May 27, 2016

Three Ways to the Woodshed

There is a bird for every occasion
I wanna show my favorite location
C’mon and sing to me now, bird
C’mon and sing to me now, bird
“Charlie Parker” by I’m From Barcelona

Going to the woodshed is a strategy that we can take from the world of
music and apply to business to achieve creative breakthroughs. The
“woodshed” refers to a place of isolation, away from distractions. In
business you might call this a “offsite strategy session.” In “
The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity
,” author John Kao writes
“For discontinuous leaps to be achieved, the innovators typically remove themselves to what jazz musicians call ‘the woodshed.’” Let’s look at where this term originated, and then talk about how you can use this as a strategy for yourself and your team.

Charlie Parker, Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955), also known as “Yardbird” and “Bird,” was an American jazz saxophonist and composer who is credited as a leading figure in the development of the “bebop” jazz style.

A violent scene in the movie “Whiplash” was likely inspired by a moment in young Charlie Parker’s life: when Bird was young, he went to a jam session, lead by musicians much better than him. Another sax player took a few choruses, then Bird took one. The band wasn’t happy with his playing, so the trumpet player motioned the drummer to do something. The drummer unscrewed one of the cymbals and hucked it at Bird, missing him. Bird took notice, then left.

Bird went home, and started practicing in the woodshed behind his house. From then on, Bird went to the woodshed; practicing for weeks, months and years until he became an icon of 20th century jazz music. Later, he ran into the same band members who kicked him off the stage, and jammed again. The sax player (same one who pissed him off years ago), after the jam session, hucked his horn into the river because Bird had outdone him like no one else could, and felt that there was no point in playing.

This is a common practice for composing or recording songs in the studio. Musicians, producers and engineers might be in the studio for days, weeks and even months at a time laboring over their creation. You’ve probably read stories of the Rolling Stones, and their “AirBnB” castle on the French Riviera, or The Police in Montserrat.

I was reminded of this strategy recently when
ShareThis team members began conducting multi-day offsite meetings, renting AirBnB homes. A small team of about six people secluded themselves to work on solving an interesting problem. Not only did they focus on creative solutions to problems, but they cooked for each other, got to know each other and had a great time. It strengthened their relationships and created memories that will last.

So why haven’t we seen more of this in corporate environments, or even startups? Most of us are probably familiar with the offsite strategy session, so we understand the value of getting away. But the sessions only occur once or twice a year for many.

Why don’t we go to the woodshed more often? How many other employees, particularly those involved in creative pursuits or have the need for deep work, could benefit from frequenting the woodshed? There are two major benefits:

1) You engage in “deep work” over a sustained period of time.
2)The team members build trust, and trusted relationships lead to high-performance teams.

My colleague at Cintrifuse, Sarah Anderson, introduced me to the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. It makes a great case for getting away from the daily deluge of distractions and news feeds in our life to focus and reflect. Musicians have known this for a long time! Here are three ways to think about how to leverage the woodshed to stimulate creativity:

1) Individual “deep work” time. Schedule time on your calendar weekly for short periods of work. On an annual or semi-annual basis, schedule time to get away by yourself. Create time and space to reflect on your priorities. Refresh your mind and soul.

2) Offsite creative teamwork. Put together small, cross-functional groups to go away for a few days to take on a challenge or review strategy. This could be a great way to get people together who may not spend much time together on a daily basis. It will lead to better understanding and empathy for various roles in the organization. Also, consider this as a great way to onboard new employees or even board members. Concentrated time together in structured and unstructured, informal settings will unlock new ideas and insights.
3) Customer focused engagement. Consider inviting one or more of your customers to join you. Ask them to share their priorities and business challenges. What is their long-term vision? What market challenges can you work on together? They may learn from you and each other, and you will certainly learn from them. Taking on a challenge together, shoulder-to-shoulder, is a powerful way to cement a relationship for the long-term.

How have you leveraged going to the woodshed with your teams? How often do you get away and for how long? What strategies have you found successful for a breakthrough performance?
#startupcincy: Think your team needs to be taken to the woodshed? Let me know how I can help… or host!

  • Tim Schigel

    From my friend Steve Jordan, legendary producer & drummer. Member of John Mayer Trio, The Verbs, The Expensive Winos and many more:

    Wood shedding is extremely important in individual and team growth. It doesn’t happen more often because it’s a deep commitment and there’

    s no guarantee of the outcome. However, if you have the wherewithal to know you have to go to the shed, usually the outcome is positive. For instance, I For instance, I can recall several wood shedding experiences in my career. Primarily known as a drummer @ the time, I decided to stop playing and go in

    the woodshed to play more bass and guitar to focus more on writing music. There was no guarantee but I was determined to grow. The results were, I became

    a good enough guitarist to enhance my song writing, improve my production skills and also enhance my drumming, fore when I started playing drums again,

    I appreciated them more and I believe I played more musically and always let the “song” play itself from that point on.



  • Jeffrey Shepard

    This might be the single most thought out/thought provoking blog post I have read this year.

    Since I refer to my time in isolation as a time where I am “chopping wood”, (and I spent a summer actually doing this in my youth) I get this post and concept. We love to talk about things that don’t matter at all in the “start-up” scene. Who was pitching who, who raised what and who is launching this week with free t-shirts. We forget that we are just young companies like young infants, with tremendous abilities and growth potential with the abilty to grow in a series of different directions. If we focus on what we should, the company grows and prospers. Focus on the wrong things, the company fails. As simple as it sounds the biggest difference between being a success and failing falls into the ability for its leaders to be not only effective in all aspects of communication and strategic thinking, but also having the ability to be creative or the openness to foster a creative environment at their start-up. It is at this moment that we stay open to ideas that we often hear referred to as “Pivots”. These are the equivalent of re-writing a song as a musical artist. You have a great foundation, you just need to “re-work it”. Without creativity this doesn’t happen. You have to pause, reflect, and then with some creativity revisit and make the changes. Its not as easy as people think.

    Sadly, we don’t have enough conversation about this topic. Thanks for opening this dialog on this topic, and others as you have done with your blog. I hope that it challenges our leaders in #startupcincy to be open to exploring new ideas and reflect on the creative process and what they can do to champion it.

    • Tim Schigel

      Thanks Jeffrey! I’m glad this was helpful and spurred some thinking for you. Your response also triggered a thought for a future post!