John Kao – Mr. Creativity on Large Scale Cultures of Innovation

Kao_JohnA lot of companies are starting to have earnest discussions about innovation. My own company strives to build a “culture of innovation” making it part of the fabric of everything we do.  But what does that look like?

Dubbed “Mr. Creativity” by The Economist, John Kao calls himself an innovation activist.  He is chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation, whose i20 group is an association of 30 national ‘Chief Innovation Officers.’  John coined the term “large scale innovation” to refer to innovation as a societal agenda.  He has advised numerous nations and regions on innovation strategy and execution, including Finland, Singapore, the City of San Francisco, Abu Dhabi and elements of the US government as well as the European Union innovation policy team.

And as the last keynote speaker at the World Innovation Forum, I got to hear his response to his corporate clients trying to build a culture of innovation.  With several wise words and a few musical performances, John earned his nickname and my respect.

All too often, innovation comes along as an accident. The right team with the right support builds something truly disruptive that changes an entire industry.  But it has proven extremely difficult for many companies to continually repeat innovative success. Some companies accept this as inevitable, and spend funds acquired from an early innovative advantage by buying smaller companies with innovative new technologies. When a company or government says they want to build a culture of innovation, they are making a statement that it is no longer enough to innovate once, or by accident.  They want it to become the foundation of everything they do.

John thinks this is an admirable endeavor, but that nobody but jazz musicians really how to do it. Innovation has received 2.25 billion hits on search engines in 12 months. It is the business buzz word of a generation. John says “Innovation is in beta”.  I like that analogy. No one is currently the expert. The only thing that will determine if it is a fad or the next industry paradigm is if success becomes repeatable, reliable. But how to you teach someone to consistently innovate?

A lot of people seem to think that Innovation success is found in entrepreneurship.  John finds these to be two very different entities. John defines entrepreneurship as the process of pursuing opportunities without regard for the resources directly under your control.  It can be defined as high risk, high reward.  It’s reckless abandonment of sanity in the belief that, under the right conditions, you can ride the next wave.  While startups are an essential part of the economical ecosystem, managing your company like a startup to achieve innovation is rash and an irresponsible use of resources, that shouldn’t be tied to driving innovation.

Innovation is applied creativity to realize value.  For established companies, the key is value: we need to strike the balance between acceptable opportunistic failure and innovative rewards.  Creativity is a given, the obvious; to innovate you need it. Applied creativity deals more to do with how you manage innovation.


About managing innovation… Consider for a moment Company A.  Their leadership wants to build a culture of innovation. So they build a team of the best an brightest creative minds, give them a ton of money, throw them in a room and say, “Alright everyone, now go innovate.  You have our full support.”

It’s like handing a stranger a piano score to Chopin and saying, “I’ve arranged for you to play at a 3000 seat concert hall tonight at 5pm. I’m sure you will play great, because all of the notes are on the page.  You have my full support. ” Sound ludicrous?  It implies that all anyone needs to do to innovate is gather all the right pieces, sit, and wait…

Like any other skill worth perfecting, it requires practice. Focus should be driven to understanding and teaching innovative faculties, to build the holy grail: the capability to consistently innovate.  But what do you practice to get better at innovating?

John Kao is an experienced jazz pianist.  Like everything else, music has rules. Jazz has guidelines that can be bent, sometimes broken.  It’s a creative dance between freedom an creative structure. In much the same way, innovation is the result of creative tensions that are beyond rules.  Innovation is much more like a heuristic than a precise algorithm.  John has a book called Jamming, which I highly recommend.  He talks about how jazz musicians have already shown us that a culture of innovation is possible.

John had a number of wise adages  I would like to share:

We need a new word for failure, like learning. In search of knowledge, something is gained. In search of mastery, something is lost.

In the mind of the beginner there are few opinions. In an expert, there are many. All new innovations come from beginner’s minds.

Innovation competency is different from mastery.

Learn the rules, and then throw them away!

Since I heard John speak at the World Innovation Forum, I have been focused on building my own innovative capabilities.  Put yourself in creative situations, work with people. Talk about your dreams. Co-conspire, co-create, and the spark of innovation will catch fire.



Posted in Inspirations, Life Lessons, Music, Shifting Perspectives. Tagged with , , , , , .

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