Cliff Goldmacher On 5 Tips for Accelerating Product Ideation & Innovation

An Interview With Rachel Kline


Employ Empathy — Without the ability to understand the needs and issues of your customer base, it’s very difficult — if not impossible — to create something of value to them. Empathy is developed though thoughtful observation which is the same skill that makes for good lyric writing.

In a world where the pace of change is faster than ever, the power of great ideas has never been more crucial. And yet, developing these ideas into impactful, market-ready products can be an immense challenge. The best products are not born overnight, they’re the result of dedicated ideation and innovation processes. These processes aren’t always easy, but they’re necessary and can be catalyzed with the right strategies and approaches. How do you foster a culture of creativity within a team? How can one rapidly translate ideas into prototypes and eventually finished products? How can roadblocks be anticipated and managed effectively to avoid unnecessary delays. In this series, we’re eager to explore insights, stories, and actionable tips from those at the forefront of ideation and innovation. As part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Cliff Goldmacher.

Cliff Goldmacher is a GRAMMY-recognized, #1 hit songwriter, speaker and author who, for the past eight years, has been helping business teams and organizations innovate, enhance their creativity and solve problems by teaching them to write songs. Cliff’s book, “The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering The Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs,” encapsulates the principles of his workshops. Cliff’s clients include Deloitte, Bank of America, IDEO, the ATD and Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a professional songwriter and music producer based in Maryland but with a recording studio in Nashville where I spend a week a month writing with artists and recording album projects. I’ve lived in Manhattan and Sonoma, California as well but always with a presence in Nashville for the music. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some exceptional artists over my career from Ke$ha to Mickey Hart (drummer for the Grateful Dead) and, most recently, I’m writing songs with Jim Tomlinson (husband and producer for jazz artist, Stacey Kent) including the title track on Stacey’s album “I Know I Dream” which recently went gold in France. But in 2015 I began working with business teams and organizations helping them improve their innovative skillsets by leading them through my songwriting workshops.

What led you to this specific career path?

After three decades as a professional songwriter, I came to understand that my experience in the “creativity trenches” would translate nicely to the business world where creativity and creative confidence as it applies to innovation can be in short supply. So I put together an innovation and creativity workshop where I help teams improve their innovation skills by teaching them to write songs. Since then, I’ve led my workshops for scores of businesses and organizations and it’s always a thrill to work with smart, motivated people and teams and to show them that innovation skills can be developed and nurtured.

Can you share the most exciting story that has happened to you since you began at your company?

A few years back, I had the opportunity to work with a team from a Fortune 100 company. I’ve done this many times before but this was the first time the team’s leader was a former prison warden. As a result, leading him and his team through my innovation workshop was a bit more serious — and even tense — than usual. It wasn’t until we finished writing our song — in the style of 80s heavy metal I might add — that the mood lightened and the former prison warden led everyone on the team with the loudest and most passionate performance. I’m constantly amazed at the power of music to open people’s minds to new ways of looking at innovation.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m in the process of writing a new book about how creativity and productivity can work together to improve each other. In a world full of businesses where productivity is prioritized, I’m excited to show people that not only is creativity essential to productivity but also that productivity can improve your creativity as well. This will help companies think about new ways to incorporate innovation into all levels of their organizations since it’s so closely tied to productivity.

You’re a successful business leader. What are three traits about yourself that you feel helped fuel your success? Can you share a story or example for each?

  1. Creativity — Spending a career honoring my own creativity and now helping others uncover theirs has been a big part of my success. Writing a song on a GRAMMY-winning album and a #1 song on the jazz charts felt like my reward for sticking with my creativity for over thirty years.
  2. Consistency — A creative gift is only as good as the work you put in to develop it. I learned relatively early in my songwriting career that the musical gift is only the beginning. The key is in getting up every day and finding ways to continue to develop that gift and get it out in the world. Now, in my work with businesses and organizations, it’s the same. I have to find ways every day to spread the word that creativity and innovation are for everyone and not just a select “gifted” few.
  3. Joy — I’m lucky to have had a career that brings me happiness on a daily basis. This isn’t to say there haven’t been times when I’ve gotten discouraged, made mistakes and run into dead ends but using joy as my compass, I’ve been able to navigate my way back to doing the thing I love and finding a way to turn it into my livelihood.

It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on, I was lucky enough to meet an executive from a large consulting firm on a flight who became my champion inside of her organization when it came to my leading innovation workshops via songwriting. As a result, I thought everyone understood how powerful songwriting can be as a device to teach innovation skills. My mistake came when I pitched my songwriting workshop to an executive retreat and I was rejected because, as they said, “we don’t want a guitar player coming to our meeting.” I learned very quickly to lead with the myriad business applications of exploring innovation and not to just assume that when I told someone their team would be learning to write songs that they would see the big picture.

Do you have any mentors or experiences that have particularly influenced your approach to product ideation and innovation?

When it comes to innovation, every songwriting mentor I’ve ever had (and there have been plenty) has taught me something. Each song you write is a micro-innovation as you’re trying to say/communicate something in a way no one has ever heard it before which is no small task given the number of songs in the world and the fact that, as a co-writer of mine used to say, all songs are pretty much about “love” and “people.”

