Neil Young on leadership, creativity, performance and people styles

I’ve been watching the special features of Jonathan Demme’s excellent capturing of Neil Young in”Heart of Gold”. These words from Neil reminded me of the ASTD2012 session of John Kao on innovation and jazz improvisation …and also got me thinking about leadership skills, changing environments, the way we manage people, creativity, the differences between people etc… I won’t make an attempt to deconstruct each of Neil Young’s sentences. Just read and see for yourself….


“These are songs that I’ve never performed before, so I have to remember all the words and keep on top of the band playing all the parts.

Remember, these are people that live in the moment. I mean, that’s why I play with these people. They’re not “reproducers”. They are creative people and creative musicians. They are not really supposed to do the same thing every time. So you have to give them room to be creative and still perform the same song in a way that’s reminiscent of the original record, kind of representative of the arrangement that we did on the record.

Some of the musicians are better at reproducing their parts within a framework and doing it very freely and feeling very good about them. Others can never do the same thing twice.

So you have to get them all together and that’s what happens… …you’ve got one shot… soon as you start the songs you have to feel second nature about the song.. ..and that’s not easy to do with a song that you’ve never played before.. …it’s all new at that point.

These are all first time performances.”

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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….