Why Big Companies Don’t Do Designer Vibrators

DeLight FunFactory

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.

 

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Stand-Up Strategy

Jamie Anderson & Gabor George Burt

In our interactions with leaders of the world’s most successful and innovative companies we have been struck by a recurring phenomenon – not only are these leaders intelligent, and forward-thinking, many of them are also very funny. Not only are they able to deliver a flawless punchline at a cocktail reception – they are also able to leverage humor as a strategic tool to achieve four important organizational outcomes.  Here is how you can do the same.

First, you can use humor to foster a strong sense of corporate community. Psychologists and social scientists have shown that people who laugh together have deeper feelings of empathy and bonding. So, draw on jokes, funny anecdotes and stories to get your employees to laugh together.

We recall a joke told by a regional CEO in a European-based telecom equipment company to open an employee meeting: CEO: “Knock, knock.” Audience: “Who’s there?” CEO: “China!” The firm had recently lost important contracts to Chinese competitors, so everybody in the room immediately understood the punch line. The CEO went on to speak about the need for greater agility, alignment and collaboration.

Second, you can apply humor to help maintain composure. Quite simply, individuals with a high sense of humor experience less stress than individuals without, even in situations where both face similar challenges.  Therefore, you should aim to maintain a sense of humor first and foremost for your own wellbeing. Mervyn Eyre, who heads Infrastructure Services for Fujitsu Americas from Jamaica, notes: “While leadership is a serious responsibility, I do think we take ourselves too seriously at times. I have no hesitation to LOL when I find stories or situations funny at work, and occasionally even ROFLMAO.” For the un-initiated, the latter acronym stands for Rolling-On-the-Floor-Laughing-My-Ass-Off.

Sarah Lahav, CEO of SysAid Technologies in Israel offers this advice: “Work hard, go above and beyond your job description if you want to make a difference, and ensure you have a sense of humor. The last one is particularly important, because if you can’t laugh at yourself when someone is making inappropriate jokes or when you make a mistake, then life is going to be toughNever ever forget your sense of humor.”

In group situations, you can utilize humor to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines or crises. Jokes and funny stories are best leveraged in these situations, not to make targets or challenges disappear, but to improve morale and increase solidarity of purpose.  Terry Davis , former CEO of Coca Cola Amatil Australia, was known for his sense of humor. At one gathering he blew-up a competitor’s vending machine, and at another he took to the stage at a time when his sales managers were falling behind budget. He asked everyone to stand, reach under their seat, and find what was there. Every seat had a $5 note or $2 coin taped underneath. He then commented: “You see, all you have to do is get off your arses and you will find revenue.”

Thirdly, in order to navigate a VUCA world, you must excel at piloting ongoing organizational change and metamorphosis. Using humor can boost message retention among your employees, enable positive emotions and re-enforce core company values. Jack Ma, Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, is a renowned storyteller. His rags to riches story is inspiring, because he overcame so many obstacles before achieving success.  Here is the humorous, disarming way he tells it:

“I had a lot of failures…I failed a key primary school test two times, and I failed three times for middle schools. I even failed my university exams two times… I applied for thirty jobs, got rejected…When KFC came to China, came to my city, 24 people went for the job – 23 people were accepted, I was the only guy who got rejected.”

 Ma shares his funny stories of rejection and resilience to re-enforce Alibaba’s core organizational values of entrepreneurialism, risk-taking and persistence. Similarly, you should infuse funny elements into your own strategic storytelling.

The fourth organizational outcome humor enables you to achieve is perhaps the most important: creativity. Laughter and fun release physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component for ideation and problem solving. Future-shaping leaders recognize the impact of humor to generate creative ideas from all ranks, spur diverse perspectives and foster innovation. In the words of IDEO founder and CEO Dave Kelly, “If you go into a culture and there’s a bunch of stiffs going around, I can guarantee they’re not likely to invent anything.”

The growing embrace of humor among leaders as engine of creativity is substantiated by the global proliferation of corporate April Fools mischief. Every year, the first of April brings new heights in the number and elaborateness of institutionalized pranking around the world, fully endorsed and even personally fronted by business leaders. You should get your organization to join the fun. It will send the strong, internal message that creativity is a valued resource.

