It's hard to imagine what might not be fun for Kao. In his 45 years he has been a professional musician, an author, a professor, a psychiatrist, an entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, a consultant, a lecturer, and a film producer and director. He has a B.A. in philosophy, an M.D. in psychiatry and an M.B.A. He lectures around the world on everything from office design to the tourism industry. He is an authority on information technology, new media, entrepreneurial management and business creativity.
Those who have to introduce Kao as a speaker or write his book covers face a bit of a challenge presenting his career in a capsule summary. Most resort to random and cumbersome combinations of the above titles. Others, recognizing the longstanding interest in creativity that underlies many of his pursuits, call him simply a "creativity expert." In fact, the latter is probably about as limiting as Kao would want anyone to get on the subject of himself. At no time in his life have current projects determined what his next projects will be. This is a point of pride for him. Asked about future plans, he replies, "I'm going to do whatever feels exciting."
You start to understand what drives John Kao when you listen to the message he has been expounding in books, classes and lectures for over a decade. In his latest book, which he aims at business leaders but intends for anyone who wants to play a role in our rapidly changing economy, he puts the message thus: Jam or die.
Jamming is what jazz musicians do when they play together in a group, and it is the title of Kao's book. This is no off-the-cuff metaphor: Kao is an accomplished jazz musician who has played keyboards for Frank Zappa and he perceives close parallels between the jazz world and today's business world. The world of business is changing in a fundamental way, he believes, and that those who succeed will be those who know how to jam.
"At it's heart," writes Kao, "jamming is about improvisation. When we are having a great conversation, we are jamming. Dancing can be very much about jamming. So is the road that an inspired product development team walks to come up with something new that compels the customer's attention."
The constant in each of these situations is the unresolved paradox between the established, the known, the tried-and-true--what Kao calls "sheet music"--and the new, the unknown, the experimental. The excitement in jazz comes from purposefully not resolving the tension but instead "working" it, to the end of a new and previously unimagined result. Likewise in business, there are schedules and budgets that must be adhered to, but if a company does not continually generate new ideas and incorporate them as new value into its products and processes--in other words, if it is not creative--it will lose its competitive edge. In today's global marketplace, "endlessly demanding of the new, the experimental, the faster, the better, and the cheaper," a company must jam to survive.
Kao became formally interested in business creativity in 1983 when, as a junior faculty member at Harvard Business School, he proposed teaching a course on creativity and entrepreneurship. A distinguished colleague laughed at the idea, unable to fathom that anything new could be said about creativity. The school opposed it as well: Kao was in his second year of teaching and it was unprecedented for someone with so little experience to introduce a new course. But Kao persisted, finally getting his course approved by offering to do all the work himself and to teach it as an elective on top of his regular courseload.
In its first year his Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Organization course attracted 200 students, an extraordinary number for Harvard. It remained popular, and by the time Kao retired from Harvard last year, as many as 2000 students had taken the course. Kao has also taught corporate creativity in Harvard's Advanced Management and executive programs, as well as at Stanford, Yale, M.I.T. and the University of Copenhagen. He has written four books on the subject and is currently working on a fifth. Moreover, he maintains a busy lecture schedule and has advised more than 100 companies, including Dupont, Lotus, American Express and Twentieth Century Fox, as well as organizations like the World Health Organization, UNESCO and even the government of Singapore. Today, he is recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on organizational creativity.
Creativity didn't become an object of study for Kao until he started to teach, but it has always been the driving force of his life.
"If creativity is about a collision of mutually irreducible perspectives and ideas," he notes, citing the philosopher Arthur Koestler, "then I've always trafficked in it." As a child Kao had to make a major transition every day between his Chinese household, composed of his immigrant parents and himself, and the radically different environment outside that was America. PAGE 2