Keynote speaker: John Kao

Yesterday morning, I had the absolute pleasure to see John Kao give his keynote presentation. It was amazing from start to finish. He is a leader in innovation, and this is what he spoke about. According to Kao, he has worked in the innovation field for 30 years to include providing innovation tips for the US Navy. He also has other skills; he is an amazing pianist.

At the beginning of his presentation, he pointed out the gap between civil capacity and innovation is huge, and then asked the question: What are your practices for innovation?

Immediately following up, he asked, what can innovators and leaders learn from jazz musicians? He spoke about his research on innovation and its relationship to jazz music that laid the groundwork for his book, Jamming. You can get a feel for what we experienced with this video clip.

How do we do innovation? Kao explains that we start with a framework and enhance it. He uses music as an example. He explains that if we buy a piece of sheet music (framework) from the store and play it, it is rather stiff and limiting. However, jazz musicians take the framework and enhance it through new notes, added harmonies, etc. Jazz musicians take the framework to a new place, one where it has never been. We now have the capability to take education and learning in a new direction through technology. He discussed demonstrating a capability that has been developed over time, but now is enhanced.

With an audience of about 4-5 thousand, Kao conducted an innovation exercise. He had everyone in the audience find a nearby partner. Each person took on the role of one or two. Kao then started a story and after about 30 seconds turned the story over to the first participant. When Kao said “switch,” the second participant took over the story. This went back and forth for a couple of minutes. I noted there was a high level of energy in the room, and no one in the room had an idea where the story would go or what they would say on their turn.

Deep skills of jazz musicians

Kao explains that jazz musicians are good about finding the tensions.  Jazz is somewhere between total structure and no structure. Kao stresses that there are rules in music, you can not violate the rules and have a quality sound. It is important to be well grounded in the fundamentals of your craft.

Types of innovation

  • Reverse innovation
  • Open source innovation
  • Large scale innovation
  • User centered innovation
  • Design thinking
  • Digital innovation
  • Indigenous innovation
  • Sustainability innovation

Kao spent a moment to define creativity and innovation. Creativity is the universal human ability to generate new ideas. Innovation is creativity applied to a purpose to realize value. Innovation refers to capabilities that allow the continuous realization of a desired future.

Kao pointed out that like jazz music, innovation is not just for the individual; it can also be applied to teams. Also, it is not just bands that get together to innovate; programmers, special forces, etc.  He showed a picture of the Star Trek team along with Jung’s personality types of thinking (Spock), sensation (Uhura), feelings (Bones), and intuition (Kirk). It is important to put together the right team with the right combination of personalities. Heterogeneous teams do better than homogeneous teams. Once the team is together, don’t say too much, let people do their thing. Kao also stressed the importance of community for learning. Jazz musicians learned best through community. Kao provided a movie as an illustration. Here is a movie trailer for the movie, Bird.

Communities of practice are groups of people who come together around same interests. They improve the more they get together.  Wenger has written a theory around communities of practice. Communities of practice are great places to stretch your skills and to find out what you still need to work on. While it is good to collaborate with others, sometimes you need to work out issues on your own. Kao talked about “going to the woodshed.” According to the Urban Dictionary, going to the woodshed is “To lock oneself away with a musical instrument and practice, either a particular piece or in general, until the player has improved greatly or can perfectly play the piece he has been practicing.” Going to the woodshed is to be alone to innovate. Where is your woodshed? Failure is important to learning.

Finally, Kao talked about the Beginner’s Mind or shoshin. He stresses that it is important to take on a beginner’s mind as you create and innovate. You should basically empty your cup so new information, knowledge, or skill can be developed.

This was an amazing keynote presentation. I am glad to have attended. Let’s capture the spirit of Kao’s presentation, and make the world better.

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