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Searching for the sweet spot
jamming with John Kao

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue June, June 1 - June 30, 2000 | BY John Gehl 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

UBIQUITY: There are thousands of books with the word "creativity" in their titles. What's your general take on such books?

JOHN KAO: I think they're useful, but I don't think they get companies to a point at which they can practice innovation on a sustained or strategic level. I think most of those books are about how to generate ideas, or how to create a climate that is more open to new ideas.

UBIQUITY: How different from that is your own approach?

KAO: To my way of thinking, ideas are the easy part. There are plenty of ways that companies get new ideas. What they don't have are systems for creating value from creativity on a continuous, intentional and systematic basis. So the fact that there are lots of books out there on creativity doesn't mean anything in terms of the availability of meaningful, new tools for corporate innovation in the broad sense.

UBIQUITY: Then you prefer the word "innovation" to "creativity"?

KAO: Actually, I hate the word "innovation" too!


KAO: Because "innovation" is often used as nothing more than a grown-up term for "creativity," and also because it's colorless and boring. On the other hand, it's the only other word we really have, so we're stuck with it.

UBIQUITY: Talk a little about innovation, as contrasted with creativity.

KAO: Innovation is the most important thing that companies do. It's about reinventing themselves and about finding new stuff that disrupts the status quo. It's not about "better, faster, cheaper"; it's about the way you do things as much as it is the product and services that you sell to customers. What I'm saying is the stuff that's important in business is not about ideas so much as it's about creating new value from different ways of looking at markets, products, services, and ways of doing things.

UBIQUITY: Why do you not call a strategy for adding value an "idea"?

KAO: Because ideas are just conceptual starting points. Having ideas is not good enough! I can sit here and have a perfectly good idea and yet not have it create real value for an organization. At the beginning of the personal computer revolution someone could say, "Hey, I think there'll be this thing called the personal computer and it's going to be important!" -- but it matters tremendously how you actually go about turning that perception of opportunity into something concrete and something real. There are plenty of ideas -- almost too many. I can go into a room and sit down with any corporate group and -- by application of certain techniques and in a matter of minutes or hours -- generate plenty of interesting new ideas. But it doesn't get them anywhere. They're just sitting in a room, and nothing's happening.

UBIQUITY: And so what does get them somewhere? How do they create that new value you talk about?

KAO: Well, the whole focus in my work over the last couple of years -- and the reason I moved out to California and started the Idea Factory -- has been my dissatisfaction with the state of play in terms of how creativity was practiced inside of organizations. A couple of years ago, when I realized that there was a strong need for a full set of robust tools for innovation, I established the Idea Factory as a way to reinvent the practice of innovation in this "new economy" environment.

UBIQUITY: What do companies need to do?

KAO: There are a lot of things that companies need to do. They need to have a real point of view about the future. They need to deepen their knowledge of customers beyond market research. They need to think about innovation as a systematic set of organizational practices and to really consider how innovation connects with deep organizational purpose and mission. And they need to build idea factories for themselves.

UBIQUITY: Tell us about the physical appearance of your own physical manifestation of the Idea Factory -- your factory is a concept but it's also a place, right? How would you describe the place called the Idea Factory?

KAO: Right now, the Idea Factory is a 6,500-square-foot warehouse located south of Market Street in San Francisco -- but it's also a few offices internationally. We now have an office in London and an office in Holland and we're looking at opening some other offices in other locations.

UBIQUITY: Why did you call it a "factory"?

KAO: The etymology of the word factory suggests nothing more nor less than a method of doing things. So the Idea Factory is where ideas are generated and developed and embedded in organizations in order to create value.

UBIQUITY: You've used two different metaphors in relation to your work: the factory metaphor but also the jazz metaphor (and of course it was the jazz metaphor that suggested the title for your book Jamming. Could you comment on the relation of these two rather different concepts?

KAO: Oh, well, there's no rule that says you have to have just a single metaphor. Jamming to me is the way innovation works. It's a process you apply continuously in search of a "sweet spot" between absolute structure and absolute freedom -- which in musical terms would be the contrast between playing music just by the notes on the one hand versus white noise on the other.

UBIQUITY: Say more about that "sweet spot."

KAO: Jazz is never the absence of structure, it's just relative balance between structure and freedom -- unlike playing classical music, which is just playing the notes as they're written. There's a rich vein to be mined in terms of what "jamming" offers as a skill that organizations can practice to create innovation. That having been said, if I looked at the kind of critical mass of resources that are required for organizations to take a meaningful cut at innovation, I immediately turn to the factory metaphor, because the factories are where processes and know-how and people and resources and knowledge about the environment are all integrated. And so you have a kind of critical mass of ingredients that leads to an ability to innovate.

UBIQUITY: Does jamming, as an approach to innovation, apply more to some organizations than others? Does it apply to a manufacturing company as well as to, let's say, an advertising agency?

KAO: Definitely. Manufacturing companies need to be just as supple in terms of figuring out what products to make and how to please customers. And there's no company or organization that's exempted from the need for innovation. We've been doing work recently with government agencies, which are, by definition, bureaucratic, and which have thrived on structure and standard operating procedures and all of the trappings of bureaucracy. Yet the challenge they're grappling with is the need to improvise, to create, to reinvent their processes so that they're not only cost-effective but also actually in step with today's society. So I don't think anybody is exempted from the need to innovate in the way I'm talking about it -- except for companies that are dead.

UBIQUITY: One thing that leaps out at a person looking at your amazing background is how varied it is. How much of it surprises you in retrospect? Or did you just sit down at the age of eight and decide that you were going to do all these things?

