Innovation Gurus: Bruce Mau and John Kao

John Kao: Think Like a Musician

Think Like a Musician
A leading expert on business innovation has a radical prescription for any company serious about growth: Play harder.

John Kao's advice? Play more. And win.
John Kao's advice? Play more. And win.
Photo© Eva Kolenko

John Kao thinks you need to play on the job. "When people use the word play in a business context, it sounds kind of frivolous, but being playful is very much the source of new ideas," says Kao, author of Innovation Nation and chairman of the global Institute for Large Scale Innovation.

Kao, a jazz pianist who once played with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention before going on to create executive and MBA programs in innovation at Harvard Business School, says entrepreneurs can learn a lot about the creative process by listening to jazz music.

Creativity requires a skill set that's polar opposite from results-oriented production mode. Instead of end points, the goal is what Kao calls the jazz musician's "white space," the zone of improvisation in which new associations and connections are born in the moment, without regard to where they are going.

"The balancing act is finding the sweet spot, as jazz musicians do, between discipline and structure on the one hand and freedom and inspiration on the other," says Kao, author of Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity. "You need to have freedom from judgment to explore new things. If you laugh at other people's ideas or go to the feasibility questions of how much is it going to cost and how long is it going to take, you're never going to get new ideas."

Motivation research shows that we are more creative when we are driven, not by the external reward or result, but by the enjoyment or challenge of the experience itself. This allows for freewheeling brainstorming without the fear of failure.

Failing is good, Kao says--at least in the idea department. That's where innovation has always come from, whether it's in the experiments that lead to discoveries in science or the doodling that leads to new products and services. That kind of environment is hard to find at most offices, though, because few executives have a clue when it comes to the creative process.

"They think creativity is about periodically letting your hair down and coming up with wacky ideas, being bohemian for a day," Kao says. "It's about coming up with ideas that have value and execution. There's a lot of execution in creativity. It's not just inspiration."

Creativity isn't an option anymore, if it ever was. "If you don't have it, you're behind the eight ball," Kao says. "Other companies and countries are striving to be in this race and they may be more creative than you."

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Joe Robinson is a productivity and work-life trainer at and author of Work to Live and the Email Overload Survival Kit.

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This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The New Creative Class.

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