`Creativity Is What Gets You Growth'

A talk with John Kao, the author of Jamming, about the skills needed in today's economy

Since it was published in July, John J. Kao's latest book, Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, has climbed onto BUSINESS WEEK's best-seller list. In it, the author applies insights from his experience as a jazz pianist and Harvard B-school professor to the rigors of building a business. Kao recently shared some thoughts about managing creativity with Assistant Managing Editor Sarah Bartlett:

Q: Tell us what you mean by "jamming."

A: In a literal sense, "jamming" comes from the world of jazz music. It means music that's improvised as opposed to played by sheet music. But it's a misconception that jazz musicians play whatever they feel like. Jazz musicians start with a lot of givens. They start with their mechanical skill in playing an instrument, they understand jazz harmony and theory, they understand jazz traditions.

When they get up on stage to play with other people, they have certain common understandings about the tune, they have certain common understandings about who's going to play first. And then, within that framework, within the strictness of that form, comes the platform for creating something new.

To me, in a business sense, jamming is a way of managing in this so-called New Economy. Really, when you boil it all down, the New Economy is a banner under which we recognize certain new kinds of asset classes. We recognize the value of ideas, we recognize the value of transforming those ideas into value. We recognize the value of agility.... Jamming is a skill set for working in the New Economy. Jamming is the skill set that gets you creativity. Creativity is what gets you growth.

Q: Supposing I want to explore some of your ideas in my company. How do I get started?

A: First, you have to make sure that the set of shared values in your culture explicitly supports the generation of new ideas, no matter how off the wall. Phase 1 is really making it safe for people to be brave and come forward with their ideas.

Most organizations that are pressured because of time and resources have a million excuses for shutting off creative ideas. What they don't realize is that those ideas are a tremendous set of assets for the organization.

Q: How does one create an environment that's conducive to jamming?

A: One of the chief assets of a company is the kind of conversations that take place. In many small companies, especially if they're pressured with a lot of deadlines or a busy, no-slack environment, the conversations will tend to be very operationally focused on today and yesterday and the crisis du jour.

It's very important to make room for conversations that have to do with tomorrow. That kind of conversational environment can obviously be aided and abetted by a number of different maneuvers. But I'm not saying that these are all "must do." Being prescriptive really depends a lot on the specifics of the company.

Q: But you have to start somewhere.

A: Well, here's a couple of ideas. Sure, if a company can take itself out of the day-to-day routine to have a different kind of a conversation--a creative review or brainstorming session, whatever--that can be very valuable. Among other things, that validates the importance of the activity.

I like to tell people in organizations that if they want to lead a change process for any activity, it's almost like they have to find a brand identity. You really have to find a way of explaining it, defining it, communicating it, making it tangible.

Because the thing is that creativity is completely intangible.... So whether it's developing a campaign, putting together a kind of a label, or developing a compensation system, you need to find explicit, tangible, palpable ways to show that shift of gears.

Q: How does a manager make that shift happen?

A: The key skill for a manager is knowing how to let people know the gears are really shifting, how to preserve the boundaries, so that the right kind of conversation can take place.

The effective manager of creativity in small business is almost like the producer of a band. The producer of a band sets up boundary conditions. And then his or her job is to step back and essentially enable, catalyze, nurture, influence--but not control. So in that sense, a good manager of creativity in a small business is about managing the boundaries of conversations.

Q: Is there a role for technology here?

A: Conversations in small companies can be facilitated by online systems. I know of several companies that will have company meetings, not physically, but online. So what you have is the opportunity for a lot of asynchronous conversation. You don't need to get everybody together, with the opportunity costs for the company that are involved.

So you could have a physical conversational place which could be, in the parlance of the book, your woodshed, or some environment that's free of preconception. But you could equally orchestrate something like that online. Even in a local E-mail kind of environment. It really depends how you set it up in people's minds. You know, E-mail can either be just more efficient paper memos, or it can be a new kind of group collaboration.

Q: How do you reward people for something as intangible as a new idea?

A: See, again, I don't think it's so much about ideas. It's really about ideas that are developed to the point where they yield value to the company. So in that sense you have objective outcomes. It's not about, "So-and-so came up with this great idea, and we'll never do it, but, you know, they're in our face all the time, so we'd better give them a bonus."

You want to reward people for accomplishment. And you can judge it ex post facto. You can judge it at yearend, when everybody's on the same playbook.

Q: What's the biggest mistake that you've seen people make?

A: The biggest mistake, which is almost a universal one, is to position creativity as something that we're almost naively enthusiastic about. But we're naively enthusiastic about it this week. And so, maybe we have a creativity facilitator come in, or we make everybody read some articles, or we get everybody to be a little wacky and make suggestions--but then it's over.

First of all, it's never over. I mean, creativity is a system in every company that operates 365 days a year. It's just that in most companies, it operates poorly.

So I think that mistake No.1 is really not having either a sense of creativity as an ongoing agenda item, or having a definition of creativity that I would call dysfunctional, like looking at it as this cute thing that we do once in a while as if it's part of the elective curriculum. Ninety percent of what's out there on the business creativity subject is about ideation. It's about how you come up with more ideas, better ideas. That's very important. But to me that's what I call the front end of the process. It's a very limited part of the whole sequence of events.

If you just look at it as ideation, it takes you off the hook from actually having to do anything about it. Or doing the tougher things, like actually managing the process by which ideas are generated, developed, selected, filtered, killed, advanced, funded, staffed, and harvested. Ideas are the easy part. Making something happen around those ideas in a way that reflects an organizational capability is the $64 question.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.