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Jamming for Creativity

Like great Jazz, creativity stems from encouraging talented people to think “outside of the box,” to allow for, even stimulate, unproven ideas within a framework of loose structure.  As my colleague John Kao states: “Creativity flows from Jamming.”

              Creativity is not an intangible ethereal concept. Like jazz, creativity has its vocabulary and conventions.  It demands free expressiveness and disciplined self-control, solitude in a crowded room, acceptance and defiance, serendipity and direction.  And like jazz, creativity is a process, not a thing; and therefor you can observe, analyze, understand, replicate, teach, and, yes, even manage it.
              As a creative Randa Persuasion Partner, your goal is to cause an emotional reaction which elicits a targeted response.  In order to accomplish this you will need to break through the noisy crowds of unsolicited offers, competitive products, and uninspired retail presentationsyou will need to build or leverage our brands’ credibility, and cause your audience to immediately—and tangibly—act.  To succeed, you must push beyond predictable strategies and techniques that customers will reject as too familiar and unwanted. In the following essay, John Kao shows you how to mobilize your creativity to strategic advantage by engaging your mind, stimulating your imagination, and organizing your creative process. – David J. Katz, May 2012

Clearing the Mind

Aldrich 110 is a typical Harvard Business School classroom.  The classic, five tiered amphitheater with its half dozen blackboards and motorized projection screen imparts an atmosphere of comfort, focus, and drama. If the success of the learning experience depended entirely on educational architecture, the faculty could rest easy.

At the moment, resting easy is precisely what I’ve asked my students to do.  Aldrich 110 is darkened.  And the students have closed their eyes.  The exercise is simple, playful.  I read them a story that contains vignettes of life in the future—snatches of tunes, as it were, from private life and work life—that might very well be their own lives at some time or other.  I say, “Imagine yourself five years from in the future.  Who are you with?  Look around.  Where are you?  What do you see?  Describe the sights, colors, tastes, smells.”  Smiles and sighs warm the room.  Recordings of the student’s brain waves might trace an alpha rhythm: a frequency of moderate voltage that characterizes relaxed, receptive wakefulness.

From experience, I know what is happening.  The students are all inside a sort of performance space of their minds.  They may be surprised, at first, by the vividness of the images with which they are playing, but soon they lose themselves completely in their diversion.

The exercise is relatively short.  After six of seven minutes, I ask for the lights to go up, and we begin to talk, invariably with pronounced intensity.  Students are excited, sobered, moved —all at once.  Each such session surprises me anew with the richness of detail the students capture during those playful moments.

What’s the purpose of this inner jam session?  It’s not necessarily to help the students get better acquainted with their true selves or their aspirations.  My goal is not “therapeutic.”  I want only to open the doors and windows of perception—to prepare my students for creative thought.  It’s an exercise, one of many I use, that facilitates clearing the mind.

I would like to call that process “getting to ‘cool,’” except that, for most people these days, especially in the high-tech world, “cool” has come to signify a mundane “excellence.”  Jazz musicians use the word, however, to describe a state somebody once called “relaxed knowingness.”  Artists, mystics, moralists, athletes—all creative people—have their own sense of “cool.”  Rainer Maria Rilke, the early twentieth-century German poet, expressed that idea when he wrote to a friend: “Always at the commencement of work, that first innocence must be re-achieved.  ... If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you convinced him, not with tears, but with your humble resolve, to be always beginning, to be a beginner.”

We empty the mind to return to the beginning.  As Shunryu Suzuki, the great Zen teacher, says, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities.  In the expert’s mind there are only a few.”

One way we can attain this mental precondition of creativity, this beginner’s mind, is by forcing ourselves, or being forced, into a radical change of subject.  Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, called it the “rotation method.” He was thinking of crops: You can’t grow corn indefinitely on the same field; at some point, to refresh the soil, you have to plant hay.  The human who aims to cultivate his or her own creativity might do well to redirect concentration to subjects that are not burdened with anxiety—subjects with no connection to the task at hand.

