Why innovation is a laughing matter


The number of times the word ‘innovation’ is mentioned in boardroom discussions these days is about as frequent as the eyes of participants cursorily wandering to their cell phones to check if there are any new messages. This word is usually accompanied by extremely ‘comically serious’ exhortations.

‘We have to out ideate the pants-off of our competition this year’. ‘Our thinking just does not have to be out of the box, it has to be out of this galaxy’. ‘We have to encourage the cerebral potential in every employee, even if that means they evolve to realize there are better opportunities elsewhere.’

Now even if I took a few liberties on that last one, you get the picture.

However, after the trauma caused to hapless tables due to the incessant fist pounding inherent during such sessions has abated; almost always everyone is back to square one. What is even more instructive is that a pall of somber seriousness descends upon the task at hand.

Most organizations begin their journey in the quest for innovative destinations, keeping humor strictly at an arm’s length. But while such a voyage does have long term serious implications with regard to the future of the company; not appreciating that laughter is the greatest catalyst for the creative process, can only ensure that the expedition never really gathers any momentum.

It is a proven fact that creativity is closely correlated with humor. Humor by its very nature makes the offbeat connection so necessary to fuel the novel perspective or ‘turn of face’, central to any matter of mirth. But when it comes to tickling the funny bone, right in the middle of a serious discussion around innovation and creativity, most organizations seem to prematurely ejaculate into spasms of awkwardness.

Like any other process, humor can also be fostered. All it takes is a willing mindset to allow it into the room, and the disposition to readily smile, even if it is for a very brief while. Here are a few pointers which may help turn around the scowls of solemnity into nascent chuckles of creativity.


Embracing randomness

The deliberately employed unrelated detour can always be relied upon to ignite minds. Many a times, especially after the problem has been grappled with for long, the thinking in the room can match the enthusiasm of a rather unfit man on his fortieth crunch. At such moments, taking a look outside the window to allow for other ‘distractions’ is usually the smart way to go. Introducing a random word or picture into the discussion, engaging in a bit of diversionary conversation, pulling out an interesting article from the newspaper into the boardroom; are just some consciously employed techniques which might reignite things.

Alfred Hitchcock was famous for not trying harder when a script was proving to be troublesome. One of the writers in his team said in a recent interview that whenever such a situation occurred, the master filmmaker would totally digress, and narrate a completely unrelated and often funny anecdote. His thinking being, great ideas are never to be forced, they should be allowed to effortlessly bubble forth. Now that’s a perspective which should prevent many from going ‘psycho’ about the creative process.

Promoting mismatches

Perhaps our educational system seeds a ‘match the columns’ mentality in our thinking. We are strictly conditioned to hunt for the logically consistent, coherent alternative. But sometimes during the course of an innovative pursuit there is great merit in exploring mismatches. That is, in a sense, bringing two almost antithetical entities or ideas together. This kind of fusion is often found to have explosive potential. Hence introducing the polar opposite of the idea at hand into the conversation might not just raise a few laughs; it has the ability to take the idea itself onto an altogether different level.

Surely the concept of ‘Power Yoga’ began almost like an oxymoronic venture. And yet this amalgamation of the spiritual serenity of the East with the time bound, goal oriented fixation of the West; has resulted in an exercise form which is growing by leaps and bounds across the world.

The cell phone category is another prime example of an entire industry which dramatically increased its revenue possibilities by encroaching upon other distinct domains. Twenty years ago who would have even thought you could take a picture with your phone. Or that the phone could also function as a device on which you could listen to music. These monumental encroachments only began because someone began to look at ludicrous sounding ‘mismatches’, a touch more seriously. Ever since, the cell phone industry has been hitting the right notes --musical or otherwise.

Thinking like someone else

The wonderful thing about the human perspective is that it is so engagingly unique. No two people look at a given problem in exactly the same manner; that is unless appraisals are around the corner. And that very difference in point of view can go a long way in stimulating the creative process. What might be even more interesting could be to superimpose the perspective of famous people onto the challenge at hand.

For example, ‘How might Genghis Khan have looked at our problem of increasing employee morale?’ ‘What could Mahatma Gandhi have added to this new software program we are about to launch?’ ‘Why would Steve Jobs be interested in this presentation we are about to make?’

While making for some truly lighter moments, this technique does have the advantage of adding some absolutely novel ideas into the mix. And the economic benefit of not having to pay for the consultancy charges of all those famous people whose names have been invoked.

At a minimum, it is always fruitful to look at things from the consumers’ perspective. Ideo, the world famous design company, changed tooth brushes when they were working on the same for a children’s brand. The observation that young ones tend to clutch hard at the toothbrush, led to the creation of tooth brushes with softer handles. Eventually, literally putting yourself in the customer’s shoes is always likely to make for better offerings; even as it might lead to some ‘sole’ stirring experiences as well.

Seriously considering the worst option

We are brought up to try and be the best. Naturally, this disposition manifests itself in our thought process where the aim is always to find the best possible answer. Now while that is a noble endeavor in itself which serves most rational thinking well, the creative thinking mindset is a rather quirky and rebellious one. Innovation is conjured up by rather mischievously exploring the dark side of things.

Consciously asking ‘what is the worst possible idea we can come up with?’ is not only guaranteed to lighten the solemnity of the moment, but in many ways can also lead to some truly out of the box solutions. Starting with the worst, and then tweaking ones way towards the best; is a thinking facility we must all try and acquire, especially those in the business of innovation.

Initially, when they decided to give away Hotmail services free to users, it seemed like the worst possible idea for any business venture to begin with. But working ones way from there, eventually things didn’t turn out too badly.

In a world conditioned by Disney’s ‘beautiful prince and princess like’ fairy tales, the decision to build a story around an Ogre would have seemed to be an utterly bad one made by DreamWorks. However, three subsequent Shrek sequels and several million dollars later, they have proved that in business, like in fairy tales, sometimes the ugly duckling has the most potential to fly.

To be fair, these are but a few pointers. The canvass of what makes us smile is fortunately so broad that many other possible techniques readily present themselves. It is up to us to identify those we enjoy most and incorporate them in our regular thinking.

Finally, it must be said the process of innovative thinking is less like Rodin’s famous statue of ‘The Thinker’, which seems like he is ponderous of the burden he carries. It should be more like ‘The Laughing Buddha’ -- frolicsome, light and utterly savoring every moment of it.

It is only then that truly great ideas will reveal themselves to us.

About the authorVinay Kanchan is a brand ideation consultant and a trainer in the art of creative thinking. He is also the author of the book, ‘The Madness Starts at 9’. He can be contacted at vinaykanchan5@gmail.com


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