Of course, humor can be subjective – what one person finds hilarious another may not. So, knowing your audience is paramount. Leaders who score high in the effective use of humor also tend to score high in emotional intelligence. The global nature of business today means that you must also be adept at adjusting your style of humor as you cross societal boundaries – an aspect of what has become known as cultural intelligence. Any ‘outsider’ who has worked in Nigeria or Russia soon comes to understand that while locals frequently joke about corruption, foreigners should not.

Now throw the instantaneous and global reach of social media into the mix, and we might soon be talking about digital intelligence too. Using these new communication platforms, your humorous commentary, if used wisely, is only a screen tap away from reaching audiences inside and outside your organization. As a leader, you never before had access to this kind of mass intimacy, which is a natural podium for humorous expression.

It’s high time we jump to conclusions: Future-shaping business leaders are re-discovering humor as a vital driver of organizational success. Consequently, the joke is on you if you fail to seize its power in guiding your organization’s ongoing relevance.

May the farce be with you.

See Jamie’s TEDx Talk ‘The Stand-Up Strategists.’

You Always Have a Choice. Or not?

Guest blog with Cyriel Kortlieven

Creative Thinking is all about seeing what other people see, but then seeing something different. For example, from a mathematical point of view, the answer to the sum 1+1 appears to have one clear answer. But if you look at it from a more creative point of view, it could also be 11 – if you put the numbers next to each other. Or it could become a “+” if you laid one numeral horizontally on top of the other. For the truly creative, there is never one solution to a problem, which means that we always have a choice in the way that we approach complexity.

You always have a choice. Or do you?

 But, do we have a choice in everything?

We can’t choose the weather and we can’t choose whether our partner will be in a good mood or not. That’s true- but we can choose how we respond to the weather or the mood of our partner. Even in extreme cases – for example being robbed in the street – you have choice. You could hand over your wallet, try to escape, wrestle with the aggressor, or shout for the police. But it is pointless to dwell on theoretical discussions in these extreme situations. In 99,9% of cases, we have a lot more choice about thinking, feeling and behavior than we think.

You rarely have a choice

If you always make conscious life decisions then why are so many people still stuck in situations that they don’t like? Why are so many people not living up to their dreams and aspirations?  Why do many people (unconsciously) not make choices?

That’s where our biology comes in. Only some of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are preceded by conscious intentions. But most of the time, we operate on an autopilot with our unconscious mind at the steering wheel.

Our conscious brains can only handle roughly 40 bits of information a second, while our unconscious minds can handle 11 million bits of information per second. Our unconscious brain is fast, instinctive and emotional. The conscious part of the brain is slower, more deliberative and logical. Our unconscious brain cares about 2 things: survival and maintaining the status quo (because the status quo preserves energy, which increases the chances of survival). The decisions that our unconscious brain is making are highly context-dependent. Whatever is going on at that moment – the weather, your state of mind, the time of the day, the last thing you ate or saw or felt – can influence your thoughts and decisions.

Does this mean that your unconscious brain is sabotaging the conscious brain? No, it’s just a different system.

But how can I make a conscious choice (and change my life for the long-term?)

Does this mean that I just have to accept that my unconscious mind is always the master of my thoughts? Must I stop making conscious choices to improve my life (and get out of situations where I’m not happy?). Absolutely not- but don’t assume it will be easy.

The ‘trick’ is to use the substantial power of the unconscious brain. How? By creating a clear pattern. Our brains are wired to create habits, and if we do something often enough (especially if it’s tied to an external cue and reward), it will become second nature. It’s not will-power or self-control that we need to focus on- it’s all about consistency and perseverance. Repeat a certain habit that you want to achieve.

Jocelyn Campbell describes a 4 step process in her article ‘7 Self-Help Myths that are Keeping You Stuck’:

  1. Create an Intention (be specific, and have a clear vision of the outcome) E.g.: I want to lose 5 kg and will complete a 20 km run in August this year.
  2. Determine how you are going to keep your focus on the intention. What’s the cue that could trigger a certain habit? This is an important step because it’s the moment that puts things into motion. E.g. I will place my running shoes next to me before I go bed.
  3. Identify what you will do WHEN things don’t go according to plan. Be sure that things will go differently – it’s not easy to predict what can happen, but you can probably already imagine three or four scenarios when it will be harder to persevere your new habit). E.g. if it’s rainy, my first task for the day is to go to the gym and run on the treadmill.
  4. Reward yourself when you follow through Eg: I will get a nice breakfast after my run.

