Cynics and Creators

I’ve spent too much time on Twitter and it has driven a black stake through my generative heart.

                                 Death by Twitter

                                 Death by Twitter

Since November of last year, I’ve been suffering a severe spell of cynicism that has me doubting my own creative and innovative efforts. My hope in starting IdeaMonger a year ago was to spotlight and encourage the hidden, underserved innovators and creators who work outside the mainstream.  Innovation and creativity are democratic, American-dream traits.  If wielded courageously and honorably, the myth goes, these tools help anyone anywhere to change lives and shape their own fortune.  Now, a divisive political and ethical pall smothers my spirits:  the itchy woolen blanket of cynicism is spread wide and heavy.  Deception and treachery seem to be the tools of choice to gain power and fortune in this country.

See what I did in that last paragraph?  Talked myself into a hole? This blog post is my attempt to snap out of it…and, maybe snap you out, too? In the face of the current cultural and political climate in our country, it is more important than ever to advance creativity over cynicism; innovation over ideology.  

Antisthenes, the father of cynicism.  Hey, you would be cynical, too, if you had blank eyeballs.

Antisthenes, the father of cynicism.  Hey, you would be cynical, too, if you had blank eyeballs.

Creativity and innovation thrive on possibility and openness.  Cynicism emanates from fear of vulnerability and a demand for certainty in the midst of flux.  Fighting cynicism breeds more cynicism.  But it disappears by itself when met with compassion, curiosity and continuous forward motion.

Talking Myself Out Of It

Here are the top five mental mantras I’m using to hold cynicism at bay and keep positive productivity on the rails.

1.  Stop ranting.  Venting usually breeds more venting. Quit intoxicating myself with social media gossip and outrage regarding people and situations over which I have little or no control...mentioning no one in specific...but, for instance, maybe people whose names rhyme with Schmonald Schmump.

2.  Assess anger. Anger and cynicism can produce clever ideas…but not necessarily usefully creative and innovative ones.  Don’t embrace anger and don’t push it away, either.  Learn from it.

“A cynic can chill and dishearten with a single word.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

3.  Choose curiosity.  Actively pursue what’s new and next with a beginner’s mind that allows for possibility and potential.

4. Nevertheless, persist.  Get back up off your butt and, if necessary, write a self-indulgent blog post to publicly commit yourself to a more useful frame of mind.  Consistent positive action, even in the midst of cynical miasma, can lift the fog and produce powerful new ideas leading to more positive action and around again.

5. Stay open.  Be neither pessimist nor optimist but stay awake and receptive to what is happening without judgment.  Who knows what direction things will turn but we all know that they will indeed turn sooner or later.

Cynicism presumes predetermined failure.

Optimism latches on to the future at the expense of now.

Openness is now while ignoring neither past nor future.

"The greater part of truth is always hidden, in regions out of reach of cynicism." J. R. R. Tolkien

I am open to story ideas that help uphold IdeaMonger’s mission of championing creativity and innovation from under-served, under-recognized sources.  Please share them and join me in replacing cynicism with creativity and curiosity.


Scale This.

Words Handcrafted By Andrew Dietz

The Land of Scalable, Innovative Craftsmanship

The Land of Scalable, Innovative Craftsmanship

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.  In a hidden valley in the Himalayas, or in Kansas maybe, felt-covered, hand-stitched unicorns prance across candy corn meadows and milk chocolate lakes.  Somewhere, too, there may be a rare piece of space where craftsmanship, innovation and scalability intersect.  Bring me there, please.

Craftsmanship is precious: pour ten thousand hours into mastering a unique aesthetic skill so you can passionately shape sensory delicacies for a lucky few to savor.  Don’t you value the look, feel, taste, performance of a carefully hand crafted service, product or experience?   Innovative craftsmanship is better still.  That means the hand-styled creation of a brand new way of solving a problem, accomplishing a task or doing work that is as aesthetically pleasing as it is highly functional.  But, you can’t build scalable innovation on artistry and craftsmanship.  Can you?  

