Get business minds to jam, guru advises

May 21, 2004

The key to business success in the 21st-century is the ability to "jam" and innovate, UK business schools will be told next week, writes Paul Hill.

John Kao, dubbed "Mr Creativity", will be in London on May 25 to deliver a lecture on innovation and creative thinking.

In an unorthodox career, Professor Kao has taught at Harvard Business School for 14 years, produced Hollywood films, written bestsellers and was an "apprentice" to rock musician Frank Zappa in the summer of 1969.

At the heart of Professor Kao's business philosophy is a jazz metaphor: businesses should not be afraid to depart from the traditional sheet music and jam to develop new business ideas.

His lecture is one of a series of events comprising the first D&AD congress, a three-week long celebration of the design and advertising industries organised by the educational charity that champions their work.

Other events include exhibitions of the work of students on design and advertising courses, "portfolio surgeries" at which students will receive advice about their work, and a series of lectures by the writer and film director Alan Parker. Educationists and industry figures will also debate whether "we get the graduates we deserve" at a forum on June 29.

Professor Kao said that although he had some ideas for his lecture in London's Billingsgate he would not know until the day what he would say.

But he added: "Having taught at Harvard for 14 years, it seems to me that much of what passes for business education still reinforces a lot of the implicit mindset and conventions of the industrial era.

"We're in a time of fundamental instability in every dimension. Anyone who says they know where things are going is either not telling the truth or is trying to sell something.

Professor Kao said is was no longer enough to teach managers to build the giant corporations of the industrial era. "In an environment of instability, people have to learn how to innovate - they can't simply rely on the same old stuff, they have to reinvent the game."

Professor Kao, whose parents were Chinese academics who emigrated to the US in the late 1940s, described himself as an "arbitrarian" - drawing on different cultural influences, experiences and academic disciplines in his work.

"Jazz is about taking a framework and going some place new with it - but in a way that has to satisfy a consumer test. If people are to buy it, it has to balance a number of imperatives: if the music is too far out, people won't like it; if it is too conventional, people will think it's boring," he said.

"Jamming is a cardinal skill not just for musicians but for all of us who are composing our lives and for companies who either know how to jam or who don't."

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