A music theory book might seem like an unusual place to find inspiration for innovative thinking, but there is a musical principle that provides a useful metaphor for how innovators find inspiration – and also happens to separate the great composers from the mediocre ones. That principle is dissonance.
The Power of Dissonance
In its most extreme form, dissonance is that terrible sound you hear when two notes don’t harmonize, such as when someone sings off-key in a choir. When used in moderation, however, dissonance is powerful, as evidenced by the emotional response provoked almost without fail by the song “Someone Like You,” the singer-songwriter Adele’s masterpiece. In the run-up to Adele’s sweep of the 2012 Grammy Awards, the Wall Street Journal published a piece pinpointing the subtle examples of dissonance sprinkled throughout the song as its secret, tear-jerking power.
Dissonance, by definition, creates tension, and makes listeners crave resolution. Resolution is the natural direction for music to take, and so when it happens, it provides immediate relief without most listeners ever realizing the tension was there in the first place. Though it can be difficult to identify as a layperson, the best composers understand its power and use it consciously to make their music more provocative, by following the dissonance where it naturally leads them.
What can innovators learn from this?
Think of musical dissonance as an “unnatural” phenomenon that must be resolved to allow the “natural” state of musical harmony to return. The problem is, recognizing disharmony in the real world can be much more difficult than identifying a sour note in a musical composition, since we’re so accustomed to seeing certain problems as intractable, or “natural.” When a person can identify the dissonance of these situations, refusing to accept their “naturalness,” it allows them to lean into that dissonance and follow the path it carves to a logical resolution – though one that most wouldn’t consider until it happens, just as most people can’t identify musical dissonance except by the emotion it produces when it resolves.
Two inspiring stories of innovation show us how simply recognizing a problem as an unnatural form of dissonance, rather than accepting it as the natural state of things, can open up new creative paths and vital solutions.
Listening to Unheard Voices
When Shubhranshu Choudhary , a journalist for the BBC, traveled to Chhattisgarh, his home region in India, to cover the escalating guerrilla warfare there, he was troubled by much of the reporting he was seeing. News agencies were portraying the conflict in a two-dimensional, black and white manner. They were overlooking complex problems and misrepresenting the voices of the locals. Choudhary rejected the narrative that the rebels were all fanatically committed to the opposition Maoist cause. He began asking questions. What was the real reason the people of his home region were taking up arms?
He discovered that rather than a conflict between political ideologies — local communities, even people he had known from his childhood, were resorting to armed conflict to draw attention to severe needs. The civil authorities had been ignoring their problems, and so the people living in small, rural communities saw joining the rebels as the only opportunity they had to make their voices heard.
Choudhary left the BBC to work full time on finding a solution to the problem that could save his home region from further violence. What he came up with was a mobile-phone-based citizen news network that the people of his home region could easily use – a grassroots news network that could instantly share user-created news reports without needing the Internet. This would be the first of its kind in the world.
These poor, rural communities had no Internet, but nearly everyone had a mobile phone. With the help of an engineer friend, Choudhary devised a clever way to reconfigure voicemail playback into a news broadcasting tool that anyone could edit and use. Villagers recorded eye-witness reports and instantly shared them with everyone in that part of India who had a mobile phone. Choudhary also createdCGNet Swara, a website that uploaded the citizen news reports and presented them in a professional, edited format.
Major news networks picked up these grassroots news alerts, many of them exposing government injustice, like the illegal withholding of wages. This exposure is pushing the government to crack down on corruption and make sure villagers are paid what they are due.
The people stopped picking up rifles and began picking up mobile phones instead.
Since its launch in February 2010, CGNet Swara has changed the news landscape of Central India. It is the first mobile-phone-based news network in the world, and many rural communities in other countries are developing their own version.
The innovation earned Choudhary the 2014 Google Digital Activism Award. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden was in the running for the award, but Choudhary topped Snowden for the honor.
Choudhary saw through the homogeneous reporting of the mainstream media and recognized the fundamental dissonance of the situation in his home region. Because the villagers’ narratives were never heard, it would have been impossible for anyone not paying close attention to understand the real roots of their problems. The solution isn’t highly technical or complicated, either – but it’s a revolutionary innovation that is restoring balance to the way news is reported in India and beyond.
A second example of innovation from dissonance started with change.
Turning Incompatibility into Opportunity
Like many other soldiers, Nick Watson, a former U.S. Army Ranger, experienced a difficult transition back into civilian life. He left a world of incredible camaraderie, teamwork, and thrilling if dangerous adventure and traded it for a sedentary lifestyle that was very lonely and dull in comparison, with nothing but his memories of war to occupy him.
Thousands of other soldiers experience the same rough transition, and in many cases, it is lethal. Thesuicide rate among veterans is twice the rate of civilians. Besides the trauma of war, Watson also experienced the suicides of two of his closest Ranger buddies, leaving him distraught and even less able to deal with his new civilian reality.
Much of the conversation around veteran depression and suicide focuses on the need to help veterans with this transition – to make sure they’re able to adapt to the civilian way of life and all the comparative boredom and solitude it entails. Watson saw a problem with this – he wasn’t willing to accept the notion that nothing of military life was useful or positive in civilian life. Rather than accept the dissonance between the two ways of life as natural, Watson saw an opportunity to help veterans by allowing them to use the positive aspects of the military experience in a non-violent setting.
The solution he came up with was team mountaineering expeditions for veterans, which involve camaraderie, intense physical challenges, and the possibility of life-or-death situations that veterans are especially well-equipped to handle.
He turned his idea into a company called Veterans Expeditions, or VetEx – co-created with Stacy Bare, another military veteran – which puts veterans on alpine expedition teams that take on adventurous, ambitious mountain climbing adventures, learning mountaineering and wilderness survival skills in the process.
His first expedition in 2010 included 16 veterans. By 2013, he was up to 300 soldiers. The trips have made a huge difference in the lives of struggling veterans, and his brilliant idea is catching on.
Nick Watson understood that combat is a life-altering experience that cannot simply be left behind when one returns home. He bridged the seemingly impossible gap between the two ways of life by embracing certain qualities in each and combining them into a natural, logical solution.
Dissonance Spurs Change, if You Can Hear It
Dissonance is just one way to describe how innovators see the world, but I find it particularly apt in that so many unexpected innovations spring from disharmonies that were invisible to most people — at least until someone decided to resolve them. It’s all about training yourself to accept nothing as the “natural” state of things. Situational dissonance – when something just doesn’t seem quite right to you – is a chance to explore the imbalances and inefficiencies that are present everywhere.