Antonio Stradivari | Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Source: Oberndorfer, Anne Faulkner (1921). "What we hear in music." Camden, NJ

Antonio Stradivari | Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Source: Oberndorfer, Anne Faulkner (1921). "What we hear in music." Camden, NJ

Scalability means growing big, fast, without excessive (or, at least, with predictably proportional or flattening) effort and expense.  Minting tons of money with lightening speed while you sleep: That sounds precious, too.  But, can craftsmanship and quality survive the fast growth journey?  

"Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos" Highland Park, Michigan | Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

"Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos" Highland Park, Michigan | Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Scalability Sucks

What if scalability is overrated?  Tom Peters is a world famous, New York Times Best-selling business provocateur and he writes about business excellence and innovation.  Peters doesn’t think scalability is overrated.  He thinks it sucks.

Scalability sucks. What about: “Our goal is unscalable coolness!” [Or “Wow-ness,” “Amazingness,” “OMG-ness” whatever ...]
— Tom Peters, Twitter, June 2016

Value or Wowlue?

Jim Jacoby thinks craftsmanship and scalability aren’t polar opposites but choices to be made across a spectrum of possibilities.  Jacoby is a practical philosopher and a digital poet of sorts – having founded the marketing agency, Manifest Digital, in 2001 on the principles of great user-centered web design.  Seven years later, Jacoby and his partners had grown Manifest into the ranks of Inc. Magazine’s fastest growing companies.  Manifest revenues grew by 100% in 2008.  In January 2009, a major private equity firm committed $9 million in investment capital to help Manifest realize its bigger potential and to ultimately maximize the company’s value.  

A startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.
— Steve Blank, Author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany

Definitions of value can differ greatly between innovators and investors.  Private equity funders tend to value scalable growth and value portfolio companies run by ravenous carnivores rather than philosophers and poets.  That combination leads to maximum economic value.  For idea creators, the “value” equation may include variables like aesthetics, societal impact, "Wow-ness," "Amazingness," or "OMG-ness."   Big Idea guys aren’t always the best fit with ROI-driven financiers.  Such may have been the case with Jacoby and the backers of Manifest Digital.  Or, it could be that Jacoby – as happens with many entrepreneurs after they hit a decade with their company – became bored of the same-old grind.  Whatever the case, a few years after bringing in private equity funding, Jacoby’s attention had shifted away from the firm he founded and towards a burgeoning obsession:  world-class craftsmanship.

In 2012, Jacoby joined forces with former home products manufacturing entrepreneur, Scott Miller, and launched a mission-driven for-profit organization called American Design and Master-Craft Initiative (ADMCi) to champion master-craftsmanship by studying the work of virtuoso makers and applying it to other markets like software and services.  ADMCi made good on that promise by enlisting experts in online user experience, interface design and digital content to deliver boot camps and classes on “digital craftsmanship” to creatives and coders in downtown Chicago and online.  

At the same time, ADMCi invested in the maestro motorcycle designer J.T. Nesbitt and his vision to build the ultimate motorcycle that would not only stand on its own as a sculptural gem but also be engineered to break land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Jacoby challenged Nesbitt:  “What would you design if you could design anything?”  And, Jacoby gave the motorcycle maestro an ample budget and free creative rein:  a no-constraints design platform.  

The result: Bienville Legacy Motorcycles which has initially produced three hand-built, supercharged badass muscle bikes adorned with custom carbon fiber, natural wood, top-grade leather and gleaming chrome.   As one online motorcycle enthusiast said, “Love it or hate it (I love it) you cannot deny the craftsmanship or the wow factor.”  Those bikes are Wow!  Amazing! OMG!

