Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."


Review: John Kao's Innovation Nation

Ten years after Prof. Clayton Christensen’s groundbreaking book The Innovators’ Dilemma defined the relationship between “sustaining” and “disruptive” innovation, Dr. John Kao has come out with a Paul Revere-esque “call to arms” for America. The subtitle of Innovation Nation (“How America is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back”) is intended to be a wake-up call to our cultural complacency regarding emergent threats in the world – not just transnational terrorists, but market threats that are eroding the long-term viability of our economy. Since my truck’s personalized license plate is a play on the word “Innovate”, and my own work experience has shown me firsthand our propensity for “outsourcing” the intellectual heavy lifting, I find John’s warning both apt and very timely.

John Kao is a true 21st century “Renaissance Man”. He is a doctor of medicine (holding an M.D. from Yale as well as a Ph.D. in Psychiatry), an entrepreneur (with an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and 14 years on its faculty teaching “innovation”), who has also been engaged in film making (he was a production executive for 1989 hit sex, lies and videotape and Executive Producer for 1992’s Mr. Baseball), and is an accomplished jazz pianist (spending a teenage summer in L.A. recording with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention).

John is perhaps the world’s foremost “innovation advocate”, and a mentor to many Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies (both U.S. and abroad) and international organizations. I have been fortunate to have known John for several years, since then-Major General Jim Dubik (as Director of the Joint Experimentation Directorate at U.S. Joint Forces Command) sent me to San Francisco to check out the guy who wrote a tiny (5cm x 10cm) “innovation manifesto” – tiny because it’s “for very busy people”. Those two-and-a-half hours Kao’s office in the San Francisco Film Centre at The Presidio – an office once occupied by Robin Williams – is perhaps the most inspiring rap session I’ve ever experienced.

He is also a man with a true “long view” – a vision not just for our immediate future, but for this and the next century. In Innovation Nation, Kao describes the evolution of “innovation models” – from individual achievement to today’s “version 4.0” that rapidly adapts best practices across a globally diffuse environment of open architectures and collaboration. America is the “incumbent”, but also seemingly blind to the challenges posed by emergent innovation powers like Singapore, Denmark and Finland.

The book continues with an honest critique of America’s education system, comparing and contrasting our response (in terms of funding, curriculum development, teacher training, school construction, etc.) to Sputnik and President Kennedy’s famous challenge at Rice University in 1962 to today’s sagging U.S. aptitude test scores and lackluster performance in math and science. John compares the high barriers to entry (both literally and figuratively) of our nation’s immigration system to that in global innovation hot spots, along with the perils they bring.

The closing chapters of his book make it “real” by offering prescriptions – from the micro (building personal “dream spaces”) to the macro (crafting a “National Innovation Agenda” and empowered policy-making entities). Although some historical anecdotes are slightly dated (e.g., a reference to Thomas Friedman’s quote that two nations with a McDonalds have never gone to war – the Balkans being the notable exception), the positive aspects of Globalization hold true. And like any prescriptive work that is future-focused, it is here that he is taking the biggest gamble – and will undoubtedly be derided for offering specific solutions that may not stand the test of time. But like the esteemed professor at Harvard Business School who told him everything “useful” about innovation has already been written in the literature, John will take it all in good measure – and continue to be a strident champion for the grease in the gears of entrepreneurialism. I encourage anyone that is serious about cultivating an ethos of innovation in their organizations to study the insights of Innovation Nation.

Addendum: Last night (Oct. 4th) John was featured on The Colbert Report, which used the 50th anniversary of Sputnik to examine the competitive landscape of innovation today. You can see it here:

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At 6/10/07 12:53 , Blogger Sean Meade said...

is the justified right formatting an innovation ;-)

At 6/10/07 13:41 , Blogger deichmans said...

Sean, Now you're thinking out of the "box"! :-)

At 7/10/07 19:45 , Blogger DF said...

I gotta get this book!

At 26/10/07 03:22 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

qIfPDA Your blog is great. Articles is interesting!


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