John Kao on innovation

Tuesday’s New York Times had a piece on John Kao (author of Where the Whole Agenda is Innovation). I don’t think I’d heard of him, but he’s been a busy guy. Studied philosophy and social science at Yale, played keyboards with Frank Zappa, did a psychiatry residency at Harvard, and taught about science, technology, and entrepreneurship at the Harvard Business School

I was struck by his thoughts on innovation, both as quoted in the Times article and on his blog, Innovation Nation:

There are three main threats to our innovation success. First, our base for innovation has eroded. Our education system is great for the top slice, but most Americans are receiving nothing like an adequate education, especially in science and math. Our physical infrastructure needs a dramatic level of reinvestment. And our ability to regenerate our innovation base will depend on our ability to look at all the ingredients in a holistic manner.

Second, we need to engage more deeply with the rest of the world in effective networks of innovation. But our national image is at an all-time low and we seem to be closing more doors to talent from outside the U.S. than opening them.

Finally, our innovation ethos clearly needs reinvigorating. As Americans, we need to answer the question of what innovation is for, and what place it holds in our national narrative.

Although Innovation Nation seems to be a marketing tool rather than a real blog (eight posts so far this year), Kao presents some ideas that I hadn’t considered. I skimmed parts of this interview from FastCompany TV. (It runs 57 minutes.)

Kao: People sometimes confuse creativity and innovation. We’re all creative and come up with new ideas… creativity is the novelty part. Innovation is how the new ideas address a purpose and become valuable.

That’s a nice distinction. I might have thought of innovation as newness for its own sake, but Kao’s got me thinking that unless the new thing turns out to have value, it’s more of a fad.

What about innovation within an organization? Kao says you have to create a framework in which the creative energy is going to be channeled and have a result.