Bienville Legacy Motorcycle | Image Courtesy of ADMCi

Bienville Legacy Motorcycle | Image Courtesy of ADMCi

Four years since launching these craftsmanship initiatives, Jacoby and his partners have traveled the globe to show off their bespoke motorcycles valued at $350,000 apiece.  They’ve garnered multiple patents for elements of the Bienville Legacy design that are being marketed to the auto industry by Pratt & Miller Engineering.  They’re bringing their lessons-learned to corporate America and consolidating those lessons into book form.  

At the center of ADMCi’s findings about master craftsmanship is the idea that scalability, engineering and optimization aren’t necessarily at odds with intuition, design and innovation. Instead, these variables can be mapped – and, therefore, balanced - on the continuums of art and science, heart and mind.  

Craftsmanship Spectrum from The Art and Science of IxD - A Path to Craftsmanship | Courtesy of Jim Jacoby

Craftsmanship Spectrum from The Art and Science of IxD - A Path to Craftsmanship | Courtesy of Jim Jacoby

Here’s how Jacoby describes it:

Can craftsmanship and scalability exist? Yes. The challenge comes when you're not clear on whether you are building for craft or building for scale.  Pure art is created for the purpose of the artist first.  Pure engineering, at the other end of the spectrum, is created to meet a technical specification of some kind. The center of that art and engineering spectrum represents the balance of craftsmanship:  it’s the point that meets an exacting purpose and incorporates a visceral sense of its creator. Craftsmanship is an ethos and an outcome that defines excellence at a specific point on the continuum of art and science. It’s ultimately the sum of seemingly insignificant moments of courage and choice.

Consider a scenario where a craftsman makes a masterpiece in a chair or table.  The piece itself is valued for function, beauty, as well as for the fact that it was handmade:  reflecting the value of the time it took to produce and the experience accumulated and applied by the craftsman.   That object, whatever it may be, can serve as a prototype or form for something that might separately be scaled. That's an entirely different activity, but still an important skill which we might call design for manufacturing.   The requirements for manufacture are separate from those the craftsman kept in balance when designing the prototype, because they serve a different 'master.' Design for manufacturing needs to be efficient, cost-effective, and fill a need in the market. Those drivers may cause a master-crafted piece to be compromised in some way in order to be worth reproducing.  The more compromises for efficiency, cost, etc. are made, the further away from the craftsman's ideal the piece might evolve.  That's okay, because the design goal is entirely different. 

The creation of the three Bienville Legacy bikes reveals efficiencies available for production. In the case of our prototype Legacy bikes, there are fewer parts than are normally included in a motorcycle with this level of complexity and performance.  It is infinitely more adjustable than any other bike produced. These learnings can be adopted for the benefits of efficient manufacturing, but were not originally intended to serve that master.  We liken it to a moonshot.  Under any normal circumstance, going to the moon is unreasonable and doesn't scale yet.  But, the byproducts - ballpoint pens, Velcro and Tang - are all great, scalable products that were unintended offshoots of necessary components of the design to get to the moon. 

Ideally, we would have a culture of master-craftsmanship that serves as the breeding ground for great new designs that could be mass-produced. What would it look like to take the Bienville Legacy patents and use them to make a $1000 moped that could be spread across India?  That is the ideal.  

Instead, we have an environment where mass-production puts craftsmen out of business. They can't compete. In better circumstances, the mass manufacturers and the craftsmen would help one another.  Wouldn't it be interesting if manufacturing companies took a fraction of their earnings to support craft communities that might, in turn, contribute their intellectual capital to support the innovation and advancement of the larger organization?

The Bienville Legacy represents extraordinary craftsmanship and its development was an innovative act. Still, it is a far cry from scalable craftsmanship.  Rather than trying to scale one finely crafted product, what if you built a business that, at scale, offered a vast inventory and variety of crafted goods?  That’s what Etsy did.

What we have here is a post-industrial nostalgia for the pre-industrial. In a culture with a surfeit of branding and cheap mass-produced goods, we romanticize the handmade because we yearn for quality, not quantity.
— Justin McGuirk, The Guardian, August 1, 2011

Is This Craftsmanship?

