By Jamie Anderson & Gabor George Burt
As Albert Einstein once said “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”.
But in the business world, there is a distinct lack of absurdity! Work has become far too serious, and in most organizations anyone making crazy, strange and outright weird proposals are typically met with frowns and grimaces from the folks in charge. The result is that innovation is often boringly incremental, with new products and services rarely triggering real excitement (let alone mirth) from customers.
Think about Gary Dahl, the independent inventor of the pet rock. He sold the rocks as “hassle-free” pets, complete with a pet training manual and a cardboard box fashioned after a pet carrier. Unlike real pets, the rocks did not need to be fed, walked, bathed, or groomed. They were an instant hit, and turned into one of the greatest toy fads of all time.
But imagine what would have happened if an intern at an established toy company had suggested something as absurd as a pet rock – market research would have almost certainly demonstrated that customers thought the idea stupid, and the intern would have been laughed out of the room. The naively optimistic young person would have taken this as a sign that ‘wild’ ideas are unwelcomed, and made sure to be reassuringly boring in the next product development meeting.
Or how about Joel Comm, the inventor of the iFart app for the iPad and iPhone. A digital whoopee cushion, the app includes 26 flatulent noises including “Record-A-Fart,” “Fart-a-Friend,” and “Sneak Attack.” Selling for US$1.99 it is one of the All-Time Top 20 selling applications on the AppStore.
Again imagine suggesting to your boss in a big company that you should enter the virtual fart business, and pitching the idea using a PowerPoint presentation and some ROI (or should we say ROF) projections? Imagine the look on the face of your boss if you actually started to verbalise some of the potential fart noises. We think you get the picture. This is probably the reason why no established confectionary companies have entered the chocolate dog turd business. But we recently pitched the idea to a group of 11 year-olds and they thought it a sure winner. We’re now thinking about a patent.
Another example is Gino Daniel De-Gol, an engineer who had an absurd idea while looking at a factory robot designed to lift car parts, and asked: “What if you could attach a chair to the end of it? It could make a fun ride.” This amusing query was the genesis of RoboCoaster, the world’s first passenger carrying indusrial robot. To bring the design to market, De-Gol approached the Germany-based industrial machinery firm KUKA.
At first the company’s executives thought De-Gol was completely nuts, but he convinced them to develop a prototype. It was a huge hit, and the rides are now installed at fun parks around the world. KUKA has subsequently diversified into a range of entertainment-oriented robotic applications through its newly created KUKA Entertainment Division. You can’t get more absurd than the idea of German engineers strapping chairs to industrial robots – just for fun!
Also in Germany, Fun Factory has emerged as one of the world’s most successful designers and manufacturers of erotic devices for women and men. Founded by Dirk Bauer and Michael Pahl in 1997, the company challenged the idea that sex toys should be low-tech and modelled on parts of the human anatomy – which we all know can be pretty unattractive. The company has won numerous awards for the quality and innovativeness of its designs – its DeLight vibrator has even been awarded a coveted RED DOT product design award by the International Design Association, becoming the first sex toy to be inducted into the coveted design hall of fame.
To imagine that a vibrator could win a global design award might have seemed absurd, but the founders of the company decided to go for it anyway. The company’s futuristic Berlin flagship store was conceptualised by New York designer Karim Rashid and looks more like an Apple Store than a traditional sex toy retailer.
Observing the rapid growth of companies like Fun Factory, Philips of the Netherlands has also ventured into the erotic toys market – an area that was previously considered taboo for established consumer electronics companies. Given that the size of the global erotic devices industry is estimated at upwards of US$50 billion, what seems absurd is the fact that the sector remains highly fragmented and very few established companies have entered the market.
What we see is that truly innovative organizations are not afraid to probe the absurd, in fact they embrace it. And humour plays a critical role. Having a sense of humorous observation and inquisitiveness is a natural gateway to the realm of the absurd, a foundation for asking tradition-shattering ‘what if?’ questions – even in established industries. In the words of IDEO founder Dave Kelly: “if you go into a culture and there’s a bunch of stiffs going around…I can guarantee you they’re not likely to invent anything.” Although Fun Factory might disagree….excuse the pun.
Research has shown that creativity techniques such as brainstorming are pretty miserable in terms of generating real imagination and absurdity. The first 15 or 20 ideas generated by an individual are generally rather incremental and boring. It’s only when people really start pushing their imagination into the realm of the absurd – in the range of 30 to 50 ideas – that stuff starts to get interesting.
But even if people think of crazy stuff, they rarely have the courage to share their wacky thoughts. We wonder if any Philips product designers proposed designer rechargeable vibrators or pulsating LED-lit love balls during brainstorming sessions for new products back in the mid-1990s? Probably not, even though its unlikely they didn’t know sex toys existed – after all, many Philips designers are Dutch. It is not enough to encourage creativity – organisations need to be comfortable stepping into the realm of the absurd, creating an environment where wackiness is openly shared and celebrated.
So in your next innovation workshop why not get a little crazy? Push the boundaries of everyones’ imagination and maybe you too can come up with a multi-million dollar idea as strange as a designer vibrator, pet rock or a virtual fart. Weirder things have happened.
May the farce be with you.