KAO: Well, actually, yes and no, I did and I didn't. I knew that I was going to have an eclectic career, but I had no idea of the specifics of what would happen. My whole life has been an improvisation in hopefully the best sense of the word.

UBIQUITY: Has there been an organizing principle?

KAO: I could give you a flip answer and say that I've always organized my career based on whether or not I thought I was going to have fun doing something. And at the moment it stopped being fun, I'd stop doing it. Now that sounds a little frivolous, but for performing jazz musicians, the music has to sound great, and if it doesn't sound great they have to change their approach or migrate immediately to some new set of assumptions about what does sound great -- so that they are always are finding that "sweet spot." I never felt that I was on this planet to do one thing for fifty years, and I have never wanted to have anything that could be considered a conventional job or conventional "career path."

UBIQUITY: That's clear enough. What about medicine? Did you intend to practice?

KAO: No, I was thinking of becoming a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, because I'd been very interested in philosophy and behavioral science, and had read a lot of Jungian psychological theory when I was in college and been very inspired by that. But then I realized somewhere along the way that, while the knowledge I was acquiring in medical school was really quite valuable, being a psychiatrist was not exactly how I wanted to spend my time for the rest of my life.

UBIQUITY: But no regrets?

KAO: Oh, absolutely not. To the contrary. Though I didn't want to be a medical academic I wanted to take knowledge and bring it somewhere else, which is very much a theme of what I'll call my "non-career career" -- a theme of finding something useful and bringing it to an altogether different kind of arena.

UBIQUITY: And, in particular, to business?

KAO: That's right. I asked myself how does psychiatric knowledge play out in business, and the question turned out to be so interesting that I began to explore it in depth, and the faculty of Harvard Business School offered me a job that allowed me to build bridges between different disciplines and different communities.

UBIQUITY: You've taught at both Harvard and Stanford. Are you currently connected with any university?

KAO: No, and it's the first time in about 20 years that I've chosen not to be.

UBIQUITY: How do you, in retrospect, regard academia, particularly as it contrasts with the so-called "real world"?

KAO: Well, I think that it is true in general that people who have primarily an academic foundation will tend to look at issues through an academic set of lenses. And I think there is a constant challenge to create relevance for, quote-unquote, "practitioners." One of the reasons I was happy to change platforms and create the Idea Factory was that I wanted to look at the same set of issues but with a different set of lenses. I didn't think that people in academia necessarily had a hammer lock on how innovation works, or on what's happening in the new economy or on the Internet space, or on technology, or on anything at all. So I wanted to switch platforms and switch perspectives However, that having been said, I spent 14 years affiliated with Harvard, and those were wonderful and immensely valuable years.

UBIQUITY: What did you value most?

KAO: Teaching a subject really helps you understand it, to really think about it. And I think a lot of people in business don't really think. They either just follow the leader or they operate by reflexes and intuition -- which may work just fine for them in most cases but it would be probably even better if they had some kind of a mental framework for looking at what they did. So the intellectual discipline of being in academia was very valuable to me.

UBIQUITY: Going back to the words "creative" and "creativity," just how commonplace do you think creativity is? Is it spread around the world equally? For example, is there more or less of it in Hollywood than in other places? Is there more or less of it in insurance companies, in academia, and so forth?

KAO: Oh, well, I think one has to differentiate between the question "Are people creative?" and the question "Do certain kinds of organizations or environments encourage creativity?" I think that everyone is creative and I think that creativity is a basic human attribute. Of course, that doesn't mean that everyone is able to create valuable new stuff -- as I said earlier, there's a semantic issue of what is creativity and what is innovation. I would say that, whereas everybody's capable of coming up with new, interesting ideas, figuring out how to turn those ideas into something valuable is often much more difficult. So that's my answer to part one of your question: I think everyone is creative. I think part two of your question is: Well, so how does it work in the organizational arena? The answer is that bureaucracies are not set up for creativity, because creativity is simply not their most important and pressing issue. What's usually most important to them are issues of execution, and efficiency, and attention to detail, and freedom from mistakes -- and so forth and so on. And all that's fine. But I think that if an organizations wants innovation, then it has to structure itself very differently.

UBIQUITY: And the Hollywood part of the question?

KAO: Actually, there is a lot about Hollywood that is actually quite destructive to creativity because, while movies are inherently a creative process, the way movies are made often reflects certain pathologies of studio executives as opposed to the creativity of people who actually make the movies. But that having been said, a similar pathology can be found in any industry, -- and if you're in a manufacturing business that only prizes execution and nothing else, obviously you're not going to get much creativity.

UBIQUITY: How did you get involved with movie production?

KAO: I followed a time-honored tradition. I wrote checks. I'd been very interested in the movie business for a long time and I had the opportunity to write checks to option screenplays, to try on the hat of being a producer. Fortunately for me, one of the first checks I wrote was to Steve Soderbergh for sex, lies, and videotape. It was a little like getting a lottery ticket. After that experience, I directed and produced a feature-like documentary on innovation based on my book, Jamming, and I produced other films, and then produced some theater. I was nominated for a Tony Award a couple of years ago for producing The Golden Child on Broadway. It was a wonderful play.

UBIQUITY: Well, is there anything that you haven't done?

KAO: Sure. I haven't gone to law school, I haven't gone to divinity school, I haven't gone bungee-jumping -- there are lots of kinds of businesses that I haven't been involved with. True, I do have a kind of diverse background. But there are still many things I haven't done.

UBIQUITY: At least not yet.

KAO: That's right. Not yet. Well, that's what keeps life interesting.

For more on John Kao, see and


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