Monday, May 11, 2015

What Innovation shares with Humor

I had the opportunity to listen to NPR a lot over the weekend.  I was driving my daughter to and from her college as the semester has just ended.  That meant a lot of time on the road, listening to music, books on CDs and the radio.  I've found that NPR is a good source for a lot of my innovative posts, and this weekend was no exception.  Matt Diffee, a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine, was interviewed in a news segment.  What struck me was how many similarities humor shares with innovation.

Here are just a few commonalities I thought were interesting:

Success rate
Take for example his "success" rate.  Diffee says that it's a good week when one out of ten of his cartoons is purchased by the New Yorker magazine.  What goes unsaid is that there are some weeks when none of his ideas are accepted.  Diffee has to restart his project clock every week, and gets constant, unrelenting feedback on his ideas in the form of acceptance and a check, or outright rejection.  We innovators need to appreciate what a cartoonist or a stand up comedian experiences before we get too frustrated with our own experiences.  These guys get their heads handed to them on a weekly basis, and that's how they earn their living.  Most innovators I know get frustrated when their ideas are rejected, but they fall back on their regular jobs.

The timing of an idea

Diffee described a cartoon he drew of an old man with a sign that said "face painting".  The old man was holding interior paint and a roller, clearly not what most kids would expect.  Diffee and his friends thought the cartoon was funny.  It was rejected by the New Yorker the first time he submitted it, and the second time.  His mom found the cartoon and encouraged him to submit it again.  Undaunted, and without much to lose he submitted it again.  The New Yorker accepted it the third time he submitted it.  Ideas and cartoons are similar - there are times and places for them, and just because an idea is rejected at a specific time and place does not necessarily make the idea a bad one.  It can be that the presentation of the idea was poor or the audience not quite ready or right for the idea.


In another story making the rounds Sara Silverman was angry with a comedy club in New York for paying her less than the male comic that went on just before she did.  It later turned out that the club had asked her in to fill in at the last minute and offered her the standing rate for comedians trying out their new programs.  The kerfluffle was over $10 or cab fare, which is what it turns out a lot of comedy clubs offer comedians who are just breaking in new material.  I'm not here to weigh in on gender equity, but to point out how little these folks are paid in service to their new material.  Even the lead spot was only paid $60 bucks.

Yep, you read it right.  Even Seinfeld and other famous comedians must break in new material to see how it plays. They work with little fanfare to develop their acts, in small clubs with little compensation, to get their timing and stories just right.  In other words, experienced, well-paid performers are perfecting new programs through trial and error, testing what works and what doesn't.  In the innovation world we'd call this experimentation, testing new ideas and developing them, first in simple prototypes without a lot of fanfare, mostly to learn what needs to change and what can stay.  A lot of this innovation work happens behind the scenes, trying new things, testing new concepts, long before the final product is brought out and released.  There's a lot of work to develop new ideas, and constant practice helps.


Every humorist, comedian and cartoonist risks a lot every time they display their work.  Their ideas about what is funny, what will entertain and make people laugh, may or may not work.  They are on stage, paid to make people laugh, and if the material doesn't work they quickly get the ax.  Every comic understands that's the nature of the opportunity.  We innovators need to have the same expectation.  We need to believe in our ideas and understand and embrace the risks that come with asking to change the status quo or introduce something completely new and different.  Innovation is often born and developed in the background, as I noted above, but it must be launched in the open, where everyone can see, understand and respond.  Innovators have to be comfortable developing their ideas with little resource and in the background, then announcing their ideas on a big stage where risks are high and failure is frequent.

The Unexpected

Finally, innovation and humor share the fact that the punch lines are often unexpected.  The best jokes lead up to a story with an expected ending, only for the punch line to be something completely different, and the unexpected outcome branches into a different perspective that people find funny, shocking or just unexpected, and it is this different ending that makes the joke work.

Innovation works the same way.  We innovators are often confronted with the same challenges and seek to solve problems or needs that customers have.  We can do this through continuous improvement, which is the solution customers expect or through innovation, which tells the same story but comes up with very different and potentially unexpected solutions.  When we "branch" to a new ending, we need to ensure the branch we take has meaning for customers, who often either don't know what a compelling solution would look like, or don't believe we'd have the courage to create it.

These are just a few of the factors that humor shares with innovation.  I know that both can lead to significant delight of an audience, or a stony, cold silence of rejection.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:52 AM


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