You can reprogram your automatic behavior so it aligns better with the conscious intentions of your life. But that means committing to the process, being patient and persevering.

It is possible to make conscious and creative choices in life, but it won’t be easy!

 

Cyriel Kortleven  is an international speaker and author, and has published four books on creativity & change. https://www.cyrielkortleven.com/about/

 

AI for Busy People: Making sense of the stuff being written about Artificial Intelligence

With guest blogger Patrick Klingler*

Artificial Intelligence  is one of the hottest topics of 2018 and thousands of articles have appeared on the topic. Academics, consultants and others have been forecasting the impact of AI on society, the business world and even private life. There are so many perspectives on AI, which is absolutely okay given that the topic is very broad and involves several scientific and social-scientific disciplines. However, a lot of authors fail to clearly  define AI when writing an article, and this often leads to difficulties and misunderstandings for the reader.

In this blogost we want to help you to tackle this issue by providing guidelines to (i) understand AI articles and (ii) be able to develop a critical view.

An approach to tackle AI

An increase in processing power and the availability of huge amounts of data has led to the renaissance of machine learning (ML) based AI. So in most writings about AI, the author refers either explicitly or implicitly to machine learning or deep learning (DL). However, we want to stress that ML is the mostly often references, but not the only dimension of AI. But what is ML and how should we to structure the AI-related terminology which is often used?

The classical approach to build computer systems is to define a deterministic program sequence in the source code. To do so, you can use operations like if-then-else statements or for-loops to process data and calculate the desired output. In contrast, a ML-based system is created based on data and training. You select a ML-algorithm, feed it with training data, interpret the output and refine the configuration. That process has to be repeated until the outcome reaches a desired quality-level. So the mantra of a classical programmable system is “program and deploy” whereas the mantra of a ML-system is “train and optimize”.

Also, it definitely helps to distinguish between four layers of AI to structure terminology:

  1. Big data: as mentioned above, data is the base of ML-based AI. Therefore you need big amounts of high-quality data to train ML-algorithms.
  2. Machine learning: ML is the layer that brings in the “intelligence”. It makes use of historic data to identify patterns. Those patterns are applied to unknown data to derive probabilistic predictions. DL can be considered as a sub-discipline of ML that makes use of artificial neural networks with a large number of layers for data processing.
  3. Cognitive computing: cognitive computing can be seen as a symptom of AI. It is about the imitation of human cognitive abilities like speaking, hearing or seeing.
  4. Rational decision making: at the end of the day, every ML-based AI system has the objective to support the rational decision-making process. That’s a logical fact as the system follows a strict rational statistical approach.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 16.48.04

Three questions

Now you are familiar with the basic tool set to understand the concept of AI on a very high level. As a second step, it’s helpful to think about some simple questions that help to categorize and challenge an AI article, opinion piece or blog:

Does the author actually write about ML-based AI?

Besides ML there are other techniques for creating “intelligent” agents. For example, robots that perform pre-defined actions based on sensory data or decision-making based on pre-defined decision trees could also be defined as an AI discipline. To be able to follow the author’s thoughts you should find out which technique he or she is writing about. Sometimes this question can cause problems, as the author fails to clearly define the personal definition of AI. Please keep in mind that this guideline is focused only on ML-based AI.

How does the author define “intelligent” behavior?

Generally, there are two ways in which AI-enabled “intelligent” agents can behave. (i) In a pragmatic way “intelligent” agents behave rationally as their decisions are based on data and statistical techniques. So they are only provided with specific domain knowledge and are not able to develop a generic model of the real world. (ii) Second, the behavior of “intelligent” agents can be compared to human behavior. Sometimes human behavior is equal to rational behavior, but often humans follow their own individual (sometimes un-rational) rules in decision making. Also, humans are very good at generalizing and transferring concepts.

While interpretation (i) can be challenged in a very objective way, interpretation (ii) usually targets a subjective Philosophical debate which gives room for different opinions. In some cases the background of the author can provide an indicator how “intelligent” behavior can be interpreted. A scientific author usually tends to interpretation (i) whereas a social-scientific author tends to interpretation (ii).

Is the funnel from data to decision-making fully transparent?

