Getting to the high ground of innovation through jazz improvisation

John Kao, serial innovator and organisational transformation expert kicked off day 3 of the ASTD2012 ICE with his innovation concert … With enthusiasm and expertise and an approach somewhat similar to “VH1 Storytellers” he helped the 8000 delegates to understand more than the “hand-waving” cheer-leading side of “Yes we need innovation”. He answered the question: “Yes, but HOW !??” …Kao’s short answer to the question? Jazz!


According to Kao, traditional music gives traditional results. Jazz brings something new.

In the corporate world, our approach business-music is akin to the following traditional music approach…

  • We get a mission statement (play this)
  • We get a cheat-sheet of where to our fingers to make the sound (training)
  • We get some encouragement from our manager (motivation)
  • We get a little bit of applause when we do what we were asked (feedback, salary)


Where does this approach take us? (No answer offered here… 🙂 )

Kao adds a little more explanation as to how the above example is different from Jazz Innovation and adds that, fortunately, it’s something we can define, encourage and enable at work…


Innovation is creativity applied to some purpose in order to add value

Or in terms of jazz music: Creating new notes in the moment, that satisfy the demands of the audience, but bring something new, going somewhere we’ve never been before…


What are the capabilities of innovation? What is it we need to encourage to help bring innovation to life?

The first thing Kao offers to help here is the idea of using innovation to some solve tension in the environment. An example of this tension might be the dichotomy of structure and invention: Fit in, but do something new. Stick to the rules, but leave from for freedom and modulation.

To bring innovation into the organisation, we need to help people understand what it means to fit in (bringing the big picture) but leave them room to modulate their environment. In Dan Pink’s Motivation 3.0, this might be about giving a general sense of purpose + autonomy in order to allow people to move towards to mastery..

This is NOT possible for people in the organisation when the level of risk associated with moving freely around is too high. If people don’t feel like they can make mistakes, they will not dare to take on the risk of trying something new.

The third ingredient of jazz innovation is the idea of diversity in teams and environments. Kao showed a great slide of the Star-Trek team and compared it to MBTI profiles. The Star Trek team boldly goes where no man has gone before because of the complimentarily of knowledge, skills and attitude. Innovation is not possible without diversity.

Community and context are also important for innovation at work. As Maslow told us years ago, a relevant social context is fundamental to create feelings of self-esteem and to deliver feedback. People need the opportunity to get together with their peers, bounce around ideas like jazz musicians and hear from others about what is good… and bad … in their ideas.


Awesome Kao keynote!


Off to the Alexia Vernon session on Onboarding for GenY….

Published by Dan Steer

Wandering corporate trainer, learning and development consultant, conference speaker and professional El-Magico. I help people get better at stuff by creating and facilitating Infinite Learning © opportunities. The world would be a better place if everyone was doing what he loved and doing it well. I am working to bring out the "El Magico" in everybody. Training in presentation and communication skills, leadership, social media for learning and marketing, learning and development management + personal effectiveness.

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  1. Very helpful concept to help people understand what it means to fit in (bringing the big picture) but leave them room to modulate their environment. Thanks

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