How to Use the Musical Mind at Work

r. michael hendrix
11 min readAug 4, 2021

Best-selling author Micah Solomon interviews Michael Hendrix and Panos Panay about their book, Two Beats Ahead

Micah Solomon is the author of four business bestsellers. His writing is regularly featured on and as well as in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Harvard Business Review, Washington Post, and elsewhere. He also happens to be a longtime friend of Two Beats Ahead co-author, Panos Panay. In fact, Micah introduced Panos to his wife! This summer we were fortunate to have Micah interview us about our book, and specifically, how the mindsets are applicable for business leaders.

Micah Solomon: What is it about the musician’s mindset that sets musicians up for success as entrepreneurs, leaders, and problem solvers?

Michael Hendrix: The nature of creating music is collaborative. It requires empathy, a willingness to share and iterate, a sense for pattern recognition, a value for curiosity and a comfort with experimentation. These are all traits that entrepreneurs need to be successful too. And we’d argue that our own success has been because of these musical characteristics.

Panos Panay: It also requires listening, which is a mindset that makes it easier to adapt to changing contexts. We explore this in several ways in our book — listening to the space between the notes — as Miles Davis said, listening to yourself, listening to your environment, listening to others.

MS: When did you realize that thinking like a musician would help you in other aspects of life?

MH: Let me build on your question and ask, “when did you realize you thought like a musician?” We both didn’t really have this epiphany until our mid 40s. So we went along for decades unaware that our musical minds were at work even when we weren’t writing and playing music. It was our chance meeting at a creative economy conference in Boston that got us to start articulating this idea more clearly. As we shared our interests with each other we realized that we had similar ways of seeing the world through our creativity. We developed these ideas by teaching them to students at Berklee College of Music. We started calling them transferable mindsets — concepts that work in music, applied outside of the art itself.

MS: For entrepreneurs and business leaders, you write that emotional due diligence can lead to a better outcome than financial due diligence. Can you explain what emotional due diligence is and why you believe this is true?

MH: We didn’t come up with this term. We took it from Björk. The financial collapse of 2008 started in Iceland. She wanted to help rebuild their economy so partnered with Audur Capital run by Halla Tómasdóttir and Kristín Pétursdóttir. They created a venture fund that was female oriented, environmentally conscious and largely built on intuition rather than analysis. That fund faired well throughout the economic rebuilding stage.

PP: When we look at our own careers, so much of our own success has been tied up in belief — belief in a vision, belief in people, belief in opportunity. This belief isn’t blind faith. It’s belief built upon lived experience.

MS: You argue that we’ve gotten play at work all wrong and that the greatest benefit of play is not in letting employees take a break from work but rather integrating play into the research and development process. What’s your advice on how organizations can get this right?

MH: Experimentation is necessary for new ideas. Failure is the only way to move forward. Work culture needs to integrate these mindsets into all parts of the organization. They can’t be compartmentalized into the innovation department or particular product development processes. I’ve seen “design thinking rooms” and “innovation rooms” in buildings along with their ping pong table in the corner. That’s a sure sign that company has no idea about how to be creative. They’ve made creativity and play a “thing” instead of a “mindset.”

Play and experimentation also can’t be edited out of business culture. When you hear “failure is not an option” then you know that culture is a fear culture and fear cultures don’t play, don’t experiment, don’t make creative leaps. They have made risk mitigation their primary directive. Good ideas need development. They need time to adapt, fail, iterate, evolve. Teams need space and time and culture to let this happen. People need permission to take risk.

MS: You write about Beyonce’s collaboration process for her hit album Lemonade and how choosing the right partners is essential. What can business leaders learn from Beyonce to replicate the process and turn something into the Lemonade of their industry?

MH: It comes down to a simple idea. When we see co-wokers or reports as solutions to our problems we’ve stopped seeing them as collaborators. They are just pawns on a chess board of which you believe you are the mastermind. When you’re on the receiving end of this kind of management it feels dehumanizing.