A well-functioning ML-based AI-system has to go through the process of data provisioning, training of the algorithm and creating probabilistic predictions. You should check if that funnel can be re-engineered in a transparent way, or if AI is simply replaced by a magical black box. Quite simply, there are some situations where ML can’t be applied: (i) the problem can’t be approached by analyzing historic data, (ii) the required data is not available in quality or quantity, (iii) the problem is very dynamic, so data-validity is frequently changing. If you can find contradictions or inconsistencies concerning this point you should be critical about the author’s statements.

Never stop challenging

We hope this short guideline helps to de-mystify AI and to make you re-think some of the stuff that you’ve read. We recommend that you always try to fully understand and challenge the assumptions and statements being presented in an article, blog or opinion piece before you act upon the arguments presented. This will help you to avoid being fooled by unfounded (and often very scary or excessive) stories about the future of AI.

Of course, we don’t want to exclude our blogpost from this advice. So, we’re very happy to read your experiences and opinions about ways to make sense of what is being written about AI. The field of AI is evolving rapidly, so please feel free to share our blogpost and express your thoughts!

 

*Patrick Klingler is a thought leader in the field of artificial intelligence, and researches IT Innovation Management as part of his role at Daimler AG. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/patrick-klingler-682a6681/

 

 

 

 

 

Want to Innovate? Start with a joke!

JamieAnderson-slides-Creativity34

This Post Co-authored with Gabor George Burt

In the beginning, there was humor and there was laughter. And it was good. But then, work became suffocatingly serious. Until now.

There’s an entire branch of social science that studies the psychological and physiological effects of humor and laughter on the brain and the immune system— it’s called gelotology. Discoveries in this field have demonstrated that humor, laughter and fun releases physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component of creativity, ideation, and problem solving. So to get the most out of innovation processes such as design thnking, truly creative leaders also need to master the social dynamics of… [wait for the punchline}…humor!

But in the world of leadership, humor has typically been typecast as a manifestation of individual personalities and thereby a spontaneous and non-replicable activity. Much less attention has been given to the idea that humor might be acquired, learned and nurtured.

We have witnessed that skilled leaders, those we call “Stand-Up Strategists”, understand the utility of humor to boost innovation.  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 they’re not likely to invent anything.”

Of course, humor can be highly subjective and what one person finds hilarious another person may not – so knowing your audience is paramount. It is therefore not surprising that business leaders who score high in the effective use of humor as a tool to boost innovtion also tend to score high in emotional intelligence.

Ceative leaders also have an intuitive appreciation of the four humor styles, and understand how these styles can be nurtured – or sometimes curtailed – in others. The first three styles generally generate positive emotions, while the fourth is more typically associated with negative emotions and therefore has the most limited application with regard to enabling perceptual flexibility:

  • Sense of Fun involves a leader projecting an energetic, positive, playful vibe, and having a generally humorous outlook. It also involves the ability to appreciate the humor and playfulness of others.
  • Self-deprecating humor is the act of a leader to laugh at him/herself through self-belittlement, excessive modesty or downplaying own achievements. The purpose is to reduce power-distance.
  • Social humor is about boosting human interaction, and is used by a leader to enhance relationships. It typically involves jokes or stories shared as a tool to reduce interpersonal tension, increase sociability and promote openness.
  • Strong humor most often entails sarcasm or cynicism and is used by a leader as put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, as a signal of dominance or to encourage conformity to group behavioral norms.

With his Groucho Marx moustache and quirky personality, IDEO’s Kelly is renowned for his sense of fun. Any visitor to an IDEO office immediately appreciates the importance of levity in the organization’s culture – indeed, having a sense of humor is a key criterion for recruitment into the firm.

Senior leaders – including Kelly himself – are sometimes self-deprecating, a cultural behaviour that reduces hierarchy and power-distance and ensure that ideas come from all ranks.  But while self-deprecating humor can reduce social distance and make leaders seem more collaborative, participative and open to their employees, leaders shouldn’t over do it. Studies have shown that humorous self-criticism works much less well as a tool to engage with peers and superiors, and can even reduce one’s credibility with subordinates – if used excessively.

Social humor is practiced as part of the IDEO design thinking process that “encourages wild ideas” to take root. Even the most absurd perspectives are embraced, and people are encouraged to “defer judgement”. Team members openly make fun of failures related to the ideation process in a way that nurtures their collective, creative input.

