Elon Musk, joking around is serious business!

by Jamie Anderson,  Gabor George Burt & Art Reid

Image result for elon musk

Elon Musk,

Truly creative leaders tap ideas from all ranks, and are typically skilful at fostering innovation. They are open to diverse perspectives, and willing to take risks.  These leadership characteristics can be further enhanced by humor.  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.” 

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 release physical and cognitive tension, which leads to mental flexibility—a key component of creativity, ideation, and problem solving.  Gelotology can also explain why many frontline business leaders are not just leveraging humor, but are also investing in creating playful and fun work environments.

Up until recently Elon Musk’s eccentricity and wacky sense of humor havebeen seen by most as a reflection of his genius, being a maverick innovator and business leader. His sense of humour has often been on display. For example, when asked how to warm Mars up to make it hospitable for humans he answered: “The fast way is to drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.” And on how he’d rather die: “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.” When asked if he was a Martian alien, “The rumour that I’m building a spaceship to get back to my home planet Mars is totally untrue.”

Musk had even considered taking merriment at his car plants to new heights (no pun intended), declaring in one interview “I’m actually wondering about putting in a roller coaster — like a functional roller coaster at the factory in Fremont. You’d get in, and it would take you around [the] factory but also up and down. Who else has a roller coaster? … It would probably be really expensive, but I like the idea of it.”

In February 2018, helaunched his now-famous red Tesla Roadster sports car into space, atop the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Complete with a manikin wearing a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, the car had a GPS Navigation system that displayed the message “Don’t Panic.”After launching the Tesla Roadster into space Musk declared: “It’s just going to be out there in space for maybe millions or billions of years. Maybe discovered by some future alien race thinking what the heck, what were these guys doing? Did they worship this car? Why do they have a little car in the car? And that’ll really confuse them.”

But while certain eccentricities of a leader are idiosyncratic part of their personality, we view humor as a leadership skill that can be studied, cultivated, and leveraged to drive organizational excellence. To provide guidance for this process, we created the Stand-Up Strategist 4C/S Framework (see table below), which specifies four major organizationalconditions or outcomes enabled by humor,and four styles of humor at the disposal of leaders.

Unfortunately for Mr. Musk, his seemingly intrinsic style is that of strong humor, which has the most limited application and needs the most mastery to navigate. Strong humor most often entails sarcasm or cynicism and is used by a leader as put-down, as a signal of dominance or to encourage conformity to group behavioral norms. It is the comic style mostly associated with generating negative emotions, and therefore the one with the most limited application in organizations.

An illustration of Musk using strong humor was a comment reportedly made in Tesla’s early days, in response to an employee complaining about working too hard: “I would tell those people they will get to see their families a lot when we go bankrupt.” Although Musk’s misuse of humordid not become a major point of friction in the past, things became different when the performance of his company started to be questioned.

Tesla shares crashed 6% and two of its senior executives quit in early September this year, just hours after Musk sparked concern by cracking sarcastic jokes and smoking marijuana on a live web show. Musk’s antics occurred at a time when Tesla’s investors were becoming increasingly concerned over its finances and ability to build cars at scale.

Leaders need to be especially tactful when using humor as a tool to address stress, anxiety and organizational crises. And while other styles of humor may be effective, strong humor must be avoided altogether for this purpose. During a difficult period for the company, the then CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer was widely condemned for joking at an employee gathering: “I’m not here to announce lay-offs (pause)…this week.”

Similarly, Musk’s sardonic tweets, musings about sleeping on the floor at Tesla and wise cracks about becoming chronically sleep deprived have not exactly delighted his shareholders, and prompted severalWall Street analysts to call for the company to appoint a no-nonsense deputy to prop-up Tesla’s operations and standing with investors.

The lesson from Mr. Musk’s ordeal is not to avoid humor. Rather, it is to understand its proper application, and to use it appropriately and effectively, like any other important leadership skill. We see more and more leaders harnessing the power of humor to unleash the creative potential of their staff, connect emotionally with customers, and lay the seed for new, future-shaping, strategic directions.

Afterall, joking around is serious business.

The Stand-Up Strategist 4 C/S Framework

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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.

 

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.’

Damien Hirst – Innovator

Damien-Hirst

“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.