Jamming your business processes to foster creativity
John Kao, author of Jamming, tells you how to restructure your company's design, business operations, and mindsharing methods to elicit innovation using jazz jam sessions as a rich metaphor
John Kao, professor of creativity, consultant, and entrepreneur, learned about creativity from studying psychology and playing jazz. In Jamming, he applies the atmosphere of the jazz jam session to business and shows how you can take your enterprise to the next level. (3,000 words)
Those of you who read the first one, Leadership Jazz, by Max De Pree, can rest assured that Kao's new book is considerably different. (De Pree, chairman of the innovative Herman Miller furniture design firm, wrote a book that might have been better titled Jonathan Livingston Leadership -- enough said.) Jamming takes a closer look at the processes of creativity and cooperative work that go on in a jazz group, and he examines how they can apply to today's business climate in which, as Kao puts it, one must "create or fail."
The jazz analogy is both intriguing and dangerous to me. As someone who has been a jazz radio disk jockey, newspaper critic, and concert producer, I have strong (and, I like to think, informed) opinions about jazz. The phrase "create or fail" is actually more a threat than a rallying cry in jazz, as it is in business. For the past 15 years or so, jazz has been suffering from a dearth of creativity. One reason for this is that today's jazz musicians are coming out of conservatories and universities, which have attempted to bottle up and teach "creativity" along with music theory and instrumental technique. The products of these environments pale, creativity-wise, in comparison to the music that came out of such legendary cauldrons of creativity as Minton's nightclub in the 1940s, which Kao appropriately cites as one of the most important examples of a creative environment in jazz history.
At the same time, Kao claims to be able to bottle up and teach creativity -- as he does at Harvard Business School, Stanford, and other prestigious universities. Was the Minton's scene (and others like it, such as Vienna in the 1830s or Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s) something spontaneous, organic, and unpredictable, as the romantic view of music history puts it, or were there certain principles in operation that we can copy for use in our software development company or other modern business? Kao claims the latter. Although it's not possible to flick a switch and have someone "be creative," it is possible to create an environment that maximizes the probability of creativity.
Can you define creativity?
Jamming does not present any sort of pedagogical approach to creativity. Instead, it covers a variety of topics, primarily ways of retooling your organization's physical layout, business processes, and mental attitudes to foster creativity. It also spends a lot of time cheerleading about creativity and citing plenty of useful examples from real companies.
What it does not do, however, is define creativity. This is the book's major drawback. Although it's difficult to imagine a definition of this term that everyone can agree on, it would have been helpful if Kao at least supplied an "operational" definition. How do you know when you are or your organization is being creative? What are the desired objectives of creativity -- at a deeper level than simply "business improvement?" Is there "good" and "bad" creativity, and if so, how do you ensure yours is good?
Unfortunately, Kao leaves the definition at the level of "you'll know it when you see it." As a result, "creativity" comes across in this book as a catch-all term for everything we believe is good or desirable about business today, or for that certain elusive something that we can't achieve through traditional management techniques but that will lift us out of the doldrums and ahead of the competition. Culturally, he seems to position creativity as what happens at hip software and design companies -- in open loft environments where unshaven people wear flannel and grunge blares out from the communal stereo.
At the same time, the idea of jamming, in the jazz sense, turns out to be an excellent metaphor for things you can do to help your business move forward. Whether you use the label "creativity" or something else (leadership, intrapreneurship, transformation, process reengineering, etc.) to describe the desired result is almost beside the point.
How to construct the corporate jam session
When musicians jam, they start with a tune (or chord progression, like a 12-bar blues) and improvise on it. Various things can happen during jam sessions. Kao's metaphor emphasizes the aspect of jamming that involves musicians responding to and embellishing each other's ideas until something genuinely new is created. Listen to any of the great early New Orleans ensembles, such as the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives or Hot Sevens, or to Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz album, for examples of collective idea-trading at its finest.
This kind of jamming is a lot like another time-honored tradition, the late-night college bull session after the stimulating lecture on Wittgenstein, Proust, or Freud. During a good bull session, you might stick your neck out and say something you think is profound. It might actually be stupid, irrelevant, or trite, but it might also be brilliant or thought-provoking. Either way, other people in the conversation will pick up on your ideas, attempt to take them further, refute them, etc. By the end of the bull session, some new ideas will have come out, and everyone will have increased their insight into the subject (and thus, presumably, their ability to do well on the final exam).