The online craft retailer Etsy – founded in 2005 – was launched as an e-commerce platform for promoting indie craft makers empowering them to turn their hobbies into enterprises.  You can’t buy a handcrafted, Bienville Legacy motorcycle on the e-commerce craft products site, Etsy.  But you can buy small-batch, classic motorcycle goggles.  You can also buy nose rings, lip rings, belly rings, toe rings, and nipple rings.  You can pick up a pound of hand spun super chunky “smoosh” yarn.  You can also add to your collection of miniature sleeping woodland fairies, teeny tiny garden gnomes or needle-felted alpacas.  Um…Wow? Amazing? OMG?

Should the word “craftsmanship” apply with equal force to fuzzy, stuffed Camelids and sculpted, titanium-laced motorcycles?  Does the term fit both a Stradivarius violin and an Etsy non-piercing labia clip? There are degrees of craftsmanship, perhaps, like there are degrees of absurdity.  Or maybe these comparisons reveal the difference between the hobbyist and artisan approaches:  crafting versus craftsmanship or craftsmanship versus Master Craftsmanship?  

For that matter, there are degrees of “entrepreneurial craftsmanship” when it comes to creating and running a business, too.  In the first six years of Etsy’s existence, founder Rob Kalin and his team insisted that sellers on Etsy promote only handmade products.  Kalin & Co. valued their entrepreneurial freedom to create with few constraints.  But, their constraints on Etsy sellers placed significant limitations on those makers' flexibility.  Etsy’s requirement that its merchants sell only handcrafted items meant that sellers would be put in a production pickle if they were successful.  To keep up with rising demand, a successful Etsy merchant would have to turn to outside labor or manufacturing and would, therefore, be disqualified from being an Etsy participant.  Craft and scale were at odds.

In April 2011, INC. Magazine ran an article headlined, “Can Rob Kalin Scale Etsy?  Kalin was quoted saying, "I speak to people in the business world and the technology world, but I don't admire them.  I admire the makers of the world." He dismissed the idea of maximizing shareholder value as a ridiculous excuse that business users too often employ to avoid doing things.  Kalin emphasized the importance of “a sense of wonder, a sense of poetry, and a sense of foolishness” as drivers of Etsy’s success.  Like Jim Jacoby at Manifest Digital, Kalin launched a non-profit during his time at Etsy, providing a select group of Etsy sellers with free office space and training on how to turn a craft hobby into a business.  These are the values of a dyed-in-the-hand-spun-super-chunky-wool craftsman.

In July 2011, INC. Magazine ran an article headlined, “Rob Kalin Out As Etsy CEO.”  In 2013, Etsy began accepting sellers promoting manufactured goods. The following four years under a new CEO tipped the scales towards scaling Etsy’s top line revenue.  The business generated $2.4 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2015 though it remained unprofitable.  In April 2015, CNN Money reported, “Etsy now worth over $3 billion. Stock jumps 88% after IPO.” Wonder, poetry and foolishness be damned!  

Meanwhile, Etsy wrapped its arms around another kind of craftsmanship: the craft of making itself.  Etsy’s Code as Craft Blog announces:  “At Etsy, our mission is to enable people to make a living making things. The engineers who make Etsy make our living making something we love: software. We think of our code as craft — hence the name of the blog. Here we’ll write about our craft and our collective experience building and running Etsy, the world’s most vibrant handmade marketplace.”

This brings us back to Mr. Jacoby as his quest has returned him to his digital roots.  Through ADMCi, Jacoby is applying lessons from the Bienville Legacy experience to the realm of digital business.  “The ADMCi Studio for Digital Craftsmanship is a hub for all agencies interested in elevating their game through a core focus on the impact their work has on the world. We audit and certify their work, we support the development of craftsmanship-anchored cultures, and we route opportunities based on appropriate fit for each agency in the network,” Jacoby said.  “The obligations of digital design are to make a better human experience – offline as well as online.  Our craft is our user-centered design process. The roots of craftsmanship are woven throughout our work,” Jacoby added.

