Transformational Ideation vs. Original Ideatation

Or: Why ’80s Pop Bowie Is Better than ’70s Glam Bowie

David Bowie is one of the most important musicians in my personal pantheon. And I’ve always liked the pop music he made in the 1980s better than the glam rock that made him famous in the 1970s.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to define why I like ’80s Bowie better than I ever liked ’70s Bowie. Part of it is because I’m a child of the ’80s and that’s the pop music I grew up on. But there’s more to it than just that. And it leads me to an interesting insight into the nature of ideational work.

Our modern culture prioritizes innovation to the point of fetishizing it. Because of this, we assign the greatest value to people who can come up with new ideas. This is an immensely valuable skill.

But it’s not the only skill necessary for us to do our best ideation work.

I’ve known people who weren’t any good at coming up with new ideas but who were brilliant at exploring the ideas of others. They can take your idea and discover potential in it you never saw. They can develop your idea into something better than you ever envisioned.

I’ve known people who were geniuses at connecting ideas together. They can take your idea and match it to some other idea you never would have thought related, and together these ideas become better than anything you imagined.

To borrow from the language of copyright law: There’s original work and transformative work. Some people are brilliant at doing the transformative work even if they’re not skilled at doing original work.

This sort of exploration and development work is as important as the work of coming up with new ideas. This is the work that transforms ideas into their best possible versions.

Transformational ideation is also better suited to recognize when existing ideas offer better solutions than new ideas. After all, just because an idea is new, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s good. Just because an idea is old, doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad. Original thinkers have a hard time seeing this.

(It’s also true that “because we’ve always done it this way” is never an acceptable reason to refuse to consider newer options.)

Transformational ideation work is criminally under-valued in our innovation culture. We pay the price when we fail to recognize, value, and reward transformational ideation work. We are less capable and less successful when we focus all our accolades on the original thinkers and ignore the transformational thinkers.

To bring it back to Bowie: This explains why his ’70s glam rock remains more popular despite his ’80s pop work being far more artistically accomplished and ultimately more influential. We’re more dazzled by original innovation than by transformational ideation.

Or to put it another way…

Consider the TV competition show Top Chef. Every season, you see the same thing: Some chefs do new and innovative stuff, and some chefs stick with traditional techniques.

This is true of every art form: Some people want to push the boundaries, do new things, bring their art to places it’s never gone before, redefine what their art can be. While some people dive into the traditions of their art, exploring existing ideas to mine every nuance, examine every detail, to create the most perfect possible expression of the core ideas.

I like to say that some artists push outward while some dive inward. The artists who dive inward easily recognize the value of the work being done by those who push out. But the people who push out rarely see value in the work of the ones who dive in. The work of artists who push out invariably garners more acclaim and notoriety than the work of those who explore inward. Pushing out is flashy and revolutionary.

But both approaches are valuable. Both require skill, artistry, mastery, discipline, and vision (whether farsight or insight). Both are necessary for an art to remain healthy and evolve.

Bowie is fascinating in large part because he pushed out and dove in at different periods throughout his career. He gained fame in the ’70s by pushing the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll. But in the ’80s, he gave up his role as a rock innovator-cum-provocateur and turned inward. He turned his attention to the ideas he found all around him. He found value in exploring the musical environment of the ’80s pop scene, delved into all its nuance and potential, amalgamated, transformed, elevated, perfected what he heard.

Instead of being a musical revolutionary, he sought to take his place as pop’s Great Sage.

This transformational work was just as visionary and ultimately more masterful than his work as a young innovator. His transformational work displays more artistry and craft, more skill and insight, than his youthful musical rebellion.

I value inward-facing artists. I value transformational work. In large part because it’s what I’m best at but also because it’s perennially undervalued compared to how we idolize innovation and originality.

We need transformational work to make our ideas—both new and old—the very best ideas they can be.

Transformational ideators deserve far more respect than we give them.


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