Transplant the college bull session, or collective jazz jam session, to a business environment, and you have John Kao's idea of "jamming." There is no formal, existing business process that is equivalent. The weekly staff meeting? Forget it. The formalized brainstorming session? Maybe, but brainstorming rules dictate that ideas are just generated, not evaluated or debated. What's needed, according to Kao, is the kind of company that actively encourages jamming and supplies the proper atmosphere. The book Jamming goes into some detail about the necessary elements of such an atmosphere.
The most important aspect of a jamming-friendly atmosphere is free and easy communication among people. This means no big offices with doors that close, and no rigid corporate procedures that stand in the way of getting things done. Kao mentions a research scientist who left a large pharmaceutics company because he was tired of the "charade of paper shuffling." In my previous job, on the corporate staff of a large, geographically diverse company, I had a big, plushly-decorated office, in which I spent 99 percent of my time talking to people on the phone and sending and receiving e-mail. The office was utterly pointless!
Instead, Kao calls for informal, comfortable, common work spaces. He also emphasizes the use of information technology to create a jamming-conducive atmosphere regardless of physical conditions. By now, everyone knows what e-mail can do to corporate culture. Take away e-mail from Sun, for example, and the company would utterly collapse -- it would be like taking away electricity. At an old-line Wall Street company where I used to work, a high-level executive attempted to hasten the adoption of e-mail by actively refusing to read paper memos. He even had a rubber stamp created that said, "Memo unread. Please resubmit by e-mail."
Using existing IT tools to encourage jamming
-- some examples
Internet and groupware technologies, as Kao points out, add even more power to technology's ability to demolish boundaries. Groupware, a la Lotus Notes, adds structure and depth to e-mail, so that discussions can take place without everyone having to follow e-mail reply trails and can be enhanced by information in databases. The Internet enables connections between organizations that do all sorts of useful things, as you've heard over and over again.
Kao cites First Virtual Corp. (not to be confused with First Virtual Holdings, the digital cash company) as an example of an organization that consists of nothing (physically) but a room full of people who think of innovative uses of technology and ways to bring them to market quickly. Everything nonessential to this activity is outsourced. Currently, First Virtual Corp. is working on desktop digital video technology, but its practically nonexistent infrastructure allows employees to move to another line of business swiftly and painlessly. First Virtual exists on the basis of its connectivity with other companies that supply pieces that it puts together. In other words, First Virtual can exist because of the Internet.
The other important value of information technology that Kao mentions is access to information. The essence of "cyberspace" is that information can be accessible at any place, at any time, by an arbitrary number of people. If you put your company's information into cyberspace, you leverage it -- you create what some companies call an institutional memory. Firms of knowledge workers, like management consultancies, law firms, and financial analysts, are the most immediately obvious beneficiaries of institutional memory.
For example, the financial services firm where I used to work convened formal committees to analyze companies' finances. The idea was that the committee formed to analyze a given company should include everyone who might have something to contribute to that company's analysis. This is a weak assumption, right down to the notion that the leading expert analyst may not be able to make it because he or she is off on business travel, sick, at a customer, etc. But if all analytic activity is made available in cyberspace, then the danger of missing something is lessened significantly.
Kao's examples of the power of information access in cyberspace extend beyond knowledge-worker firms to include that of Oticon, a Danish maker of hearing aids led by the charismatic Lars Kolind. They claim to have an environment where people handle pieces of paper exactly once -- just long enough to enter the relevant information into cyberspace. Kolind symbolized the importance of this action by installing a transparent tube in the cafeteria, into which flow the shredded remains of paper whose relevant information got converted to bits and bytes.
The Web and other Internet technologies extend the idea of cyberspace outside of company boundaries, although the tools aren't really sophisticated enough to fully realize this yet. Yet Kao imagines a world several years from now: "Perhaps someone calls to ask me to develop a particular new enterprise. When I sit down to work at my kitchen table, it will take me only minutes to make the necessary trademark search, background research, competitive analysis, and financial model. Another search locates potential investors, who may respond with dazzling speed. A cybernetic agent combs databases for market information that would take an Olympic-level human researcher months to compile. I prospect for experts, advisers, directors, and managers who might be interested and available. All this without getting out of my bathrobe." This is about as "virtual" as you can get! It also, still, fits the notion of "jamming," in the jazz sense, as Kao chooses to use it -- cyberjamming, as he calls it.
