What Jazz Can Teach Us About Innovation?

When one thinks of innovation, their thoughts might conjure up visions of lone scientists, entrepreneurs, or inventors singularly toiling away in their labs or basement workshops to refine products and ideas. However, there’s much more to innovation than individual genius. In this issue of the blog, Evgeniy Krasowski tells us what jazz can teach us about innovation.
Jazz is an art form that has enthralled audiences around the world since its popularity boomed in the early 20th century. With its surging rhythms, raw emotions, unexpected improvisation, and unique style of cool, jazz has kept the world tapping its feet for over 100 years. But what can jazz teach us about innovation, and how is it working in Kazakhstan? 
It’s About “The System”
Let’s examine the piano solo. Like the solo, innovation can come seemingly from out of nowhere. One minute a smooth, melodic groove is defining the mood of the jazz club – then next a fierce, syncopated sprawl of arpeggiated notes refocuses the audience’s attention and changes their perception and view, mindsets and expectations. Though the efforts of the soloist may seem like creative chaos it is actually the result of an orchestrated system of interdependent and fine-tuned actors. Jazz is determined by improvisation, not defined by it. Without the orchestrated expertise of the bassist and the drummer, the adroitness of the horn player, and the prowess of the guitar player, the pianist’s solo would not sound like music, it would be a cacophony of competing sounds and rhythm. It’s out of this system of linked actors that the solo is made great. Jazz is an elaborately sophisticated ecosystem. 
So how is innovation like jazz? As in the case of our pianist, in order for an innovator to have the best chance of success, there needs to be a system in place that provides the necessary support. Every innovator needs a band. Even the most amazing innovators, those with fantastic ideas and viable business models, can fail prematurely. Without the support of an ecosystem, the rawness of their talent and inspiration can get lost amongst the fray, or worse, discredited as noise. For innovation to succeed, there must be a system in place that satisfies “must have” conditions – like a conducive investment climate, adequate IP protection, and sufficient R&D expenditures. These conditions are just a few members of the innovator’s “band.” They all work together help support him or her and each other. 
It’s About Trust
Have you ever watched jazz musicians play off each other? Picture a guitarist and saxophonist finishing each other’s musical lines. As the guitar player stops the saxophonist picks up the melody and carries it, transforming it with their unique perspective and tone to pass it off again to the bassist and the drummer, who impart their sense of rhythm and structure to it. Apart from skill and talent, this type of musical performance requires trust and understanding between the performers. Each must understand that, while they are contributing their own unique flare, that they are ultimately performing a WHOLE song. They must trust that each musician is acting in the best interest of the band and not themselves. 
In Kazakhstan, CRDF Global has partnered with the World Bank to establish the country’s first Technology Commercialization Center (TCC), which started operations in Astana in November, 2013. The TCC was designed specifically to act as a jazz band conductor of sorts – to become the center of a web of key players in innovation and to build direct and indirect links with the industry, academia, investors, startups, government agencies, service providers, media partners and other influencers and decision makers. TCC’s “larger than life” assignment was to resuscitate old and create new connections, to demolish walls of unjustified mistrust between crucial actors. Building on this trust, the TCC also had the goal of helping each of them identify and understand their mutually supportive roles within Kazakhstan’s innovative ecosystem. Just like in Jazz, only by making connections and developing trust can each performer in the ecosystem, strive, survive and meaningfully contribute to innovation-based growth. 
It’s About Getting It Out There
Any jazz performer could probably recall the first time that they took the stage. If you asked them about it, they’d probably recall how nervous they were, how uncertain they might have been, or how unprepared they thought they were – but they’d probably spend the most time telling you how great it felt. The point is, they put themselves out there and took the chance. Like the saying goes, the first step is always the hardest, and this could not be truer of innovation. Whether it’s a technology entrepreneur struggling to decide if they should gamble it all on their idea or a university or government debating how best to spend their R&D dollars, there’s risk involved. Unlike Jazz, the repercussions of failure in this case can be dramatic. 
In Kazakhstan, the overarching goal of the TCC was to get viable ideas out of the lab and into the market either through licensing or via startup formation. Before any of these revolutionary or evolutionary ideas can make a successful leap into the real world they will have to face countless technical and commercial challenges. The TCC’s mission is to make the technology idea graduation process as smooth and as successful as possible. 
CRDF Global provided hands-on training to the TCC managers on all aspects of technology transfer and commercialization. Furthermore, all of the TCC’s program-grant recipients received a turn-by-turn navigation guide from start to finish of the entire commercialization journey, including in-depth consultation on key topics like IP protection, market assessment, strategy development, due diligence, and negotiation. While the first step is often cited as the hardest, it doesn’t have to be. The easier it is for an innovator to put themselves out there to pursue innovation, the better chances there are for innovation to take place.  
It’s About Performing
Only three years into operation, Kazakhstan’s TCC has become a key player in the innovation sphere coordinating the efforts of startups, university research centers, and other actors to achieve the country’s goal of building an innovation-based economy. It has set the stage on which the country’s innovators can perform by creating an ecosystem of supportive players that trust and understand each other and what their unique contributions to the system are, and it has made it easier to for innovators take that ever-important first step. Judging by the program’s indicators (the number of consummated licensing deals and the amount of money innovation goods have generated to date), this first phase of the multi-year project is a resounding success. The country has taken a decisive step toward a more diversified economy with less reliance on production and export of raw materials and more emphasis on capturing value from innovation. 
When you read it like that, it sounds like music to the ears.