In your experience, what is the anatomy of a strong product idea?

When it comes to product innovation, simplicity and an untapped need are the key elements. There has to be a sense of inevitability about the product that makes it resonate with people.

What approach does your team use for coming up with new ideas for products and features?

Given that I am a team of one, my approach is a mixture of active ideation and conscious downtime to leave space for thoughts to develop organically. This is a combination I learned in my years of writing songs. In order to write over a thousand songs, you have to figure out a way to lean in and back off in equal measure.

What is the story behind the most successful product or feature idea your team has ever had — what was the need, how did the idea come about, and what was the outcome?

I’m going to use my number one song “Till You Come To Me” written with my collaborator (and the artist), Spencer Day. The below is an excerpt from my book…

Spencer and I were set up to write by a record executive friend of mine after he’d signed Spencer to a development deal with Universal Records. By way of explanation, a development deal means that the record label likes the potential of an artist but isn’t ready to commit the necessary finances for a full album deal and, instead, will provide enough funding for some demos of songs and a showcase performance in order to convince the record company decision makers.

On November 5th, 2008, Spencer showed up at my recording studio on West 37th street in midtown Manhattan. We chatted for about twenty minutes as we got to know each other a bit and then, over the next few hours, we proceeded to write a song called “Till You Come To Me.” The song tells the story of a lovelorn protagonist and is set in a film noir version of a New York City summer. We were both happy with what we’d written and it became clear to me right away that not only was Spencer a gifted artist but also that he and I had great songwriting chemistry.

Spencer demoed the song and included it in his showcase for Universal Records just a few weeks later. At that point, it seemed like we were off to the races. Then a couple of days after his showcase, Spencer called and, just as quickly, what had appeared to be an auspicious beginning came to a grinding halt. He explained that the execs at Universal Records decided to end his development deal and drop him from the label entirely. He then said that since he no longer had a record deal, he would understand if I didn’t want to write with him anymore. I could only imagine how crushingly disappointed he was and I had no intention of adding to that disappointment. I explained to him that I believed in our songwriting partnership and, as far as I was concerned, we would continue to write songs whether or not he had a record deal.

To Spencer’s infinite credit, he picked himself up and opted to finance his own recording project and release his album independently. And this is where things got good.

While Spencer was recording his album, there was a record executive from Concord Jazz named Nick Phillips in the next studio over who, unbeknownst to Spencer, had been listening to the songs coming from Spencer’s studio. Not only did Nick like what he heard but he ultimately signed Spencer to a record deal with Concord Jazz. On top of that, that very first song Spencer and I wrote twenty minutes after meeting each other was the song that the new label chose to release as the album’s first single. “Till You Come To Me” climbed the jazz charts for fifty weeks and ended up at number one.

While I wouldn’t exactly describe this approach as a business plan, it certainly serves as a strong reminder to me that if my head and heart are in the right place, the rest will end up taking care of itself. And it certainly has.

What, in your view, is the biggest challenge with respect to innovation?

I think there is an inherent lack of creative confidence in business due, in large part, to the emphasis on productivity over creativity and discomfort with the unknown. Once it becomes clear that creativity is something that we all possess and it isn’t something to be feared or ignored, then a culture of innovation can grow inside of even the most productive companies.

Thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what are your “5 Tips for Accelerating Product Ideation & Innovation”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

I’m going to preface my answers by saying that each of the tips I’m going to suggest is something that I help my clients explore and develop via learning to write songs.

1 . Think laterally — My favorite expression is Abraham Maslow’s “For a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, in order to come up with new ideas/innovations, it helps to think about common problems from different angles. In my songwriting workshops, taking a business challenge and exploring it via metaphor (reimagining their challenge in a more emotion-rich and visual way) is the method I use to help teams to think laterally.

2 . Communicate — Getting “buy-in” both internally and, ultimately, in the way you market your innovation comes down to clear, distilled and compelling communication. Learning to write the chorus lyric to a song is a perfect analog to effective and infectious communication.

3 . Collaborate — Creativity and innovation are best served by the bringing together of diverse points of view where each contributor plays to their strengths and defers to the others in areas where the contributor might be less able. The way I emphasize this in my workshop is by showing the teams that the reason they can do something they previously thought impossible (e.g., writing a song) is because they can rely on each other to contribute to the lyric using their own particular points of view and storytelling skills.

4 . Employ Empathy — Without the ability to understand the needs and issues of your customer base, it’s very difficult — if not impossible — to create something of value to them. Empathy is developed though thoughtful observation which is the same skill that makes for good lyric writing.

5 . Take Risks — The perception that the status quo is safe is a false one. Given the rate of change in today’s marketplace, it’s as risky, if not more so, to stay with what’s currently working than it is to explore new and innovative ideas. By slowly and steadily inuring yourself to risk-taking, you stand a greater chance of truly significant innovation. Getting seasoned executives to leave their comfort zone and write songs is a microcosm of the risk-taking they’ll need to pursue to innovate effectively and consistently.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Apple’s Tim Cook

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!