Think Like a Musician: HR Lessons from John Kao

Music has the power to entertain, to ease, and to enchant. But what can it teach?

John Kao began his career as a musician and academic, and has now become a best-selling author and an advisor to Hillary Clinton. He uses knowledge gleaned from his experience in improvisational jazz music to inform his philosophy and ideas. Innovation is critical to economic growth, so leading human resource managers must come to understand it. John Kao teaches:

You need structure, but you also need freedom.

Music, by definition, has structure. The beauty of jazz, however, comes from its free transitions and syncopations. Innovation and creative practice require constraints to keep them relevant, but must take place in an environment that allows for inconsistencies, errors, and changes of direction.

Innovation is a long march.

Idea generation takes time, and design takes multiple iterations. Changing thought processes and entrenched habits is a long-term investment. Success won’t be instantaneous.

Develop multiple solution pathways.

If you’re looking to speed up the outcome, the fastest way to do it is to try more than one way. Don’t put all your bets on one horse.

Define success broadly.

If that doesn’t work, instead of defining success, try defining failure. And still do it broadly. Is your project a failure if you manage to learn something from it? If you grow personally? If it branches off in a productive new direction?

Preview John Kao’s book, watch him on The Colbert Report (here in Canada), read his contributions to The Daily Beast, follow him on Twitter (@johnkao), or share this post with your friends and colleagues using the boxes below.

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