Creating a culture of innovation

'How to you create a culture of innovation?', that was the opening question at this year's FRESH conference. Music is without any doubt one of the solutions. Let's listen to Sam McNeill.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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Maarten Vanneste
Maarten Vanneste
New|2019-12-23 - 11:21u

If you want to be a respected or even Certified Meeting Designer, the size of your toolbox matters! Art is one of 5 categories in your toolbox. Music is part of that Art segment. At the #freshconference in #Turnhout we had a great example of how music becomes an active tool for co-creation, collaboration and even innovation. Kevin at eventplanner dot net interviewed Sam McNeill from #songdivision Learn from this case: (PLEASE SHARE YOUR CASES HERE.)

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Hi Sam, welcome to the

Thank you for having me.

You're one of the speakers at the FRESH conference, here in Turnhout in Belgium. That's also the reason why you're here.


You had your first session this morning.

I did.

How did it go?

I think it was great.

Everyone's told me they really enjoyed it. I was opening the conference.

Oh, quite an honour.

So, a little bit of pressure. To, you know, start with a nice, high energy.

We're often used at the start and the end of conferences. To kick things off in a great energy and set the tone for the event. And then, at the end, to finish on a high note.

You brought a guitar, so I'm guessing you have to do something with music?

I do, yes. We, SongDivision, use music, and the science behind music, to help organizations bring their teams together. Help them bond. Engage them. Enrich their organizational culture, through music experiences that we've designed. That are all about helping to reinforce the messages of the event.

So, for example, that might be for 400 people, for a pharmaceutical conference. Where, at their sales kick-off, we'll write original songs about...

We'll get them to write their own original songs about their company. About their twelve-month strategy. About their targets. We'll facilitate the creation of an original song.

It might be a company celebrating what they've achieved this year. At their Christmas party. So, we'll come and help them create an original song about that.

So, just using music as a powerful communication tool.

Okay, great. And you're actually doing a song on FRESH too.

I am doing a FRESH...

We're creating a FRESH anthem. So, we started this morning. I had my opening half of my session. My session is, pardon me, called: creating a culture of innovation.

And the session is about how music and song writing require what we call 3 Cs. Creativity, collaboration and communication. And if we can help foster these three Cs, we can help to create a culture of innovation. In any industry. In any workplace. And any organization. So, we work through each C.

Each, communication, collaboration, creativity, is a different exercise with the audience. And by the end of the session, I have a completely original song created. That the audience wrote. So, we're halfway through.


So, this morning we came up with the music and we started workshopping what the words will be about. And then tomorrow, to finish the conference, they will take those words and they will write some poems. And we'll pick the best poems and I'll make them into verses and chorus. And then I'll teach the audience the song. And then we will all get up and perform it, to finish the conference.

But it's also very scary for you.

No, not for me.


For me it's not scary. I've been working for SongDivision for twelve years. And I've been singing professionally...

I started singing with Opera Australia, when I was seven years old. So, I enjoy it. I feel more at home on stage, than I do, you know, at networking events or... 

Yes, but you also don't know what the outcome will be.

We don't know. We never know. That's why I love my job. It's a different song every time.

But we have a very well-worked process, that we've been perfecting. And we're always perfecting. For the last fifteen...

The company's sixteen years old. So, the process ensures that the end result will be something, which is on message and sounds great. Generally.

Because, with such a large group, how do you start?

So, the first thing we do, which we did this morning, is: we talk about...

The first thing we did, was a communication exercise. So, I asked everyone to turn to the people next to them and tell them the first concert they ever attended. And the first album, that they ever owned. So, for me, it was: I went to see Billy Joel and Elton John, together, in 1997. And my first album was: Bryan Adams' Greatest Hits.

I don't know: do you remember yours?

I think it was Queen. But I'm not sure.

First concert or first album?



Concert? I don't remember the concert. I think it was Night of the Proms. And I don't know whether you know that. It's, in Belgium, a concert, where we have a classical orchestra.

André Rieu?

No, not André Rieu, but something similar.

Something like that.


A classical orchestra. Wait, and I think it was, back then...

Oh, what band was it? Yes, I forgot.

Okay, so yes...

So, we do that exercise to get people talking and create energy in the room. And also, to see who's actively present in the conversation. And who's engaged. And who's listening to the other person. Because, communication can be...