Positive humor can also be utilized to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines – not to make targets or challenges disappear, but to improve morale and increase solidarity of purpose. IDEO embraces the understanding that individuals with a high sense of humor tend to experience less stress than individuals with a low sense of humor, even in situations where both face similar challenges.  So Project Leaders are identified not on a basis of seniority, but for their track record of orchestrating positive social interactions between people – of which humor is a critical component.

The fun and humor-filled work culture at companies such as IDEO are well known, but efforts can start at the team or departmental level in any organization – even those not renowned for having fun-embracing corporate cultures. Lilli Marlen Christ is an energetic development manager who works for German automotive firm Daimler AG in China, and opens her weekly team meetings with a joke or a riddle. She has found it a useful approach for reducing hierarchy, boosting openness and increasing divergent thinking.

When it comes to boosting innovation the overwhelming focus should be on styles of humour that generate positive emotions. Just as there are rules for the design-thinking process at IDEO, there are unspoken rules about the humor that is acceptable – cyncism, ridicule, sexist and racist humor are considered completely inappropriate. Inappropriate humor can stifle people’s creative confidence in any organization – not to mention contributing to reduced morale, absenteeism, the elevation of dysfunctional internal competition, and even company-level reputational damage.

But from a gelotological point of view, innovation is one of the few areas of business in which strong humor such as sarcasm can potentially pay dividends – so long as it’s practice is limited to environments in which people already know, trust and like each other. Research has shown that receiving sarcastic comments and other forms of strong humor from trusted co-workers can stimulate creativity without spurring conflict.

Pixar Animation Studios understands the power of such strong peer feedback. It has created what it calls its ‘Brain Trust’, consisting of a group of highly accomplished directors. When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group and show the current version of a movie in progress. This is followed by a fiery discussion that can last up to two hours, unlocking provocative suggestions and constructive criticism. The sessions are frequently punctuated by laughter, but nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another – but leadership still actively moderates to ensure that no red-lines are crossed.  In these interactions, strong humor is  never used as a put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, or as a signal of dominance.

Discoveries in the field of gelotology also explain why companies such as IDEO, Google and Lego are investing in creating playful and fun work spaces.  IDEO offices are designed to encourage fun and freedom of expression, with employees ofen designing their own work-spaces. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Inc. has considered taking merriment at his car plants to a new level, with an idea to install a fully functioning roller coaster to shuttle employees around the Tesla factory in Fremont.

Today, we stand at the precipice of a new era. Future-shaping business leaders are re-discovering the power of humor as a vital driver of organizational success. “Stand-Up Strategists” are leaders who understand the utility of humor to boost creativity and innovation. The joke is on those who fail to seize the power of humor in guiding their organization’s ongoing relevance.

May the farce be with you.

 

Sources 

Beard, A. (2014) Leading with Humor, Harvard Business Review, May,  Available at: https://hbr.org/2014/05/leading-with-humor [Accessed: 18 October 2017]

Catmul, E. (2008) How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. Harvard Business Review, September, Vol. 86 Issue 9, p64‐72.

Huang, Li, F. Gino, and Adam D. Galinsky (2015). The Highest Form of Intelligence: Sarcasm Increases Creativity for Both Exressers and Recipients. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 131 (November), 162–177.

Zhang, G. (2014). Office Humor, London Business School Review (Online Edition), 4 February. Available at: https://www.london.edu/faculty-and-research/lbsr/office-humor#.WeXmkROCzJx [Accessed: 10 December 2017]

 

 

 

 

Creative Courage

Portrait 2

In my workshops and keynote talks about creative thinking, I often use a simple drawing exercise that has a startling effect on people. Some jump into the exercise with a sense of fun and delight, while others approach it with fear and trepidation. In some cases participants revolt, and simply refuse to participate. So what kind of exercise could spark such a wide spectrum of reactions? I simply ask participants to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them!

The exercise is introduced like this (maybe you would like to try it): 

“Please turn to the person next to you and make a hand drawn picture of them in life like detail. You should use paper and pen, and do not draw in abstract. It should be a life-like image. You have two minutes to do draw the picture. After completing the drawing, show it to them.”

