Punk Rock Innovation

Creative Leadership, Serious Play

the damned punk rockAs a teenager I was captivated by the first wave of British punk, that sprang from a general tiredness with the pomp and circumstance of progressive rock, three album boxed set albums and 20 minute drum solos. I was amongst those witnessing the birth of The Damned, The Doctors of Madness, Wire, The Adverts, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cramps, The Fabulous Poodles, Billy Bragg, The Jam and narrowly missed The Sex Pistols at one of their warm up gigs. We also managed a support slot with The Fall and were showered with beer bottles whilst supporting a skinhead Oi band who took an intense dislike to our punk art ensemble Alternative Posing. To get us in the mood for some punk, let’s begin with The Damned

Punk rock’s rebellion against prog rock was a case of simplification, brevity and authenticity. Simplification was about three chords or even less. As The Adverts put it “One Chord Wonders”. Brevity was exactly what it said on the tin, with some of Wire’s early recordings coming in at under one minute in length. And authenticity was all about singing about streetlife and a rejection of the mysticism and fantasy world of some of the prog rock bands. Don’t get me wrong – I love prog rock but punk was fresh, direct and spoke to me in a way that was immediate and potent.

So, what has all this got to do with business innovation? Well, the punk principles underlying what Clayton Christiansen calls ‘disruptive innovation’ are directly applicable to business innovation.


einstein on creativity and simplicityEinstein could have been a punk when he said that things should be made as simple as possible but no simpler. As a demonstration of this principle, he was reputed to have one bar of soap, for washing and shaving. In a complex world those companies that achieve the quality of ‘resonant simplicity’ put themselves in the running to win the innovation game. One of the major causes of failure in new product introduction is an overly complex proposition.

In service enterprises, some companies are making their processes so complex that the customer ends up becoming the ‘end loser’. Witness mobile phone company O2’s bizarre approach to customer service when I had the need to contact them recently. I asked that they call me to discuss my concern whereupon they informed me that they had ‘no process for calling customers’. The irony of a phone company that could not make a phone call was not lost on me and I wanted to write a punk rock song about it, except that Blondie beat me to it with “Hangin’ on the telephone” and “Call me”.


Forget the talk of Generation X / Y being different etc. The human being has not altered biochemically speaking and the changes in our attention spans cannot be blamed on our genes. What has altered in the last 20 years is the amount of ‘thin slicing’ of our lives with e-mail, texts, the internet and so on. The result is that many of us have less time for longer things and that means that anyone wishing to convey a message to us must be brief if they are to capture our attention.

Companies with complex products and services need to work especially hard to convey their features and benefits in ways that take less time than their competitors. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em Amazon are masters of the ‘one click and you’re done’ approach. My friends in local government public services have a great deal to learn from them in terms of giving satisfaction in one hit, having mostly lengthened their processes by putting the online. A belligerent and demanding public expect more, more quickly. It’s what pomp and circumstance rockers Queen must have meant when they said “I want it all, I want it now”!

On the subject brevity, we cannot pass on without checking out post punk band Wire’s 1 minute and 55 seconds epic 1 2 XU :


Lou reed on creativityCustomer engagement comes out of a sense of connection with a particular product or service. This requires the company to have a genuine voice, which reaches the customer’s head, heart and soul. Lou Reed and Annie Lennox summed authenticity up in one sentence:

“I do me better than anyone else”

“Be yourself tonight” 

If it’s that simple, why do companies invest millions in ‘being someone else’? Answers on a postcard …


Where did punk go wrong?

I’m not suggesting that punk rock is a prescription for success, as all business models have their strengths and limitations. In punk rock’s case, the punk movement and the music ate itself within a few years of its adrenaline and narcotic inspired inception. But punk morphed itself into new wave and gradually added itself into the mainstream of music through groups such as Blink 182, Fall Out Boy and Green Day some 20 years later. Like all good disruptive innovations, punk got absorbed into everyday culture though fashion and power pop music. Whilst the purists may say that this is a perversion of the origins of punk, all radical movements eventually get absorbed into popular culture if they are successful. Just walk into any high street fashion shop and you will see the remnants of Vivienne Westwood’s designs packaged up for a new generation.

Finally, let’s reach for another punk classic from The Sex Pistols about disengagement, every HR manager’s nightmare:


Feel free to contact me by e-mail peter@nullhumdyn.co.uk for your free copy of “Punk Rock People Management – a no-nonsense guide to hiring, inspiring and firing staff”.


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