Athletes clear their minds quite deliberately.  Just before a race, the runner transforms his or her entire being into a sort of union suit flapping in the breeze.  Or look at tennis players during the break between games:  Very often you see them staring into space or plucking at the strings on their racquets.  They are rotating the crops of their minds, reaching for some null point of awareness in which their spirits will find refreshment for the ordeal ahead.  In feudal Japan, a samurai warrior might prepare himself for a duel to the death by sitting in a meditative state and gazing at a shingle chrysanthemum in a vase.

In each and every case, spontaneous or traditional, the practice has the same purpose—to reorient the mind from the task-fixated self and its attendant doubts and fears, toward a nonthreatening, yet vivid world of relaxed bodies, chrysanthemums, and racquet strings.

If there is an element of absurdity in these exercises (and, admittedly, there is), it’s because absurdity, like wit, provides a quick, sure way to overthrow they tyranny of the given, the known, the “right” way.  Zen masters and Christian contemplatives have long known this, and absurdist techniques are now staple fare in many training seminars.

In certain training seminars, participants may be asked to rename objects—to look at the ceiling and rename it “table,” or to stare at a lamp and call it “doggie.” The purposes of this apparently ludicrous game—well established in today’s cognitive science—are to break the connection we habitually establish between the thing and our words for it and to push us into think in what Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calls “mentalese,” the imagistic language of the creative mind.  Pinker and other cognitive scientists have given serious consideration to the novelists, artists, and physical scientists who report that their most creative “inspirations” came to them not in words but in visual images.  Albert Einstein once acknowledged that he, like many of the rest of us, got some of his best ideas in visual images as he showered.  He related that he had arrived at some of his insights by imagining, for example, what it would be like to ride a beam of light and look back at a clock, or what would happen if he dropped a coin while standing in a plummeting elevator.  “This combinatory play, “ Einstein wrote, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought—before there is any connection with... words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others... Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary state, when the... associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.”

A training seminar exercise that aims to break language’s judgmental grip requires a group of people to imagine how they would like to organize, say, their twenty-fifth high-school reunion.  Someone offers an idea, after which the next person’s role is to say, “Yes, but...,” and offer another idea.  Abruptly, then, the leader changes the rules:  Now each successive speaker must pick up where the last left off, saying, “Yes, and...”  That simple change, from the negative to the positive, changes the emotional pitch of the discussion, and we experience a marked improvement in the openness and participation.  At the same time, everyone witnesses language’s role as both player and plaything of the mind.

Fantasy, guided imagery—what I call focused reverie—are the well-traveled paths to the cleared mind.

Creativity begins with the generation of ideas.  It is also very much at work in the selection, development, and implementation of ideas.  When people start to brainstorm, some members of the group may simply spew derivative, top-of-mind stuff.  There’s no “get” to it, no reaching out.  Often, though, by acknowledging the creativity of selection and implementation, the more generative participants in the group will recognize and acknowledge the off-the-shelf quality of their thinking, and will reach into new “territories” for something fresher and stronger.

Concentration and focus on the problem, whatever it may be, usually narrow our thinking to the tried-and-true, shutting our access to vast storehouses of unconscious imagery and experience.

Shock techniques, applied with care can also help to clear the mind.  A legendary dean of the Harvard Law School used to greet an assembly of first-year students with the instruction that each new student should look at the people to the right and the left, and then ponder the sure knowledge that one of those two would not be returning for the second year.  And Sergio Zyman, head of marketing at the Coca-Cola company, opened a recent corporate training seminar by telling the assembled executives to imagine that they had just been fired.  Also at Coca-Cola, chairman Roberto Goizuetta is notorious for his “sacred cow” lectures, during which he relentless debunks one by one the cherished beliefs of the mainstream Coke culture.  An accompanying video, which features the mournful moos of a large herd of cows, dramatizes his message.

Creative ideas also spring from the abrasion of divergent inputs.  When I asked Ralph Osterhoust, a well-known engineer and designer of electronic products who holds sixty-four US. Utility patents, what he would recommend to managers who want to foster creativity in their organizations, he answered, “Magazines.”


There’s no better way to clear the mind, he believed, than to travel to strange parts of the world, and there is no easier or cheaper way to travel than by immersing oneself in the strange worlds to be found on newsstands these days.  Magazines offer a cost-effective glimpse into the values, mindsets, and imaginations of other cultures.