In my experience, and despite its simplicity, this creative task can strike fear into the hearts of even the most experienced executives. Why? Because they are being asked to do something which: a) They do not feel they have the skills to do well, and b) they are concerned that the result might cause offence in the other. This in turn creates anxiety and inhibition – what if I fail; what if the other person is upset?

A Fear of Embarrassment

In some situations, such as a recent keynote at an event with 250 senior banking executives from across Europe, I have experienced these anxieties manifest themselves in annoyance and even anger, with people refusing to participate. At this particular event, there was little laughter and fun, and many participants were simply unwilling to engage in a what could be a playful and creative experience. I repeatedly approached one senior participant from a large French bank who was refusing to participate, and on the third try was actually told to “F**ck off”.

The reactions of anxiety are perhaps understandable given the fact that few adults have engaged in creative drawing since the age of nine or ten – as demonstrated by the outputs of most participants. The two portraits accompanying this post were drawn by people in their forties, one an engineer and the other a corporate lawyer.

It is around the age of ten when most people start to be told that art will never get them a good job, and from this point on the education system starts to actively discriminate against subjects involving creativity (see  my previous post on childhood creativity). At the top of the education system is mathematics and languages, then the humanities and at the bottom any subject involving true expressive creativity – music, dance and fine art.

But despite this lack of drawing skill, some participants embrace the exercise with a sense of excitement, curiosity and good humor, and what this tells us is that these people are quite happy just to have a go and to leave their ego aside. Unlike so many other adults, they have hung on to their creative courage.

And this parallels my wider experience in that the truly creative managers that I have met are willing to issue statements of ignorance when the situation calls for it – to say that they do not know. But more importantly, they are willing to dive into new situations with humility and openness, they are open to lifelong learning, and they have retained a sense of enthusiasm and fun.

Fear & Ego

I recently did the portrait exercise with a global team of legal experts from a leading technology company, and the senior leader from the US was almost falling off her chair with laughter as she completed her drawing. Throughout the workshop, I was told time and time again about the way that she was positively transforming the culture towards openness and knowledge sharing – a very different situation to what existed under the stiff and hierarchical previous boss.

In contrast, those who get angry or annoyed and boycott the drawing exercise reveal their concern for status, and the fear of admitting a lack of skill or knowledge. And in my experience these kind of people are much less effective in dealing with uncertain and complex situations that require people to collaborate towards coming up with novel solutions.  They tend to engage in building internal kingdoms and fiefdoms, sustaining internal silos instead of facilitating cross-business cooperation.

It has also been interesting for me to observe that if I do the exercise with a team, if the ego-driven leader refuses to do the exercise then this same behavior is often adopted by his or her subordinates. This typically reflects broader dysfunctional behavior at the team-level, with fear-based relationships and a lack of candor in communication. As a Belgian manager named Jean-Pierre once said to me after I observed his team following the lead of a non-drawing boss: “If I had done the exercise, there might have been consequences.”

Fear of upsetting the other

For those who are reluctant to do the portrait exercise because they are concerned that the result might cause offence in the other, the issue is not so much about ego. Rather, it is about the desire to sustain positive and harmonious relationships. One British participant named Kathy actually said to me: “But if I draw his picture, he might not like me anymore.” She proceeded to draw, all the while saying “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry” to the man sitting opposite her!

Of course, there are strong cultural dimensions at play here. In some societies, such as Japan and Indonesia, people are very much conscious of causing others to “lose face” through public criticism or shaming, and in my experience people from these countries can find this exercise very difficult to do – especially if they do not know the other person, or the other is perceived to be in a higher hierarchical position.  But I have seen similar reactions in organizations with strong internal hierarchies, and in which junior people are not expected to challenge or give feedback to more senior people.

Creative Courage Can Thrive

Real creativity can only happen in cultures in which people are inspired to explore, to experiment and to fail. Daily interactions happen in a spirit of good humor, and people are not afraid to upset their colleagues through offering opinions and honest feedback. Equally, people in creative cultures are not quick to criticize, and accept the opinions of others with humility and in the spirit of good intent. Organizational politics tends to be frowned upon, hierarchy is banished and people with big egos are marginalized. Because truly creative cultures understand that dealing with complex and uncertain situations requires the power of the collective intellect, not some flash of insight from an arrogant genius.

So a good barometer of the openness to creativity in your organization is a simple little exercise. In your next team meeting, just ask your colleagues to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them.