PP: Beyoncé has a 1+1=3 mindset. She chooses her collaborators as creative peers. She’s curious about the result of two people exploring possibilities together rather than her having a purpose that others must fulfill. When she approached Jack White during the Lemonade sessions, she told him, “I want to be in a band with you.” That’s quite different than, “I want you to throw down some licks on this track I’ve made.”

MS: What is the benefit of businesses hiring like they’re forming a band? What steps can they take to do so?

PP: Hiring people for their passions, curiosity and potential is as important as hiring them for their current skill set. It’s also important to hire for what you want to become versus hiring for whatever you think the current need is. Steve Stoute, founder of United Masters, told us that he hires people for their majors and minors — their skills and their passions. And when he’s teambuilding, he’s interested in having that mix of passion and skills because it leads to better outcomes.

MH: When you’re small you have to hire people that can wear “multiple hats.” How should you go about doing that? Think about the primary skill that’s needed, and then also look for complementary adjacent interests, hobbies, side hustles, previous experience, etc. I believe this is actually easier to do today with Gen Z and Millennials — the so-called “Slash Generations.” They believe in fluid identities, in being many things at once and that’s of significant advantage in a small business. Official credentials are less important than they used to be. You could liken this to multi-instrumentalists in a band. They change instruments or roles for each song. I interviewed Steve Marker, one of the founding members of Garbage, recently. He said that having a band of multi-instrumentalists made songwriting better because everyone could contribute to any element of the song — bass, percussion, keys, guitar… even lyrics. That’s the kind of team you want.

MS: In the book, you spend time talking with Hank Shocklee, T Bone Burnett, and Jimmy Iovine about their careers as agile music producers. What exactly does a producer do? And what can we learn from these producers to get the best work out of our own teams?

PP: Honestly, this is our favorite chapter of the book because it is most relevant to us today as creative executives. The job of a producer is to get the best out of the artist. We’d argue that is also the role of great business leaders. Our job is to get the best out of our reports. Each of these producers told us essentially the same thing. When they are working with artists, they are not managing the artists themselves. Instead they are managing the context around the artist. They create the conditions for individuals to play to their strengths, collaborate with peers, tap into their lived experience and be vulnerable. This allows the artists to thrive.

On teams, this can be done by getting to know your teammates well, understanding their strengths and motivations. At enterprise level this is about the systems and policies you create. Asking yourself if you’re creating the ideal conditions for people to thrive is always the place to start.

MS: A chapter in the book is dedicated to reinvention and you cite David Bowie as a great example of someone who successfully continued to reinvent himself. What can we learn from David Bowie as individuals considering reinventing our careers? And what about companies trying to reinvent for a post-pandemic world?

PP: In an interview with 60 Minutes Bowie said that upon reflecting on his career he realized that he’s simply a songwriter who has written about loneliness and isolation his whole life. He expressed this in wildly different ways over the decades, from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke and others until his final character Lazarus. So while someone might look at Bowie from the outside and say that he was indecisive or unstable, the opposite is actually true. Because he knew his core, he could rotate the cast of characters around him to express it in fresh ways.

Our recommendation for anyone that is considering a career change is to look to Bowie. Ask yourself what your core skill and passion is. This has nothing to do with the job titles you’ve had or the once you will have. When you understand this about yourself, you can imagine surprisingly different possibilities that differ from a linear growth path.

MH: As for companies, it’s actually the same advice. Do you know what you do? If you do, then change is possible. In Two Beats Ahead we share stories of Nintendo, Nokia, Fuji Film and National Geographic. These companies have all adapted significantly from where they started. But if you look through their histories you’ll see that core attributes have remained.

