Words by Andrew Dietz
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.
OPEN => FUNNY => CREATIVE => INNOVATIVE
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 fece...il gran rifiuto
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.
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, WONDERBARRY.com. 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.
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.
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.