If Creativity in Business Had a Sound....

Dec. 21, 2004
it would be jazz, according to John Kao.
The New York Post labels him "the Peter Drucker of the 1990s." The Economist says, "If Orson Welles and Peter Drucker were somehow to mate, the resulting progeny might be a bit like Mr. Kao." John Kao is currently academic director of the Managing Innovation program at Stanford University. For 14 years, he was a professor at the Harvard Business School. He's a member of the Global Business Network and senior advisor to the World Economic Forum. But that's the mundane version of Kao's accomplishments. What' is most impressive is that he is an accomplished pianist--trained in the classics, but a convert to jazz. Kao makes beautiful music not only with notes but with words. He writes as I wish I could: with clarity, with brilliance, with style, and with passion about a subject he knows thoroughly. . . and enjoys profoundly. . . and teaches evangelistically. It also happens to be one of my passions: creativity in business. Kao's disciples claim that he "has brought creativity to the creativity business." I discovered John Kao and his philosophy in his book Jamming (HarperCollins, 1996). It's as delightful a romp as I have experienced since I danced to Benny Goodman's swing music at my junior prom. This book is as unusual as its title. Trying to explain it would be like Don Rickles trying to explain Peter Drucker's Post-Capitalist Society. So I'm not going to even try. I'm going to let Kao speak for himself: "The title of the book, which is also its guiding metaphor, I owe to my life as a jazz pianist. When I get together with other musicians for a jam session, the group starts with a theme, plays with it, and passes it around. Suddenly the music lifts off, flies. We all fly with it. This is not formless indulgence or organizational anarchy. The music follows an elegant grammar, a set of conventions that guide and challenge our imagination. It's an explosion of inspiration within the art's given universe. No matter how high we fly, we always return with something new, something we've never heard before. That's jamming. It is both an art and a discipline. And its paradoxical. Managers must control without controlling, and direct without directing. Managers cannot demand creativity any more than they can order growth from a flower." This guy knows where he's coming from--and where he's going. Read on: "Companies that shun creative risks may be undercut by competitors not only with better products and services, but also with better processes and ways of perceiving new opportunities. Escaping the stagnation of the status quo, of the risk-free life, is part of the exhilaration of jamming--in music and in business. The choice is stark. Create or fail." That's just the overture to this magnificent musical metaphor. I invite you to sit, as I did, for a couple of hours of fascinating reading that was literally music to my ears. As I read and listened, I discovered these recurring themes: "The ancient pursuits for capital, for raw materials, for process technology remain eternal. But now business seeks a new advantage--delicate and dangerous, and absolutely vital--the creativity advantage." "Creativity is not like the weather. You can do something about it. And you can measure it well enough to determine its effects on sales and profits." "What matters is creating an island of imagination amid a sea of today's prosaic demands." "Warning: A business world charged with the freedoms and necessities of creativity is not a haven of peace and serenity." To which I add a heartfelt and admiring "Amen" . . . while admitting, quite candidly, that this is probably the best column I have never written.

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