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Are you ready for the change that is coming?


With John Kao

We are standing on the edge of cultural change – the likes of which we have never seen before. Company after company are falling over as whole industries try to respond to the changing landscape. In the last month, BRW has announced that it will cease publishing as a magazine. In the United Kingdom, the Financial Times has decided that journalists will publish stories to meet peak viewing times on the Web rather than old print deadlines. Only those companies and industries that can read the prevailing winds will survive. Only those who can adapt and change will thrive.

John Kao is an international expert on innovation and creativity. He knows what individuals and companies have to do to prosper. John says, “No business can afford to sit still. There’s competition, and competition is increasingly global. As countries around the world get smarter about innovation, the competitive bar gets raised and good ideas can come from anywhere. If you don’t plant new possibilities in a hospitable environment and cause them to grow in such a way that some of them reach the finish line to create new value, you’re in trouble.”

As to how he would define innovation, John says, “The dictionary would define innovation as creativity applied to some purpose to realise value. I would add a couple of additional thoughts. Everyone is creative but not everyone can come up with a creative idea that is valuable. So innovation to me has to satisfy some kind of need or purpose; it has to change the nature of things. It can’t just be a novel or new thing - it has to have ultimately some valuable outcome for someone.”

Furthermore, according to John, an innovator does not come in a standardised package. He says, “An innovator is willing to work outside the lines when necessary. Not disrespecting the rules, but understanding that sometimes incumbent thinking or legacy thinking or establishment thinking is a big obstacle to generating new things, and being able to make some useful exceptions when necessary is very important.”

The features of an innovator - intuitive, collaborative and lifelong learners

Intuition is important for an innovator says John. He argues, “A lot of management focuses on the analytical, scientific, engineering, quantitative, left-brained side of things, and that’s very important if you want to maintain efficiency in a big, established, complicated organisation where the rules are known; but it’s not so good for inventing something new where you have to be very, very attuned to possibilities.”

John continues, “Typically in my experience, innovators also understand the collaboration process, whether they have a partnership or work in a team. They have a certain innate emotional intelligence that allows them to use relationships as kind of a force-multiplier.”

He adds, “The innovators I’ve met also share the characteristic of being really good learners, so they organise their lives so that there’s a constant stream of novel input that allows them to think differently at the drop of a hat. So they go out and find interesting experiences, or learn something new, or learn multiple things that don’t necessarily fit together neatly. They have an appetite to go outside of the lines to find things to learn about.”

How can small businesses be innovative?

John believes that to some extent, smaller businesses have the chance to be more innovative than larger, older companies. You only need to look at how slowly Australian department stores are moving in response to Australian’s hunger for online shopping to see his point.

He says, small businesses are more mobile. “They have an opportunity to go global and to scale, and to act like these big businesses and most of that has to do with the Internet, and the ability of even one person to take a brand and make it global, and create communications and marketing tools that can go viral, and can literally reach multitudes.”

“Some businesses are destined for explosive growth even though they might not know it. When Mark Zuckerberg was in his dorm room thinking about doing a digital yearbook, he had no idea that he would wind up with the biggest business in the world in terms of numbers of customers, within a very short number of years. On the other hand, a lot of businesses are not destined to become huge or to set global standards, and that can be okay as well.”

How can a business be innovative?

John’s first passion is music and in answer to that question he says, “When you’re a jazz piano player, you’ve spent decades – in many cases – practising scales and harmony, and technical elements, and most companies, if you were to say to them ‘What’s the thing that you’ve been practising for the last ten years that makes you good at innovation?’, I don’t think they would be able to answer that question.”

John thinks there are probably three things he would recommend to every organisation.

He says, “The first thing is to have a clear definition of innovation that you can communicate within your organisation so that people know what the company’s point of view on it is, and have a story around why it’s important. Because if you don’t state its importance and explain it, people aren’t going to change their behaviour. They’re just going to nod and then they’re going to do the thing they always do.”