A mindset for small businesses to adopt is the remixing mindset. You don’t have the budget or staff for R&D, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be innovative. One of the easiest ways to remix is the idea of transference — taking something successful or normalized from one industry and applying it to another. Often this is about understanding what behaviors people come to expect and asking how you can take advantage of that. A famous one from IDEO is taking the “norm” of an ATM keypad and putting it on a gas dispenser to create “pay-at-the-pump.” That was a technical leap for the manufacturer but a very easy step for the consumer because there was almost no learning curve.

Another mindset that is a great alternative to traditional R&D is demoing. When you have a new product or service idea, don’t worry about the whole package like ops, budget, etc. Just focus on the experience and limit an experiment to a small group with a single feature. Once you get this in front of a few people the value proposition starts to become clear. This is similar to just humming the melody of a new song into your voice memos on your phone. All you’re trying to do is express intent. When other people hear it they can react and you can build on it. After several incremental steps it moves from just being a simple melody to becoming a song with phrases and arrangements.

MS: You both are notably successful in business. Michael, how has your affinity for music informed or even led to your repeated entrepreneurial successes? And is this a repeatable connection, do you feel, for other entrepreneurs-in-the-making?

MH: A mindset I can consistently point to as critical to my success is listening — or in the design field we call it observation. I’ve learned to pay close attention to what people aren’t doing and also to how people work around things in order to accomplish what they want. Noticing the silence or absence of something causes one to ask questions that usually lead to an insight. And noticing people’s hacks, or workarounds, usually reveals the problems with something that can be improved or reveals a need that has not been met yet.

This approach was a huge part of my former company identifying the value proposition for digital alternative samples for carpet. My co-founders and I saw that the lead time for sampling could take up to 12 weeks and that created downtime in the creative and manufacturing process. And we also saw the amount of physical waste involved. By noticing these issues we were able to bring digital tools into the process that changed the lead time to 24 hours, cut the costs by 10X and eliminated landfill waste.

In our book Jimmy Iovine recounts launching Beats by Dre. It’s a perfect example of listening. First, they recognized that even though there were headphones available everywhere, none of them reproduced the emotion they felt in the studio. That was the missing piece. So they set out to make a product that musicians agreed accurately reproduced the feel of the music. Then they also noticed that Apples white ear buds had become a fashion statement. The opportunity there was to replace them with something more stylish and unique. These two observations led to huge success.

MS: How about you, Panos?

PP: It took me years to realize that my music background and my entrepreneurial success were closely related. For the longest of time, I felt that the fact that I did not have, at the time, a traditional business education, that was a shortcoming. But after I was asked to found the Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship at Berklee and reflected upon the best way to teach entrepreneurialism to musicians, I realized that not only were the two closely related but in fact it was because I was a musician that I succeeded as an entrepreneur. My ability to synthesize concepts and create a new “whole”; being able to listen and observe and respond to my environment nimbly and iteratively; my way of collaborating, relating to people and putting teams together, and my comfort for ambiguity and improvisation were all byproducts of my creative background and keys to my success as a company founder. That’s when I came to realize that entrepreneurship and musicianship are in many ways two sides of the same coin: both are creative endeavors, that aim to resonate with and find an audience, that are products of passion and acts of dissatisfaction with the “way that things are just done”.

Two Beats Ahead, What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation, is available from Public Affairs in the U.S. and from Penguin Business in Europe.

Panos A. Panay is the Co-President of The Recording Academy, producer of the GRAMMY Awards. He also serves as the Academy’s Chief Revenue Officer and is a Fellow at MIT Connection Science. Prior to his current role he served as the Senior Vice President for Global Strategy and Innovation at Berklee College of Music, the founder of the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (BerkleeICE).

R. Michael Hendrix is a Partner and the Global Design Director at design and innovation consultancy IDEO, where he has worked on everything from home goods to homeland security. He is also an Assistant Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee College of Music.



r. michael hendrix

Author @public_affairs, Professor on pause @BerkleeCollege, Boston experimental musician @rm_hendrix, former @IDEO partner