not yet know they want. It’s easy to fill today’s void, but are you thinking about the future? In 1950, no one knew that they needed rock ‘n roll…expect Sam Phillips. He saw the business potential and spread the word so everyone could experience it.

From the beginning I was very much interested in exploring some paths that had not been trodden and looking for the hidden possibilities. — Sam Phillips

Even after people got into this new wave of music, Sam continued to innovate. When Elvis left for a larger studio, Sam did not try to find another Elvis-like performer. He continued searching for people with distinct sounds. As leaders, when we lose a star performer, do we try to find someone exactly the same or are we considering people who might bring something a little different to the table?

Can you learn how to be more innovative? Sure. Here’s a simple two-step process.

  1. Do your research. Read industry magazines and websites. Join professional organizations. Network with other leaders. What you learn will be the basis for how you can envision what the future will hold.
  2. Do something about it. Leadership can be a lonely place; innovation does not have to be. Educate your team on the prospective threats and facilitate discussions to generate new ideas.

Innovation is how leaders provide value. It’s not a band-aid to temporarily resolve an issue. And it doesn’t happen by tweaking what past predecessors have already done. Being innovative involves recognizing trends and problems that are on the horizon and putting fresh practices into place today to ensure that you and your team are prepared.