Kao also spends quite a bit of time on the mental environment necessary for creativity. You have to clear your mind of preconceived notions -- to achieve the state known as "beginner's mind." Kao calls this process "getting to `cool.'" In this case, "cool" means the jazz musician's term for "relaxed knowingness" -- a state that some jazz musicians took heroin and other drugs to reach. Of course, it's not necessary to do that; in the book, Kao explains various techniques that he teaches in his classes to help people reach beginner's mind. They are not esoteric, new-agey, or weird, but undoubtedly they reflect Kao's background in psychology. At the same time, many of you who are programmers will surely remember a time when you knocked your brains out for hours trying to find a bug in your code, then gave up and went out for dinner, came back, and found the bug right away. It's the same idea.
Banding together? When discipline and
solitude is most useful
The jamming metaphor that Kao uses is certainly an appropriate blueprint for the way businesses should operate in today's dynamic, ultra-competitive climate. Yet the analogy to jamming in jazz could go deeper. Jazz jamming has two other important aspects that apply to business excellence but that Kao ignores or plays down. The first of these is discipline. A musician who wants to jam on "I Got Rhythm," "Round Midnight," or a 12-bar blues shuffle in A-Dorian, has to know the tune, the chords, and how to play his or her instrument well enough to join in without being a hindrance to the other musicians. Similarly, an engineer who wants to join in on an informal discussion about features for the next product release over pizza and beer needs to be able to contribute meaningfully to that discussion for it to have value. Kao pays scant lip-service to discipline in this book. That's ok, though -- the book is about creativity, not discipline.
The other type of jamming is what I'll call Miles Davis/John Coltrane style jamming as opposed to Louis Armstrong/Ornette Coleman style. Miles and Trane -- even more than Charlie Parker, whom Kao lionizes in this book -- epitomized the idea of the lone creative genius, supported by the sympathetic backup group. Listen to Miles' incredible Kind of Blue album, and you'll see that it's not about collective improvisation so much as it's about long, beautiful, solitary walks down country roads by moonlight (Miles) and rugged, expansive, majestic harmonic mountainscapes (Coltrane).
Many business succeed because of Mileses and Coltranes -- charismatic business visionaries, mega-programmers, sales superstars. They lead, while the rest of the organization supports them. That has implications for jamming, and for business environments that support it, that don't jibe with the jamming-conducive milieu that Kao discusses. For one thing, it's well documented -- for example, in the seminal Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by software engineering gurus Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister -- that open physical environments are extremely inimical to "flow," the state of solitary concentration that produces deep intellectual activity. It is utterly impossible to get serious work done in a cubicle, let alone in an open bullpen environment. (As I write this, I am on an airplane, on a nice long flight from New York to L.A. Ahhh, bliss: six solid hours of hearing myself think!) Even Kao -- obviously a business visionary -- has his kitchen table, where he is connected to the world by phone, e-mail, and videoconferencing, all of which he can shut off or ignore when he needs to get a paper done.
At the same time, Kao's book is meant to address those of us who aren't mercurial creative geniuses -- those, as he claims, who are capable of creativity but don't have the proper tools or environment to bring it out. Bill Gates doesn't need someone to build an environment for him so that he can be creative; instead, he needs to provide such an environment for the people who work for him.
This leads to the most appealing part of the book: the author. John Kao is not a business or technology celebrity -- not a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Halsey Minor, or Jim Clark. He is also not the typical pedantic, theory-oriented business professor or management consultant. Instead, his is the very model of the modern "non-linear" career path, as opposed to the traditional steady rise up the corporate ladder, tenure track, or partnership treadmill. He teaches at such places as Harvard and Stanford, has degrees in both business and medicine, and has been actively involved in various ventures ranging from movies in Hollywood to biotechnology. On top of that, he is an accomplished jazz pianist. He seems like a fascinating guy, one who has a wide range of interests, a dynamic personality, a brilliant mind that spews out ideas like a fire hydrant -- and, I would have to guess, a relatively short attention span. In Jamming, we get to spend a few hours with John Kao, to read his informal, non-didactic prose, and get a glimpse into a few of his ideas. It makes me want to get to know the man personally.
Jamming concludes with a "toolkit" chapter containing tips and guidelines on how to promote creativity in your organization. And "jamming" is a concept that Kao has taken beyond the printed page and the classroom to the Web. See Kao's Web page (in resources below) for more information on the book and some of Kao's other activities.
If you have technical problems with this magazine, contact firstname.lastname@example.org