June 22, 2010
Big Pharma Goes Beyond the Blues

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In 1999, I conceived and co-founded (with Paul Kwicienski) the world's first interactive business blues band, Face the Music.

The concept was a simple one: help organizations increase teamwork and decrease complaint by getting employees to write and perform original blues songs.

The concept resonated with a lot of industries, especially Big Pharma.

Oh yeah, they had the blues, lots of blues, like the "Now We Gotta Compete with Generic Drugs from Canada Blues," and the "No One Trusts the Drug Companies Anymore Blues," and the always popular, "Our Pipeline Is Empty, But Our Inbox is Full Blues."

So we weren't all that surprised when Pfizer came calling...

They had a big conference coming up and wanted to do "something different" to engage participants -- all of whom were high ranking business leaders.

Though our approach seemed risky to them at first, our testimonials from other Fortune 500 companies were proof enough we were the real deal for them to sign on the dotted line.

And so they did.

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Unlike most bands -- or business simulations, for that matter -- our service began long before we took the stage.

For each client wanting the complete experience, we'd write a custom blues song weeks before -- a kind of musical caricature of their company that we'd perform to kick off our performance -- a modern day Greek Chorus routine that loosened up audiences while modeling the message of the evening -- to speak (or in our case, sing) the truth.

And though we always shared our lyrics with clients long before an event, rarely were we asked us to modify what we wrote.

Pfizer was a different story.

From their perspective, our lyrics were "incendiary, politically incorrect, and might be taken the wrong way."

Customer-focused as we were (and not wanting to blow a good pay day), we revised our lyrics overnight and submitted version 2.0 the first thing in the morning.

Pfizer didn't like our new version, either. Or version 3.0, 4.0, or 5.0.

After five failed attempts, we decided to drop the custom song and focus on the classic blues songs that made up the bulk of our play list.

But doubt had crept into our client's mind. He was now officially nervous and wanted to see the lyrics to all our songs.

"Piece of cake," we reasoned to ourselves. The lyrics we'd be sending him had been performed for more than a hundred years all over America and were a huge part of the DNA of the nation.

True. But they weren't part of Pfizer's DNA. Our client had major issues with every song we sent them.

So we emailed him the lyrics to another ten classic blues songs. He rejected those, too.

Now, we had the blues. Like the legendary Robert Johnson, we stood at the crossroads, Blackberries and guitars in hand.

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"Gentlemen," I began the damage-control conference call in the most corporate voice I could muster, "with all due respect, you have just rejected the lyrics of the most popular 20 American blues songs from the past hundred years. Remember, you are engaging the services of a blues band, not a polka band. You've got to have more trust in us."

Ooooh... the "T" word!

They hemmed. They hawed. Them hemmed again. And then with a semi-shrug of their collective shoulders and the growing recognition that their event was just a few days away, they chose the seven tamest songs and gave us a tepid thumbs up.

"But remember!" they warned, "the show must end no later than 9:30 sharp. Not a minute more."

Show time!

When we got to the venue, I could tell we were in for an interesting night.

Though our client greeted us pleasantly enough, something was off. Outwardly, he was fine. Inwardly, he was anxious, uptight, constricted, nervous, sweating, and silently obsessing about how he was going to cover his ass should his worst nightmares about the evening come true.

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The band picked up on his mood and immediately tightened up.

Knowing that good music doesn't issue forth from tight musicians, I sent the band backstage for a glass of wine and some small talk while I filibustered with the client -- the theater now rapidly filling with hundreds of people who made a lot more money than we did.

"Remember," the client reminded me again before the lights went down, "the show must end at 9:30 sharp!"

The band's first two songs that night were lame. Very lame. Channeling the tension of our neck-on-the-line client, the band was playing it safe -- not exactly a formula for foot stomping blues.

By the third song, thank God, the band found its groove. The audience relaxed and the songs they wrote and performed were some of the funniest we'd heard in a while.

I looked at my watch. It was 9:27. Quickly, I signaled the band to wrap things up when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the client making his way to the stage.

Actually, "making his way" wasn't the right phrase to describe his approach. "Storming the stage" was more like it.

I looked at my watch again. Now it was 9:28 and the client was getting closer by the nanosecond. I spoke faster, much faster, doing my best to finish before the bewitching hour.

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Two sentences from closure, the man bounds up the stairs and lunges towards me.

"Keep playing!" he blurts. "Tell the band to keep playing! This is really going well! Forget the 9:30 deadline. Keep playing!"

I signal the band and they segue into BB King"s "Let the Good Times Roll" -- the 12-minute version. South Side Denny takes off on a blistering guitar solo. South Side Slim is wailing at the top of his lungs. Screaming Sweet Pea Fradon is bringing down the house. Blind Lemon Pledge is on top of his game.

Everyone in the audience is singing and dancing and clapping and laughing.

The pharmaceutical blues? Gone. At least for the moment.


FOOD FOR THOUGHT
1. What "creative types" at work do you need to trust more?
2. In what ways are you unnecessarily micromanaging a project?
3. What risk will you take this week to jump start innovation?


Excerpted from Mitch Ditkoff's forthcoming INSIDE JOB: How to Unleash Brilliance, Breakthrough, and Wisdom in the Workplace.

If you're a publisher interested in publishing this book, click here.

For more on Face the Music, click here or here.
Check out our Six Sigma Blues.

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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at June 22, 2010 01:56 AM

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