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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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]