If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might also enjoy my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.

Portrait 1

Creative Thinking

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Creative thinking is the ability to see what other people see, but in doing so see something different. It is sometimes described as involving two overlapping domains –expressive creativity and inventive creativity, and is essential to thrive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Expressive creativity illustrates the creator’s emotions and aesthetics, while inventive creativity demonstrates novel approaches to problem solving. Of course, there is no real dichotomy between the two – scientists often draw on aesthetic experience in the realisation of an elegant solution to a problem, and many problems need to be solved in the completion any artistic expression.

Studies of childhood creativity across cultures suggest that 98% of children under the age of six are able to engage in this kind of imaginative play involving originality, flexibility and elaboration, or what psychologists call divergent thinking. But from the age of six, something starts to happen to most children – this ability for true divergent thinking starts to decline.

By the age of twelve only around half of children might still be defined as creative thinkers; by the age of eighteen the proportion has declined to around ten percent. Think about your own experience – how many of your friends were still passionate about pursuing a career in art, music or dance by the end of their teens? How many really enjoyed completing riddles and brainteasers?

Below is a picture full of circles. What I would like you to do right now is to think about how you would fill out all of those circles if you were given just two minutes to do so. What method would you use? After you have decided your approach, please read on. But please do not continue reading before you have finished this mental exercise.

Exercise 1:

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Cognitive Preferences in Dealing with Ambiguity

What you have just completed is an exercise to reveal an individual’s cognitive preference in dealing with an ambiguous task and addresses both expressive and inventive creativity.  The task is ambiguous, as I did not tell you how to fill out the circles.

I have used this test with thousands of managers around the world, normally using a paper handout and a pen, and in more than 80% of cases the individuals involved used a highly linear or convergent approach; they used one continuous line to go through all the circles; they shaded all of the circles the same; they wrote A, B, C…. or 1, 2, 3.  In another 10% or so of cases they used two to four variants of the same theme – a row of smiley faces, followed by a row of numbers, followed by a row of letters.

The Mind of a Child

If you give this exercise to a child, you typically see a very different response. Rather than linear or convergent thinking, you tend to see non-linear or divergent thinking with something different drawn in almost every circle – if you have young children, please try it.

This exercise allows an individual to demonstrate both expressive and inventive creativity – children tend to complete the circles by drawing animals, faces and a variety of other images that they like, and in many cases join circles together – for example by using two circles as the wheels of a bicycle or as a pair of eye glasses. Here is the outcome of the exercise completed by daughter Hannah when she was ten years old:

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In contrast, and as demonstrated through my research, fewer than 10% of managers act in an expressive or inventive way when completing this exercise – the majority apply an approach that is anything but creative.

 But why does such a cognitive bias towards ambiguity matter?

Because research shows that when facing an ambiguous or complex problem in which cause and effect are not always clear, the best outcomes emerge from sensing and probing from different perspectives. Quite simply, managing in a VUCA world requires both expressive and inventive creative thinking.

But why is it that the majority of adults have lost the ability to think creatively? Let’s explore that question with another exercise:

Exercise 2 – 30 seconds.

In a moment you are going to do a drawing exercise, so please take a pen and some paper.

Once you have your pen and paper, get ready to draw a cake which you will cut four times.

You have just four cuts, and your objective is to come up with the maximum number of pieces of cake.

You have 30 seconds to complete the exercise, and you should start immediately after you have finished reading this sentence.  Go!

(Please do not read on until the exercise is complete)

Stopwatch

Cutting Cakes

So, how did you do? Again, this is an exercise that I have tested with scores of managers around the world, and my research reveals powerful cognitive preferences.

In about 50% of participants I see a cake as shown at Exhibit 1a below, and in around 40% of the other participants we typically see variants of Exhibits 1b, 1c and 1d. Some 85% of participants draw only one cake. This is particularly disappointing, when the actual outcome of this exercise is potentially hundreds if not thousands of pieces – in just 30 seconds!  But because most managers do not think creatively about the problem, the results are truly sub-optimal.

In my next blogpost I will provide the solution to the cake exercise, and in doing so explain why most adults have lost the ability to think creatively. I will then go on to explain that there is no reason for despair, and provide some practical tips on how we can all reconnect to our creative potential.

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If you liked this blogpost, you might also like my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.