Jacoby also remains committed to his American Design and Master-Craft Initiative that is now led by co-founder Scott Miller.  ADMCi seems to have shifted the question from “how do we scale innovative craftsmanship” to “why should we?”  Jacoby points to the value residing in those three Bienville Legacy motorcycles.  The value he sees is in the patents created and the lessons learned.  Whether or not master craftsmanship is scalable, the effort can yield valuable inputs for product variations that ultimately move toward mass-production.  It is the by-product of what the craftsman creates that will lead to other advances and ventures…more scalable ones.  

“The key is to separate the drive for profit from the act of designing,” Jacoby said.  “Master craftsman should be free to do pure art.”  Jacoby’s ADMCi represents a new kind of patronage system that is more akin to what the Medici family created to support artists like Michelangelo.  

Lorenzo de Medici | Portrait by Girolamo Macchietti, 16th century | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lorenzo de Medici | Portrait by Girolamo Macchietti, 16th century | Source: Wikimedia Commons

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.
— Steve Jobs

Elusive But, Perhaps, Not Impossible

Just because something is elusive does not mean it is impossible.  We have seen instances of products and services living at the scalable, innovative craftsmanship intersection. They still live, waiting for creators with chutzpah and manic focus to produce their progeny.  Somewhere in a far-off hidden valley, a rider roars by on her Harley-Davidson, past the ghost of Steve Jobs pounding ideas out on his MacBook. Nearby, a unicorn surfs across the sea under a brilliant rainbow.

Yes, More Funny Ideas

Words by Andrew Dietz

AHA HA HA jokes and novelties, 99 West Bow, Edinburgh, EH1 2JP  | Source: WikiCommons

AHA HA HA jokes and novelties, 99 West Bow, Edinburgh, EH1 2JP  | Source: WikiCommons

Martha Stewart - tough-as-nails, ex-con TV homemaker - is hardly a jokester.  

But Martha played along in good, if stiff, humor when Barry Kudrowitz appeared on her television show.  She may have even cracked a smile (not clear as she may have simply been wincing) when Kudrowitz’s Catsup Crapper robot skated up to a pile of Martha’s French fries and butt-blasted a glob of Ketchup onto the plate.  

Barry Kudrowitz is an inventor.  Kudrowitz is also a product designer, an app entrepreneur, an illustrator, a sculptor, an author, a rap artist and a rock musician.  He is also Professor of Product Design at the University of Minnesota having earned his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Mechanical Engineering department studying creativity, humor and idea generation. And, of course, he can also make a rolling bottle of Heinz 57 turn on a dime and take a dump.  Silliness, Kudrowitz knows, is next to ingeniousness.

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny!'" Isaac Asimov said.  

Groucho Marx put it more plainly, "Blessed are the cracked for they let in the light."

Humor – especially good-hearted funniness – is a creative act.  Laughter provides momentary enlightenment through which ideas flow.  Humor works with whatever circumstances arise. Humor says “yes” and flows with the current – even when the stream is Shit Creek. Humorlessness says “No!” and pushes against the relentless river. Relaxed playfulness and laughter breed comfort and open-mindedness…and vice versa.  These are the right conditions for innovation.  


Barry Kudrowitz’s MIT dissertation was titled, “HaHa and Aha!  Creativity, Idea Generation, Improvisational Humor, and Product Design.”  In it he explores how the use of humor and improvisational comedy can augment product design idea generation.  “We have found that the ability to quickly generate many ideas is strongly correlated (r2=.82) with being able to come up with a single, promising, creative idea,” he wrote.   “Furthermore, improvisational comedians were more proficient at new product idea generation than professional product designers, and methods for training comedians can be effectively adapted to product design idea generation.”  One reason, he argued, is that funny folks – especially improvisational comedians – have well-honed capacity for making non-obvious connections between seemingly unrelated things.

