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Innovation Guru John Kao Explains Innovation to Spa and Wellness Leaders

30 July 2012

Understanding Innovation and Imagination – something many in the spa and wellness industry agree is a critical need. Thus, this recap of John Kao’s keynote presentation at the Global Spa and Wellness Summit (GSWS) could not be more perfectly timed. Beth McGroarty, one of the Summit’s bloggers, did an excellent job in capturing the content and the spirit of his presentation. After this short summary of John’s impressive bio you will find Beth’s description.


John has a BA from Yale (in philosophy), an MD from Yale Medical School (in psychiatry) and an MBA from Harvard Business School where he became a professor specializing in enterprise creativity for 14 years. Author of the best-selling books Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity and Innovation Nation, he is also an accomplished jazz pianist.


Written by Beth McGroarty


John Kao, dubbed “Mr. Creativity” by The Economist, and the “Innovation Sherpa” by the US Army, really kicked off the “Innovation through Imagination” agenda on the right note. His super-creative, first-day presentation demystified innovation as some deified process open only to that handful of geniuses. And Kao, using jazz as both a metaphor and a disciplined body of knowledge, showed delegates how innovation is something that you can actually practice, learn, replicate and manage. He literally showed them: playing the piano (magnificently) to illustrate how core innovation concepts like “conversation,” “discontinuity,” “context creation” and “conflict-collaboration” actually work. Because the ideas of his talk were realized through his actual playing, it’s impossible to replicate the magic here – but we can spotlight some key ideas he laid down.


Kao began his talk by noting that he really believed the spa/wellness industry is entering a whole new paradigm and that innovation was NEEDED. For one, the very terms “spa” and “wellness” need some clarifying of their conceptual frameworks. He also noted that innovation is one of the most overused, misunderstood words in the lexicon, and that a Google search of the term leads to a dizzying 2.65 billion hits. He explained that while innovation is constantly worshipped/discussed, it’s typically made both over-complex/forbidding and under-simplified.


Turning then to the discipline of jazz – and to his piano seat – he explored how jazz musicians, and real innovators, get innovation done…


What jazz can teach EVERYONE about innovation and creativity:


  1. Innovation is not some magical “birth,” like Athena being magically sprung from Zeus’ head. Successful innovators practice, practice, practice. He illustrated this point with an interactive audience experiment. He started a story, had audience members pair up into twos, and had them each finish the tale. Immediately everyone was super-engaged with their partner, smiling, talking, listening and getting into the creative groove. His experiment illustrated that innovation is not pure, rock-star invention (when Edison “invented” the lightbulb), innovation is when the inventor set up the Edison Electric Company to sell zillions of lightbulbs. Innovation, unlike invention, always has a purpose. And Kao defined it as “a set of capabilities that enable the continuous realization of a desired future.” Jazz musicians practice for decades to get to the sound – the future – they want.
  2. Hence, innovation (as jazz musicians know) is about conversations, if not with others, than a constant conversation going on in our own heads. The process of improvisation always implies and installs an “other,” and conducts a dialogue with that other/voice.
  3. Jazz musicians – and real innovators – are comfortable with discontinuities, and they integrate them – i.e., you are in the key of “C,” and you hit new, discordant notes, but you keep modulating until you’ve created a new harmony. Because it’s out of discordant notes that come the new harmonic ideas, jazz musicians are examples of the incremental, rather than disruptive, innovation model. So, great innovators, Kao argued, need both structure AND freedom, discipline AND imagination.
  4. Find a place free of preconceptions, and put your mind in a position where you can think like a beginner. Kao noted that innovators need a context/place to create, explaining that for Charlie Parker to invent the whole new sound of bebop, he had to retreat to a woodshed for an entire year, to remove the noise of distorting external input. People need places of quiet, and they need to shed the baggage of what they “already know.”
  5. Conflict and collaborative learning: At places like Minton’s jazz club in NYC in the 1940s, jazz musicians practiced “cutting sessions.” These were a jazzy “battle of the bands” where musicians played, were derided, learned, competed and collaborated in a charged environment. For instance, when a young Charlie Parker played, he was considered so bad, the drummer threw the cymbals at his head. Innovators are open to criticism and collaboration. They were intense, freewheeling, critical environments where they were universally humiliated – so they could improve and step it up. Innovators need environments like “cutting sessions.”
  6. Put together the right “band”: Teams that succeed need diverse kinds of people/skills to find the balanced, innovation “sweet spot.” Companies need the analytical minds – the intuitive/emotional/values-driven minds – the far-seeing, confident leaders, etc. Innovation often doesn’t thrive with just one kind of “player” because it often results in a one-note product.
  7. Embrace risk and failure: Miles Davis argued that there are no mistakes within the discipline of improvisation. And Kao showed a video of Michael Jordan explaining how many hundreds of games he has lost, how many game-winning shots he has missed in his career. Innovators must not just accept failure, they must make failure a comfortable, galvanizing part of their everyday processes.
  8. Big, rich doesn’t = innovation: Kao explained that we have to realize that the biggest countries and companies are not necessarily the ones that innovate best or have the most innovation potential. Showing an “innovation map” of the world, he explained that countries like Chile, Denmark, Finland and Singapore actually have more innovation potential than powerhouses like the U.S.


At the end of his conceptual talk/performance, Kao explained that in anticipation of the GSWS he began thinking about the specific innovation challenges – and more incredible opportunities – that the spa/wellness industries have before them.

His discussion around these industry challenges/opportunities was fascinating: from how spas need to move from the sporadic, “event-driven” model to create more sustainable connections and experiences for clients – to how to actually move beyond serving the “1%” and expand spa/wellness offerings to demographics like children and entirely new cultures – to how to better meet the deep needs of spa-goers, who, Kao argued, come in the first place because they are on a personal, archetypal journey of exploration and seek a very different kind of “service.”

A talk that was equally provocative and practical, it concretely illustrated to delegates that they too can get innovation done… and that thinking and acting like a jazz musician can be their touchstone.


Posted on June 16, 2012 by Taylor Gannon


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