Hello, Acronym readers. Julie Shoop here, reporting to you from the ASAE Great Ideas Conference, now in full swing in Colorado Springs. This is my first Acronym post, so it's only fitting that I'm writing this with my beginner's mind switched on.
Let me explain: I'm a relative newbie to ASAE (having joined the staff as Associations Now editor-in-chief nine months ago), a first-timer at Great Ideas, and a complete rookie blogger. So imagine how perfectly right it felt to spend an hour this afternoon listening to self-described "innovation activist" John Kao tell attendees at the Opening General Session that one of the keys to organizational innovation is to adopt "the beginner's mind"--an attitude free of preconceptions, a mindset that says, I don't know, and that's OK.
Hey, I thought, he's talking to me. I suspect most of the 600 other folks in the room, who may have some misgivings about trying whatever scary new thing they know they really need to do back at the office, were thinking the same thing.
Tackling the new and different, Kao said, means getting comfortable with improvisation, a little dissonance, and the idea that you'll never be finished practicing.
The music metaphor wasn't accidental. Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation and a former professor at Harvard Business School, is also an accomplished jazz pianist, and he draws a direct parallel between the work of jazz improvisation and innovation of all kinds. In an interesting twist for a keynote address, Kao shared the stage with a grand piano, which he used to show his audience the difference between following a set of rules or instructions--the "sheet music"--and improvising to create something far more pleasing and valuable.
You had to hear it to really get it, but imagine the difference between your perfectly workmanlike rendering of a familiar old standard and, say, what Miles Davis would do with it.
"What's going on is a powerful illustration of innovation as a capability," Kao said, after using the piano keyboard to create his own version of "All The Things You Are," displayed above him in its sheet music form. "Innovation is a series of capabilities that allows the creation of a desired future. Practice builds the capability."
In organizations, as in jazz, he said, being innovative without being random or chaotic means finding the sweet spot: managing the "creative tension between risk taking and risk avoidance."
"People have the misconception about improvised music that the musician is just playing whatever they feel like," Kao said. "Jazz is not the absence of structure. It's the balance between structure and freedom, between what you have and what you're reaching for, between your expertise and your beginner's mind."
We all have organizational "sheet music"--our org charts, our standard operating procedures, our meeting agendas. We need those, but they can become straitjackets. To break free, Kao said, organizations need to create workspaces separate from their mainstream activity where innovative ideas can emerge and be explored, unencumbered by business as usual. Organizations need Charlie Parker's woodshed. (Read more of Kao's thinking on organizational structures that promote innovation in this recent interview in Associations Now.)
In other words, even though associations may become experts in doing certain things, they need to develop a culture where the beginner's is mind alive and well.
"It's important to learn the sheet music and the harmonies," Kao said, "but after you've learned them, it's equally important to throw them away."