“There is a common rule of improvisation called “yes and...” which essentially sums up the two main rules of brainstorming: defer judgment and build off each other’s ideas,” Kudrowitz says. “Improvisational theatre is a social group activity like brainstorming and the success depends on the participants feeling comfortable sharing ideas and building on the ideas.”  With more emphasis on collaboration than ever before, it would seem that improvisational skill is an essential business competency for innovation and, frankly, basic social interaction.

A Brief Rant

For select business environments, “no” is safer than “yes” and “funny” actually means “frightening.”  Some companies are so skittish about litigation (potentially instigated by, say, some worker insulted by another colleague’s humor) that their General Counsel and HR teams perform radical humor bypass surgery on the whole place.   In others, there is so much self-absorbed pretension rooted in the culture that joking carries too big a threat of criticism by peers and overlords to be worth the risk.  For instance, at certain elite high-testosterone firms, if you make a self-deprecating joke you may be branded as insecure or weak:  Career suicide wrapped up in a punch line.  

Of course, don’t look to these organizations to produce much that’s new and transformative. Finding fault and saying no (except to their own grand insights) is their stock in trade.  That’s not to say that humorless people can’t create and innovate. It happens. I just don’t want to be around them when they do it…or any other time for that matter.  

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
he goes forward in honor and self-assurance.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
undermines him all his life. 

- Constantine P. Cavafy, Che gran rifiuto

Funny Science

Dr. Peter McGraw is a funny scientist.  In his role as marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado he is a renowned expert in the science of humor.  He leads the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) which studies the nature of “funny” and he has summarized his findings in a 2014 book he co-authored with journalist Joel Warner called, The Humor Code:  A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny.  

What does McGraw think, I wondered, about the imposition of “extreme caution” and “political correctness” and “litigiousness” on humor in the workplace?   He says, “Positive humor is an outcome of a happy culture.  But, not everyone is highly skilled at it.  There are coworkers whose humor is simply mean and there are others whose humor is earnest but clumsy. You need to set parameters and provide workplace education around the use of humor.  You can teach professionals the difference between humor that is acceptable and unintentional comedy attempts that may be hurtful.  And, you can educate workers on how to deal with potential negative outcomes and the right way to apologize after inadvertent damage is done.”  

The degree to which humor permeates a company’s culture is linked to its market positioning.  “If your brand – like some consulting firms - is 'we’re corporate assassins', humor is not going to fit,” McGraw notes.  “Humor works within brands and cultures that are open to playfulness and warmth both inside the organization and in how they portray themselves externally.”

Regarding the role of humor in innovation, McGraw says that incorporating humor and creativity exercises benefits innovation for a couple of reasons.  First, for a particular set of innovation problems – humor might be good way to uncover the problems where innovative solutions are most needed.   “One type of humor is benign violation – poking fun at the way things have always been done,” McGraw says.  “There needs to be something wrong for something to be funny.  The act of making jokes about things implicitly finds what’s wrong with those things.  This approach often unearths problems that we wouldn’t otherwise recognize.”

Second, humor helps generate more ideas.  “Humor is a positive emotion that creates engagement.   When people are leaning in and having fun that leads to persistence.  Persistence helps drive more ideas.  One predictor of goodness of a chosen solution is the number of solutions you proposed in the first place,” according to McGraw.

“Everyone wants to talk about innovation but most are afraid of it.  Fear blocks creativity,” says Deb DiSandro. DiSandro is a humorist, author, syndicated columnist and owner of Slightly Off – On Purpose: a consultancy where DiSandro uses humor to help professionals push beyond their comfort zones to achieve more success with less stress.  When she first began writing her newspaper column, DiSandro found her own fear of imperfection standing in the way.  “I would go into this uncreative place out of fear of wanting to get everything just right and to be perfectly, hilariously funny,” she recalls.  “I grew up hearing ‘practice makes perfect’ but, really, what does ‘perfect’ look like?  Nobody knows.  We are taught that mediocrity is bad but sometimes striving for the ideal output shoots down the creative process.”   