He continues, “The second thing is to understand that having a strategy for innovation that involves building capabilities – not just doing the hand-waving – is really important. The third thing I would say is making some decisions about who is actually responsible for doing the work of innovation, which is what I call the stewardship issue. If you don’t have someone or a team who has the responsibility for generating a strategy and translating it into action, how is innovation going to happen? It’s going to be a mood within many peoples’ heads, but not necessarily behaviours that for which somebody or some team is accountable. So I think you have to create accountability.”

John thinks leaders are critical in this process. He says, “I think that the leader of the organisation needs to participate and create an umbrella for innovation activities, and if they don’t understand it or are not supportive of it, it’s very hard to have an innovation campaign happening within the organisation. You need the person at the top or you need the rank and file – because that’s where the ideas come from – and you need the coalition of the willing; I mean the people who are actually going to do the work. Which doesn’t necessarily mean creating an innovation department, because the downside of that is that people may say ‘Oh, well, you know, let’s just send it to the Innovation Department. I mean we don’t have to do anything about it’. Well, that’s not exactly what you want either.

“You want people to share a sense of responsibility for getting innovation done, and you want engagement. So you don’t want just one person with a target painted on their back who’s the ‘Designated Innovation Lead’.”

Time is of the essence

This is not the time for naivety. John says, “I get surprised by the naivety of leaders who think that doing an innovation campaign is getting people fired up about out-of-the-box thinking; or they think it’s something you do once in a while to pep things up. Or they think of it as being all about technical matters, you know, and scientific matters as opposed to a much broader array of considerations that have to do with business models, that have to do with ways of doing things.”

John believes that if you don’t have innovation, you don’t have a way of reaching out to the future. Further, he also thinks that it is possible to be innovative in a number of ways. He explains, “I mean sometimes you jump way outside of your familiar comfort zone and you find something novel, and that points the direction in which the whole enterprise wants to go. Sometimes innovation is incremental and it’s really about improving something you know, but making it better. Sometimes it’s about finding something that you already know about or have, and causing it to behave in a very different way or figuring out something to add to it, or figuring out how to combine known ingredients for a novel result. So there’s no one formula for innovation.

“I would say to the business owner you don’t have to necessarily look way outside of what you know or what you’re doing, although by the same token you have to understand that there’s a difference between doing things that improve what you have already so it is kind of better versus inventing something new that might change the nature of the game. And you have to have a bit of both ways of thinking about things.”

Thomas Friedman recently wrote in The New York Times that ‘average is over’. He said, “In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labour, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra, their unique, value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment.”

Friedman is right - average is over; and Kao is right too – innovation is the key to longevity.

Who is John Kao?

For more information please see:
twitter: @johnkao

John is an internationally recognised innovation activist and sought after speaker and strategist. He is a graduate of Yale College (philosophy), Yale Medical School (psychiatry) and Harvard Business School (management). A jazz pianist at heart, he apprenticed to rock legend Frank Zappa in 1969. He has advised countries, states and cities on large scale innovation strategy and execution. These engagements include Finland, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Australia, Canada, and elements of the US government as well as the European Union innovation policy team.

John on all that jazz

“Jazz is a great proxy for how innovation works because jazz musicians have to get up on stage and create new notes that sound good, because if you don’t stay in the jazz club or you don’t buy the CD, there’s no value that is created. And the thing I like about music from a business, thought-leadership perspective is that it’s a very convenient way for me to demonstrate innovation on stage.

I can talk about innovation and wave my hands around but when I play jazz on the piano, I can show the difference between playing the notes, reading them off the sheet music, and improvising. It immediately creates a bit of an ah-ha moment. Improvisation is fundamental to many walks of life. The way we live our lives has to be somewhat improvisational because we don’t know what’s coming at us next year or next month, or even tomorrow.

In the military, the special operations community often refers to themselves as the jazz musicians of the military. And then anyone who’s ever been involved in a start-up knows that being an entrepreneur in an early-stage company is all about business jazz.”

Examples of innovation in real estate

Holograms – buyers will be able to see versions of themselves in and around the property, hanging out on the couch, lying in bed, cooking a meal, and other common household tasks. 

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