Looking outside for fresh input is crucial. It sounds paradoxical, but we need to know what we don’t know. We need to contact what is authentically new for us, and recognize it as such  through beginner’s mind. I look at corporate awareness as a crucial and usually unrecognized business organizational function; as a means by which an enterprise can sense something genuinely new in its environment rather than simply talking with itself. This is not something that can be left to chance or random associations. It must be intentional, systematic and sustained.

There are many approaches. The bottom line: Business people need to cultivate awareness. They need to clear their collective minds in order to search for input that is genuinely new and provocative of creative insights.

An approach that might be called the “intuition tickler” takes a different tack. Matsushita, the giant Japanese conglomerate that owns, among its vast holdings, the possible business and market transformations. What conceivable good, you may ask, cold be accomplished by a hundred-year plan in an era whose essence is c constant change? Very little. As an intuition tickler, however, its usefulness is incalculable. Forcing a company to envision an “official” future stimulates individual and collective creativity, and it nudges everyone’s consideration of alternatives.

The Global Business Network holds session with corporate clients during which key managers may be asked to envision the newspaper headlines of tomorrow that describe various alternative futures or scenarios in which their companies will have to operate.

GBN makes a clear link between such scenario planning and creative process. Napa Colleens, a senior GBN consultant, describes scenarios as vehicles for an “imaginative leap into the future.” And he emphasizes the importance for scenario planning or generating a range of new ideas. This is accomplished by creating idea-friendly environments for divergent thinking and by including a range of voices; a process that we will later call sitting in.

Back in Aldrich 110, my students have cleared their minds. I sense the success of our exercise in a newly receptive atmosphere that pervades the classroom. You might suppose that grown-up business students would need no introduction to the power of their minds. You’d be wrong. In our culture, almost everyone believes either in the romance of art or in the counter-romance of hard work. The romantics stress the stinginess of the Muses: They bestow their gifts of inspiration upon a select few, and upon no one else. The counter-romantics simply refute the romantics: Muses don’t exist nor does inspiration, only luck and perspiration. Romantics fall into two groups, the very few who think they’ve “got it”creativity, I meanand the very many who think they don’t. Counter-romantics don’t want to talk about it at all.

The inner performances I direct in Aldrich 110 demonstrate to all but the most seriously inhibited of my students that both points of view are wildly off the mark. Creativity, my students learn, is as natural a function of the mind as breathing or digestion are natural functions of the body.

Obviously people whose souls are charged with mistrust will have difficulty clearing their inner minds. Furthermore, neither creative insight nor creative action comes risk-free. Some happy so uls do seem to have an innate ability to ignore, deny or somehow bracket the distrust, anxiety, even downright fear, that risk invariable arouses in the rest of us. Such people are extremely rare, and they are by no means especially creative. After all, risk is one of the mothers of invention, as well as its daughter, and that means that the risk-insensitive may simply lack good, urgent reasons to be creative. The rest of us must find ways to manage the threats to our security: We must prepare ourselves to take risks. Practice, as any musician or athlete or surgeon will tell you, is the best possible form of risk management. In business, however, would-be creative players can’t simply run to the nearest official Creativity Park to practice their swing; we have to design environments, systems and cultures that maximize the opportunity and occasions for creativity.

What, then, do we need to manage creativity’s risk? Faith is not in ourselves, then in a minimally benevolent universe, or failing faith, a raw sort of courage that lets us clear our minds. As we shall see in the next chapter, good creative management can bolster people’ faith and courage. What management must do, above all, is define, establish and provision a trustworthy environment. Indeed its in doing so that creativity managers can express their own identity

Excerpted from the book Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity (Harper Business, 1996) by John Kao. And reproduced and excerpted with permission for Design For Response: Creative Direct Marketing That Works (Rockport Books, 2000, 2005) by David J. Katz.

John Kao has taught business creativity and entrepreneurship at both Harvard Business School and Stanford University.  Trained in both business and psychiatry, he is founder of companies in the fields of biotechnology, feature films, and video computing.  A lecturer and adviser to numerous companies, Kao is also a member of the Global Business Network and Senior Advisor to the World Economic Forum.  He divides his time between Boston and New York. John and David Katz have lectured, written and jammed together.

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