DiSandro decided to let go of perfectionism. “What if I gave myself permission to get a ‘C’ and write just an average column?  I followed that path and, as a result, I was braver and took more risks and allowed more of my creative ideas to flow.  All of a sudden, I was writing what I considered to be ‘C’ columns but no one else could tell the difference,” she says.  

You don't need to get all As to succeed.  Maybe that’s why “succeed” has two Cs in it?  

“Humor helps people escape the perfection trap. If you want to get ideas going, start by getting people to laugh.  You can’t laugh and be stuck at the same time.  Humor gives people permission to be imperfect and fail.” People who can laugh at their own imperfection and failure tend to be less stressed and more resilient.  Relaxed and resilient people tend to inspire others to be more creative and productive.  “Companies that really honor humor are the ones that access greater innovation,” says DiSandro.  

Creme-filled Innovation

If your organization is culturally capable of laughing, please return with me to the improvisational pathway suggested by Barry Kudrowitz.  “The rules of improvisational theatre have much in common with the rules brainstorming. Just like brainstorming, many short form improvisational games are designed to promote prolific non-obvious association.  In both improvisational theatre and product design brainstorming, the members of the group share a common goal of putting out the best product,” wrote Kudrowitz in his 2010 dissertation.  Since then, he’s put this to the test in a way that illustrates how improvisational comedy can purposefully and practically improve innovative output.  

Kudrowitz runs an annual public improvisational sketching event called 'Sketch Off' at the University of Minnesota. He gathers teams of industry professionals and product design students and challenges them to quick-draw new product ideas in real-time before a raucous crowd based on the audience’s inputs and shout outs.  Silliness emerges and so do some hilariously interesting product ideas.  In past Sketch Offs, absurd assignments included developing costumes for a comb and lighter and drawing wearable products for Spongebob Squarepants.

“It helps to be silly with concepts, not necessarily with people,” Kudrowitz says.  When you feel that you are in a friendly, warm, comfortable situation, you will say things more directly.  Humor and silliness are linked to higher levels of dopamine – the brain’s pleasure and reward neurotransmitter. “When you’re laughing, you’ve got lots of dopamine released in the brain and higher dopamine leads to better association making,” he says.  And it is those fast and wild connections that can produce more and better ideas. 

As I write this sentence, cartoon commercial characters dance across my TV screen singing the praises of the wondrous Oreo cookie.  Meanwhile, I have on my computer screen the wondrous Barry Kudrowitz’s website,  Kudrowitz launched his site in 2013, the same year the cookie brand launched its “Wonderfilled” Oreo brand campaign.  I don’t know which came first: the Oreo wonder cookie or the WONDERBARRY egg.  One thing is clear, though: Kudrowitz is an Oreo fan.  Those crème-filled treats prompted him to build a state-of-the-art Oreo crème separating device.

The Second City Is First

The Second City has taken improv-as-product-idea-accelerator a step beyond Kudrowitz’s Sketch Off approach through its Brandstage service.  

First, if you aren’t aware of Second City, bless your heart.  Here’s some background.  The Second City pioneered improvisational comedy theater in 1959 when it opened its doors on North Wells Street in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. Today the comedy troupe and theater have locations in Chicago, Toronto and Hollywood.  It has become known as a star-maker, pumping out comic legends like John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Steven Colbert, Steve Carrell, Martin Short, Eugene Levy and that’s just a small dent in the long list.  

As The Second City’s popularity grew, businesses began paying for special performances at corporate meetings, conferences and company soirees.  So, alongside its ongoing entertainment enterprise, the comedy troupe launched a sub-brand called Second City Communications to fill the rising corporate audience demand.  In the rough journey from the 2000s through the Great Recession, corporate entertainment gave way to corporate training and culture building and Second City Communications was renamed Second City Works (in 2015). Now, the professional services arm of Second City applies improv methodology to specific, pragmatic business interventions.  

