Scenius: building a culture with permission to innovate

My dad is a massive Queen fan. Of the band that is. I grew up on the music of Freddie Mercury and co and I am now starting to introduce my daughter to their timeless music. They have had so many hits over such a long period of time. It just blows my mind when you work through the song catalogue. From ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to ‘I want it all‘ to ‘This thing called love‘, their song catalogue is an eclectic mix of genre hopping genius and innovative songwriting.

What drove this ongoing creativity and innovation?

Of course, all four members of Queen were highly skilled musicians. This, however, wasn’t the key factor. It was their democratic process of writing songs. Queen is the only band in which every member has composed more than one chart-topping single, and all four members were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.

The internal rule Queen had was that if you wrote the song, you received the publishing royalties. It was this constant striving to create, to push the boundaries that drove their career. Creative one-upmanship with high reward. As a group, they created a culture of creative competitiveness built on a bedrock of professional and personal respect. In her book, Beyond Measure, Margaret Heffernan describes this structure as heterarchy. Heterarchy is:

“an informal structure that changes in response to need. Central to the idea of heterarchies is the belief that everyone matters. The best idea leads.”

Through heterarchy, Queen created a culture where the best idea led, irrespective of where it came from. And culture is everything! Brian Eno (musician and producer) calls this a scenius.

“Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers—who make up an “ecology of talent.”

The great music scenes of our time had this ecology of talent. Motown, Seattle, Los Angelus, the list goes on. Creative competitiveness, imitation, idea expansion and support are key drivers in the advancement of a music scene. In Show your Work, Austin Kleon writes

“Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.

Every school has talent. Every school has silos of innovation. The challenge is creating a scene where great ideas are allowed to lead and that ecology of talent is allowed to blossom. The right structures play a key part. Staff should feel that they have the freedom to innovate. Adrian Camm at Geelong College allocated his staff cards that stated “Permission to Innovate”. A tangible token that permits all staff to ‘have a go’, to ‘jam out an idea’. This frontline approach impacts classroom practice because it creates a culture where staff question everything, think divergently and constantly iterate on their practice. The ecology of talent improves as each teacher permits themselves to innovate.

A groundswell builds.

A culture shifts.

A scenius is born.


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