Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

From broken guitar string to tool for innovation

What can we learn about the process of innovation from examining a broken guitar string? Conference report from an event where a guitar string became the basis for a new model of innovation.


By Claus Springborg (mail@claus-springborg.dk)

If you break a string on your guitar in the middle of a concert, you end up playing a lot of things you would not normally play - some would call that errors. Some of it might be wonderful or interesting or surprising or awful, but the point is you might never have thought of playing the piece just like that, unless you had lost the string right then and there.

I've often been in the situation where one member of my band hit a wrong note during a concert, and I've seen how the entire band is electrified and turned on by the situation. Everything we had planned goes out the window and we all have to listen intensely to what the others are doing and come up with a way to 'bring the song home' in a way to please the audience so they do not discover the mistake. We have to predict what lies a few seconds ahead and react accordingly and only gradually do we discover the new shape of this song we are playing. Errors have an almost magical ability to change people's focus from a preset schedule to an intense listening experience. Maybe that is why it is a well known fact among musicians that some of the best ideas come when we play something 'wrong'.

All of this ran through my mind at seven o'clock in the morning on 16 March as I removed a broken string from my guitar and shoved it in my bag before setting off for the conference Modelling Innovation. In the invitation, I had been asked to bring something symbolising innovation, but I had no clue about what the item I brought would be used for. Quite a lot, as it turned out.

Who am I?

I have, for a number of years, worked as a bass player and producer, and have worked with several types of innovation processes in music production. Usually, my work has involved small groups of songwriters, composers and other musicians. These processes have often been amazingly inspiring and entertaining, and the results have in many cases been both high quality and innovative. Accordingly, about a year ago, I began researching into the intersection between innovation, arts and business, which later on led me to accept the invitation to the conference on innovation.

A working conference

The conference was a so-called 'working conference', and was organised by LAICS (Leadership and Innovation in Complex Systems) at the Danish University of Education. The term 'working' should be taken quite literally. The endless presentations followed by a Q&A that typically make up a conference were abandoned in favour of short presentations, and suddenly I found myself going into action armed only with my guitar string. The task was to draw up a model of a typical innovation process as I know it. The only catch was that I had to use my broken guitar string somewhere in this model.

I found a nice secluded spot and pulled out my broken string, but as I did so, I noticed a peculiar buzz around the room, one that reminded me of when I was a child and enjoyed working alone with LEGO or drawing pictures for hours. I could completely lose myself in the self-made narrative back then, and I found that I was looking forward to hearing what my guitar string had to tell me.

I usually take part in innovative processes that has to do with music production, and I know a little bit about those by now, but I had no clear notion about how to combine this understanding of the process with a bit of rolled-up guitar string. I kicked myself for not having brought something else instead of the string, but decided to try and draw the string on a piece of paper to see where that might lead me – every journey starts with a step, as they say. To my surprise I found that I was already halfway home. The drawing began to make sense almost right away.

From broken strings

The first thing I noticed was that the end of the string that sort of juts out at the bottom obviously represented the end point of the process. Once this was settled, a few insights followed quickly one after the other: The process must be cyclical, and the point where the end of the string veers off from the circle would be the point where some sort of test would determine whether to take another round on the cyclical process or not. Then I cast a glance at the other end, where the string was all curled up – this part was once wound around the tuning pin. Again it seemed obvious to me that this part would represent where my useful ideas meet with other people's ideas and we have to reinvent our ideas to make them swing together. By this time, my string made good sense to me: All the steps of the innovative process could fit onto that broken piece of string.

Claus Springborgs innovationsmodel som den tager sig ud på papir

Among musicians, the process of innovation often starts with a meeting between two people who find each other's music interesting and who over a cup of coffee decide to try and do something together. I placed this meeting in the centre of my circle. One might be a singer, who's brought along a couple of lyrics and maybe a bit of a melody, the other might be a producer, who's brought a few beats and bass lines with him. They might throw a few ideas out there, just playing really, and have a few more ideas for adding some harmonies, and they might then split up, each with a messy pile of notes tucked away somewhere. They'd go home, and get to work on their own, sort through the notes, and produce a sort of proto-type for their new song. Then they'd meet again and find that their prototypes fail to match – this would be where the guitar string curls up. They would go at it together and establish a new pile of reinvented ideas generated by the clash between the two prototypes. Again they would manage to transformthe chaos of ideas into new coherent strings, but again and again they break each others strings when they meet. At some point, they would come to an agreement on the direction in their work, and the song can finally slide down to the end of the string, to the end of the innovative process. Quite often this is accompanied by a feeling of relief, amazement and fascination with the final form their combined efforts has led to. The final product is a result of the process, to such a degree that neither of the involved could have foreseen the end result. This last point didn't seem to fit anywhere in my model, but I noticed that I felt a similar amazement when I examined the final guitar string process on my piece of paper.

