How The Band OK Go Are Making It Up As They Go Along
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” That’s Michelangelo describing his creative process. Many of us buy that description at face value. Before it is ever created, the finished artistic work is fully realized, if not literally in the stone then in the creator’s head.
We entertain the same myth with respect to scientific discovery, assuming that the process proceeds the way it’s written up in the final paper. The scientist identifies a gap in the literature, makes prudent predictions based on previous research, tests them using the most appropriate methodology, and advances our knowledge through the findings.
And in business we are encouraged as leaders to define our goals or values, translate them into a concrete strategy and operationalize the strategy as particular short-term goals. We then evaluate our effectiveness according to whether we attained those goals.
It doesn’t work that way. As astrophysicist Mario Livio writes in his book Brilliant Blunders , the process of scientific discovery is full of fits and starts, dead ends, and outright mistakes. Some of the biggest scientific discoveries were surprises or detours from initial explorations. It’s a messy process re-imagined neater in the telling.
In business, often we don’t realize what our values were until we look back at the decisions we made and the outcomes they produced. As Karl Weick wrote in his classic book Sensemaking in Organizations , “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Sense is often made retrospectively. Leaders act first. Then they examine the actions they’ve taken and weave a plausible narrative in which those actions make sense.
Art too often involves creation through action rather than through planning.
OK Go is a band whose career was built through the popularity of their highly synchronized videos involving complex choreographed and coordinated sequences. Their video for “Here it Goes Again,” known as the “treadmill video,” was a single take of the band doing an elaborately choreographed routine on eight treadmills. The video for “The Writing’s On the Wall” walks the viewer though a series of optical illusions. Most recently, in the video for “I Won’t Let You Down,” the band collaborates with 2300 dancers to do a complex dance number, again in a single take.
OK Go’s videos are so synchronized, they look as if they had been storyboarded for months. Not so. According to lead singer Damian Kulash, it is much more a process of trial and error and discovery. “We come up with an idea that we think is pretty good,” he told me, “and then we just start playing with it with the people we will be collaborating with. Within a month of screwing around with that idea, it’s becomes something pretty different.” Although the process is not always efficient in terms of time and money, it works for them. “The reason this comes naturally to us is because it’s a much more common way to make things when you’re writing music. You pick up a guitar and try it.”
Instead of starting with a final outcome and figuring out the best way to get there, the band picks a direction to head off in. “Care and planning is important but can only be attained by doing,” Kulash said. “After we’ve taken ten steps in that direction, we reassess. What’s the most interesting direction to be in? And if it’s directly back the way we came, then it was probably a bad idea to start with.”
One of the band’s mottos is “Cut twice, measure once,” meaning that they do first and figure out what it was they did after they see the result. “Just go do the damn thing and figure out what you’re doing,” Kulash said. “Keep your materials cheap and your ideas flexible and try what you want to do. Because if you’re going to make an object, by the time that object exists, even if you just have a cardboard version of it, you will have a much better idea about what it is and what could be better about it.”
Their newest venture into discovering by doing is to release an album as DNA. It began as a casual conversation about recent advances in encoding information in DNA and turned into a collaboration with Sri Kosuri, a biochemist at U.C.L.A., to represent the band’s fourth studio album, Hungry Ghosts , as the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs of DNA. “DNA is the best data storage system that evolution has ever come up with,” said Kulash.
“Creativity is stuck in boxes of 20th century origin. We tend to think of musicians as doing one thing, and filmmakers as doing another, and journalists as doing a third, and computer programmers doing a fourth because in 1950 or 1980 or even in 2000, a musician made a very particular type of physical object that was completely unlike the physical object that a filmmaker made or a journalist made or a computer programmer made,” Kulash said. “Now all of us make the same thing. We all make ones and zeroes. And while obviously we all know the difference between hearing something and seeing something, the boundaries between these different categories have become really unstable. For us, we see that as a huge creative opportunity.”
The band has ventured in other non-musical directions before. Lead guitarist Andy Ross is founder and lead programmer for Space Inch, a startup behind gaming apps like Make it Rain and Say the Same Thing.
OK Go’s minimal-planning approach echoes the Lean Startup methodology that is gaining momentum in the technology startup community, advocating the iterative development of products in collaboration with early customers rather than through extensive investment in a preconceived fully developed product idea.
For OK Go, expanding their activity to science and technology is a natural extension of their curiosity and drive to discovery.
“I visited NASA’s very large vehicle assembly building and it made me realize that there is a thing beyond art and science that encompasses both of them,” said Kulash. “It’s this raw, insane humanism, like someone being crazy enough to say ‘I can put a man on the moon.’ That’s not science anymore, that’s just insane dreaming.”
OK Go has always collaborated with other creative people, and they are excited by the potential that technology offers of more interdisciplinary collaboration. “Where we wind up getting the most interesting ideas is by collaborating with people who are really good at what they do but asking them to look at it sideways somehow,” he said. “And that’s why the DNA science doesn’t feel totally arbitrary. It feels like it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for our artistic gesture, which we all think is interesting.”
The rest is a process of figuring out.