​​A Little History About the Banjo and Three Lessons on Innovation

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Have you ever heard of Earl Scruggs? Odds are that, if you have, then the only thing you remember about him is that he played banjo on the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies. If you know a little more, you know he was part of one of the great bluegrass groups, Flatt and Scruggs.   And if you know a little bit more, you may know he got his start with the most famous bluegrass musician of all time – Bill Monroe. But, if you really know something – if you really recognize the name Earl Scruggs – you know he is the father of the modern bluegrass banjo; you know he is the one that invented the three-fingered picking style you hear almost every time someone picks up a banjo. 

Now, I know there's a whole bunch of you out there cringing like you hear the sound of fingerpicks scraping down a blackboard as you scream "Noooo – not the banjo!!" Seems the banjo is an instrument you either really like or you really hate – no in between. And there seems to be a great many people who are on that "hate" side. (In fact, the only instrument I can think of that engenders more love or more hate – with an even larger contingent on the hate side – is the bagpipes. And so the banjo teaches us something unrelated– no matter how bad off you are, there is always someone worse off. But back to our regularly scheduled lessons.)

Even if you are a "banjo hater", follow with me on this one. Because it is hard to come up with any better example of innovation than what Earl Scruggs did to the banjo – the development of an entirely new way to play an instrument, a new way to play an instrument that not only changed the face of the instrument, but the face of an entire genre of music.

On the CD "The Three Pickers" (where Earl plays with Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs – additional names that, if you know anything about bluegrass, I need say no more) he tells the story of how he came up with his revolutionary approach.

 "I was playing [the song] 'Reuben'…and suddenly realized I had this roll going. It came to me like that."

There's lesson number one. Innovation comes when you least expect it. (I often ask the question "When do you get your best ideas?" I never hear the answer "When I'm working real hard.") Earl Scruggs is unable to explain any more about how he did it. He wasn't trying to come up with something new. In fact, he wasn't as good at playing banjo as other people. Nope, he was just sitting around one day trying to play a song he knew. And the next thing he knew he had invented a new way to play the instrument.

He goes on. "And I played that same tune the rest of the week."

Lesson number two. Stumbling across innovation is only the beginning. The skills that are at the root of innovation have to be honed. Running naked through the streets screaming "Eureka" is worth nothing until you go ahead and weigh the crown.

Scruggs then goes on to tell about the first reaction he got.  "My oldest brother, Junie – he'd come over on Saturday and I couldn't wait for him to hear me pick. He came walking up the road, and I got out on the edge of the porch picking… Every once in a while I'd see him turn his head to one side…getting a little drift [of] it. He come up through the yard, up the steps, and he started in the house. and he said, 'Is that all you know?'"

(Big brother has just heard someone change the face of bluegrass music, and it's like the old joke "Is that all you do, bird imitations?"   Just a little bit of sibling rivalry, and an example of how a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country.)

Lesson number three is this: An idea is good. Working on that idea until it is real is better. But none of it is worth anything until you can really apply it. Great ideas – the game changers; the kind we are really talking about when we talk about innovation – are not one trick ponies. They are concepts that change the game, not just one roll of the dice.

I love talking to people about creativity and innovation. And many of these people lament the lack of creativity in their audit departments. They say they want people to think for themselves, they say they want new ideas, they say they want creativity and innovation. And yet, they continue to speak from the other side of their mouths as they ask for adherence to structure, timetables, and existing policies and procedures. They ask why people don't act like they are free as they preach the need for chains.

If you are serious about wanting more out of your auditors and your auditing department (if you're serious about wanting more out of yourself), take the lessons from Earl Scruggs to heart. Allow for the freedom to get away and get those innovative ideas, and then allow for the time to work through those ideas, to learn what they mean, and to learn how they can be used. But then, be ready to bring it all back to earth. As a friend once chastised me, "You can be as creative as you want. But it isn't worth anything until you put it into action."

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