A magic model of innovation

My guitar string had been transformed into a model of innovation that elegantly demonstrates the familiar process of innovation in a way I had never seen it before. Models help us see and understand the thing they model, and to establish a shared understanding of the object. Models can simplify and give rise to an overview of complex matters by highlighting the essential elements and connections. Look at any roadmap; all the information not directly pertaining to roads has been kept out, what we get is just the roads and their names.

Models not only simplify. Models can add information and complexity when our habitual simplification makes us overlook elements and connections that may be important in other contexts. When a model shows you something familiar in a new light, it is because this particular model adds a layer of complexity, includes elements and connections that are usually considered irrelevant, and it can show you when and how this information can be highly relevant. A good model can be tuned to present a desired level of complexity; zoom in and see complexity, zoom out and see simplicity.

These points were all presented to us in the brief presentations before we began drawing our models. The points came alive to me when I presented the guitar string and the underlying process in my group. In the ensuing discussion, I found that my model could actually be used to zoom in and out between different levels of complexity. The meeting between different individuals, central to this model, might just as well be a meeting between two teams from a given organisation, between a team and management, between an organisation and a new technology, new trends, new market conditions, between an individual and a model – or between me and my guitar string. This could again lead to a complex meeting of ideas, where the guitar string process, which results from a meeting between individuals in a team, is actually part of a larger guitar string process resulting from the meeting of two teams.

Objects have stories to tell

My guitar string brought with it a particular logic and history. In narrating a story, it is only natural to add something that brings the story to life. You can establish a world with its own inner logic, with characters and amazing details. This allows a model to feed back something to the modelled: In making a model it makes sense to ask certain questions, so making models can lead to better questions if the material used to make the model also comprises an inner logic and a wealth of information, and which therefore adds something that was not there to begin with. In other words: When you use engaging stories as models, you can generate new and powerful questions. That I used a guitar string to model the process of innovation led me to think of strings of meaning, which again led to questions such as:

  • What is a string of meaning?
  • What do we mean when we say a string of meaning is broken?
  • What happens at that point where you must decide whether to break off from the cyclical process or go another round?
  • From which instrument do we have 'strings of meaning'?

Attempts to answer these questions leads to dialogues, which can be exciting, funny, bizarre, interesting or just plain giving. The logic of the guitar string invites to play. This new logic does not exactly mesh perfectly with my conception of the innovative process. There are cases of mismatch – elements of the logic of the guitar string that challenge me to reconsider my understanding of the process of innovation. Insisting on applying the string as a model for innovation is a sort of conscious adoption of 'errors' into this understanding. The errors invite to creativity just as a wrong note during a concert can do it. They both electrify the situation.

If you break a string of meaning in a certain context, you end up asking a range of questions that you would not normally ask - some would call that errors. Some of the questions might be powerful or interesting or surprising or awful, but the point is you might never have stumbled on to them unless you had broken that particular string at that particular time and place.


Leadership and Innovation in Complex Systems (LAICS) is a Master's programme offered by Learning Lab Denmark at the Danish University of Education and the Copenhagen Business School. The programme is targeted at organisation leaders, senior project leaders, and key specialists working with innovation and business development. All teaching, discussion, assignments and exams at the programme will be in English.

Photo of Claus SpringborgAbout Claus Springborg

Claus Springborg is a musician and producer, and is currently preparing a Business Ph.D. about arts and business. The aim with his project is to gather information about the innovative processes of collaborating artists, but also to generate knowledge about different ways to integrate the artists' ways of collaboration into a business setting. Claus is currently busy identifying a set of collaborative partners in the private sector. For more information about his project, please contact Claus at: mail@claus-springborg.dk





The author

Read more about Claus Springborg

Google Claus Springborg


Read about the new masters programme LAICS at www.laics.net

Click here for the conference programme from Modelling Innovation

Æstetik & Kultur