“Second City’s business programs used to be all about the comedy,” says Kelly Leonard, Creative Adviser to The Second City and co-author of the 2015 book Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration--Lessons from The Second City.  “Now we’re as much about the application of our improvisation methods to solve business challenges like boosting product idea generation for major consumer goods companies,” he adds.

Bringing Improv Comedy To Business Challenges | Source:  Second City Works

Bringing Improv Comedy To Business Challenges | Source:  Second City Works

Under the leadership of Second City Works’ President and Managing Partner, Steve Johnston, the organization has promoted several fresh offerings. The firm’s Brandstage offering most directly links improvisational comedy to product innovation.  Johnston says, “Brandstage brings consumers, creative and product management teams, researchers, and Second City improvisers together to develop product and brand ideas in real time through improvisation and facilitated audience input and interaction.”  

Brandstage is innovation-by-ensemble fueled by humor and guided by improvisation methodology.  It works like this:  A consumer brand literally puts its product and messaging ideas onstage in the Second City theater setting.  Second City’s trained professional improvisers interact with an audience comprised of the brand’s consumers to capture the audience’s interests, thoughts and reactions to the marketing team’s brand and product concepts.  Then, the Second City performers weave marketer and consumer inputs into a series of improvisation games, scenes and songs that bring the collective ideas to life; prototyping ideas quickly in front of the audience and getting immediate feedback.  A professional moderator along with the brand team gleans what seems to be working – or not - with the audience.  The moderator leads a discussion across the room to identify unexplored insights and spark honest feedback.  Using the new input, they may do it all over again.  The brand/client comes away from the Brandstage workshop with a roadmap of observations, opportunities and action steps. 

Second City Works believes (and their clients seem to validate) that the Brandstage process – integrating improv, comedy and audience involvement – leads to a higher volume of more creative ideas that have consumer perspectives baked-in from the beginning.  “Most comedy is about getting to truth – it is a more comfortable way to talk about the elephant in the room without shooting it. Comedy removes the artificial walls that hold people back,” says Kelly Leonard.  This is Professor McGraw’s ‘Benign Violation’ theory in action.  Humor-inspired frankness can reveal product opportunities that may otherwise be missed. 

Comedy and improv are a powerful combination for inciting uncommon levels of idea productivity – especially those springing from unexpected places and people.  “You get to comedy through improv.  Improvisational comedy is people working together to make something out of nothing, using a set of rules that guide the process for unlocking creativity.  Improv puts creativity into a broader set of hands within a company – well beyond those in an organization who are hailed as the cherished few creative people.” Kelly Leonard adds.  


Summer Camp at Whole World Improv Theatre, Atlanta, GA || Jessie is 2nd from the left.

Summer Camp at Whole World Improv Theatre, Atlanta, GA || Jessie is 2nd from the left.

It is summer and that means hauling (with deep love, of course) my 14-year-old daughter, Jessie, to a series of camps that always seem to start and end at the most inconvenient times and places across Atlanta’s congested cityscape.  This week, Jessie’s camp is at Whole World Improv Theatre – one of Atlanta’s many comedic improv groups.  It is a week long program that dips her deep into ensemble exercises, improvisational games and scenes.   The final day includes a live show for the campers’ families.  I sit in the audience chewing my nails.  I am nervous.  She is not.  What she is, instead, is very funny and spontaneous and quick.  And, so – mostly - are her peers onstage. 

Humor and improv are learnable skills.  They go to the heart of mental agility and resilience. These are essential tools for any business that must innovate to live.  Sure it is great that teens are learning improv earlier than ever.  But it isn’t too late to pump more comedy into the culture for us grown-ups, either.  Add some funny to your innovation efforts.  Say yes to it.  No joke.