A problem a lot of organizations have, is that communication could be the issue. That the senior leaders aren't listening to the employees. Or the employees aren't feeling that their opinions are being validated. So, that's an exercise to promote that.

And then the next exercise is around creativity. And we ask...

And the idea that creativity is about: one simple idea, and a yes-mentality. So, we ask if anyone in the audience, knows how to play two chords on the guitar? So, today, a young man, called Mark, put his hand up. So, he came up unto the stage. And I asked him to just start playing some chords, that he liked. And so, he played like a G-D chord. Like... [plays guitar]

That was a... [plays guitar]

So, that becomes the chord progression for the song, that we are going to create. Because the idea is: it's about one idea and a yes-mentality. So, those chords will become the base of the song. And then we can...

And we can change that style. We could do: okay, what about...

We get the audience to vote on what style they want the song to be. So, I could go: what about if we do those chords like a reggae style? [plays guitar]

So, we can do diff...

We can play...

You know, we can make it a bit more funky, like... [plays guitar]

Or like a country-bluegrass version. So, the audience gets to choose the style of the song.

And then we talked about...

Is it done by vote, or...?

Yes, literally show of hands. Or if there's an application, they can vote.

And often, when I'm doing these events for big companies and big organizations, I have a live band on stage.


So, I have a band with me. And these are musicians that tour with Michael Bublé and Florence and the Machine. So, they're all full-time touring musicians. That are on stage with me. So, they can play disco, heavy metal, punk. And then the audience votes. And then we talk about why we're here.

So, today the messages were around: what do you want to achieve over the next three days? Or two days. So: inspiration, learning, knowledge, fun, networking.

So, those words would go on the screen and then we also said: what does FRESH mean to you?

So, people would say: unique, or cool, or unorthodox, or unpredictable. So, those words would then come up on the screen and then we take those words.

And tomorrow we will ask the audience to work in groups of four and write poems, using those words. So, maybe it'll be, you know: I've come to FRESH to have some fun. Meet new people. Get things done. Whatever that might be. So, we'll take...

They'll work in their groups. We will take all those poems and we'll read them out. And then I will help the audience arrange it. So, maybe: this is a verse one, where we are now. What we are looking forward to. And this is verse two, the end of the conference. What my favourite thing of the conference was. And then the chorus might be something, just like very simple.

Like: keep it FRESH, yeah, that's the best. It's a festival, it's best of all, It's FRESH.

So, that might be just a very nice, repetitive, powerful phrase, that we'll do over and over again. 

So, I'm giving people an insight into what musicians actually do, when they create a song.

But I'm also letting them use the different part of their brain, that gets them thinking creatively. That gets them out of their self-defence mode. That gets them releasing oxytocin So that they're creating emotional bonds with their employees, with their colleagues.

So, like I said, there's a lot of science behind what we do. But, it's incredibly engaging. It's incredibly fun.

And people come up to me, five years later, and they can sing the song that we wrote, from the conference.

You should come back tomorrow with the end result.

I would, I would love to.

I'm flying home at lunch, because I've got an event tomorrow night in London. But normally I would love to do that. Normally I would come, and I would play the song we wrote.

Next time. If you'll have me again.

And you know what I'll also do? I'll write a song about

Oh, that would be lovely.

Yes, so you could have your own little jingle.

Oh, great.

I would love to do that.

Yes, sounds lovely.

If you'd like it.

Yes, sure.

Okay, done.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.

Thank you for coming over to the studio.

Not at all, I appreciate you having me.

This is my first time in Belgium. And it's gorgeous, Turnhout is beautiful.

What do you think of Turnhout?

I love it. It's got such a gorgeous little square, the market square. Lots of pubs. So, that's good for me.

I went to some jazz last night. We saw some jazz in the Headspace.

Tonight we're going up the tower.


The new restaurant.

Yes, I'm having a great time. I met some amazing people today at the conference. People that...

You know, obviously event planners. That would work with us, so, which is always nice. And I feel like people are getting to learn something different from me.

So, it's been great. I've been a friend of Maarten's for now, a good 6 or 7 years. From the industry. And he's a big supporter of SongDivision and what we do. And we're big supporters of the Meeting Design Institute and FRESH. So, happy to be here.

Okay Sam, thank you very much.

Thank you so much.

And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.