Want to Innovate? Start with a joke!


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.



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

Damien Hirst – Innovator


“I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say ‘fuck off’. But after a while you can get away with things.” Damien Hirst, 1988

Damien Hirst, the bad boy of contemporary art, has spent his career breaking the rules of the established art industry, and his success provides a number of important lessons for organizations.

A new WHO

One of Hirst’s earliest breakthroughs was the recognition that the late 20th century had seen the emergence of ‘non-traditional’ art buyers – a new WHO that the contemporary art world of artists, dealers, curators and galleries had been slow to serve. These were consumers, many of them from relatively ‘new wealth’, who did not buy for artistic interest alone – they bought for fun or status, or invested to sell at a profit when they decided to sell the artwork again.

One of Hirst’s prominent customers was Steve Cohen, the billionaire who purchased Hirst’s shark sculpture, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. Said one art critic: “..the idea that the American hedge fund broker Steve Cohen, out of a hypnotised form of culture-snobbery, would pay an alleged $12 million for a third of a tonne of shark, far gone in decay, is so risible that it beggars the imagination… Of course, $12 million would be nothing to Cohen, but the thought of paying that price for a rotten fish is an outright obscenity.”

Hirst and his mentor Charles Saatchi understood this, and they also appreciated that a very real issue for many ‘non-traditional’ buyers at the high-end of the art market was expected future return on investment. The way to meet these expectations – status and investment returns – was to create unique and strongly branded products.

A new WHAT

Another of Hirst’s very early insights was his recognition that by the end of the 20th century the established art world had come to define ‘works of art’ rather narrowly. In the early years of Hirst’s career both he and Saatchi identified the need to create a new WHAT –  images, symbols and signs that buyers could acknowledge as unique, whether or not they were attracted to them.

While animals – alive and dead – had been exhibited in museums, aquariums and zoos for centuries, the art world had remained largely blind to the potential of incorporating biological elements.  Through his use of animals and animal parts in his sculptures and other objects of art, Hirst created a uniquely differentiated artistic style. Hirst’s shark sculpture became the icon of British art in the 1990s, and a symbol of Britart worldwide.

The degree of opposition to Hirst’s work indicated the degree to which the established art world was blinkered to the massive commercial opportunities arising from the new WHAT created by Hirst and Saatchi during the 1990s. The leading art critic Robert Hughes attacked Hirst as responsible for “the decline of contemporary art”. But Hughes and many other highly respected critics from the art ‘establishment’ seemed blind to an emerging reality – at a time when the quantity of art being produced was exploding, successful commercial exploitation of art was no longer primarily about the physical manifestation of a piece of art.

Hirst’s idea early in his career was not first and foremost to produce a solid and sustainable body of work, like classical artist as Klee, Picasso or Barnet Newman. Instead, the primary objective of Hirst seemed to be to establish his own brand and differentiate his unique works through direct and often shocking provocation. What he proved, and what astounded many art critics, was that there was a multi-million dollar market for art work incorporating rotting meat, maggots and dead sheep.

A new HOW

But Hirst did not only question the WHO and WHAT of the established art world. He also challenged established approaches to HOW art work should be exhibited, produced and sold. Right from the beginning Hirst followed a different path to access art consumers. Instead of using only the traditional way of distributing art through dealers he also adopted the role of curator.

He also created a new HOW in terms of art production. Although Hirst participated physically in the making of early works, he had always needed assistants. But by the late 1990s the sheer volume of work produced necessitated a “factory”, with Hirst working closely with his main art production company called Science Ltd. While “factory” production had been used by other prominent artists throughout history, like Andy Warhol, Hirst was perhaps unique in the minimal level of input that he contributed to many of his works. Hirst had publicly said that he only painted five of several hundred spot paintings produced by his studio because, “I couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it”.

Hirst believed that modern-day artists, especially those already exhibiting at the high-end of the market, had been largely blind to yet another new HOW – the sale of contemporary art through the world’s auction houses. For centuries artists had distributed their art works through dealers and galleries, with auction houses typically selling the art works of collectors rather than works directly from artists themselves.  It was also virtually unknown for an auction to include works younger than two years old.

Hirst’s Sotheby’s auction represented the first time that an artist of his standing had put work directly into the public market rather than operating through dealers and galleries who charged larger commissions. Hirst said, “It’s a very democratic way to sell art and it feels like a natural evolution for contemporary art.”

Lessons for all

The strategy adopted by Hirst witnessed the emergence of a new market space, where he was the first and only player. Although the traditional art world had not consciously ignored the new market created by Hirst, the industry’s focus upon the traditional WHO-WHAT-HOW boundaries of art had created a significant degree of inertia.  The success of Damien Hirst has important implications for practicing managers who need to recognise that their own experience might make them blind to opportunities for strategic innovation.

The challenge for today’s managers is nothing less than removing their organization’s innovation cataracts, and to do this they must continuously question the WHO-WHAT-HOW traditions of their industries.