You could say that Kao is a one-man jam session. Constantly acquiring new knowledge and experience and then drawing new connections between his various realms allows him to be creative in everything he does--whether it's applying production methods he learned in Hollywood to his teaching, or using his knowledge of medicine to start a new biotechnology firm. His most recent project, a documentary based on Jamming which is currently in post-production, allowed him to make connections among corporate creativity, jazz music, filmmaking and new technology--and also to venture into the new territory of directing. The result, says Kao, is not a documentary in the traditional sense but a "'film' film about the new economy," in which the stories of five innovative companies are artistically interwoven with interviews of jazz musicians and improvisational scenes shot with a group of actors in San Francisco. He hopes to distribute the film to theaters and television as well as to the video market.
Kao wants as many people as possible to see Jamming because it carries what he believes is an urgent message about new economic realities. Most companies are still flying the banner of cost-cutting and rationalization, and Kao thinks they are making a fatal mistake. In the new economy, driven by increasingly demanding consumers, the relentless advance of information technology and an unprecedentedly mobile work force, maintaining a competitive edge will require not dismantling but building--specifically, building a cast of talented individuals and building environments for them that will lead to idea generation and development. In other words, a company's greatest resource in the future will be brainpower, and only companies that know how to attract, nurture and manage it will succeed.
To do this, says Kao, companies need to create physical environments and mental environments that foster creativity. The right physical environment involves open spaces where people can pass ideas back and forth--or "jam"--as well as private spaces where people can experiment with new ideas away from the crowd, like the "humor room" at Kodak filled with toys and Monty Python videos, or the shiatsu walking paths at Shiseido. The right mental environment involves a conscious openness to new ideas and perspectives at all levels of the organization, and a shared belief in the organization's creative power. Any company can woo creative talent with money, but to hold on to talented people and to keep their juices flowing, managers must sustain the appropriate environment. "Savvy managers, who send a constant, consistent message that they value creativity, work assiduously to devise an environment that ignites everyone's enthusiasm," Kao writes.
Central to John Kao's vision of business in the new economy is a radically different approach to management. Whereas the old manager's role was to exercise control and ensure that standard operating procedures were being followed, the new manager's role is to "prod, provoke, and inspire new levels of innovation and achievement." The new manager is a "creative catalyst," generating a vibrant environment in which to work, bringing in the right people, providing the best resources possible, crafting a challenge while setting the necessary boundaries, inspiring his or her people the way a movie director would, and prodding each individual's efforts with supportive words. To drive home his point, Kao conjures up the image of a by-the-book, middle-aged middle manager suddenly faced with a freewheeling, twenty-something software designer with six earrings in his left ear. If they can't work together, asks Kao, "who do you suppose will be shown the door: the narrow-minded manager or the groovy genius?" In other words, whether we like it or not, it's a new world out there and we better learn to adapt.
According to Kao, in this new world every individual will be a sort of Me, Inc., in complete control of his own destiny. That has certainly been the case for him, and creating his job description anew with each passing day has meant nothing less than utter job satisfaction.
"Everything I've done over the last six or seven years has been fun," he maintains. "It's been play." Indeed, when asked how he spends time outside of work, Kao hesitates, not accustomed to drawing a distinction between work and leisure. So he talks about what he did in the hours before being interviewed for this article: answered e-mail, made some phone calls, worked on his new book while listening to the latest album by Red Snapper, looked out the window and thought about stuff, and did some reading. After the interview, he planned to go to a lunch meeting and then see a movie.
Since Kao knows that creativity requires stimulation, he has no qualms about reading a book, visiting an art gallery, or even going to a movie during what less open-minded people would call "working hours." Rigid schedules do not appeal to him. If something is worth doing, you do it, and if it takes a little creative scheduling to work it in, well, you get creative. Kao's recent marriage, his first, is a case in point. His wife works in New York for a major cosmetics company--that's all Kao is willing to say about her. Kao is now splitting his time between his home in Boston and an apartment on New York's Upper East Side. Both homes are equipped with all the technology he needs to keep his various projects going, and he is excited about setting up shop in a city full of creative people and new opportunities--not to mention dozens of movie theaters and some of the world's best art galleries.
Where John Kao will go next is anyone's guess. With the experiences he already has under his belt, with his boundless energy and intelligence, and with his complete disdain for the concept of limits, it's a good bet the second half of his life will be as productive as the first, if not more so. Business leaders should take note: any company could benefit from the likes of John Kao, and if his achievements are at all representative of what happens when people are given the freedom and opportunity to be creative, then installing a playroom may not be such a bad idea.