#30 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 3          March 1993

Laugh, You Fool!
by Danny Cox

Mr. Cox, a management consultant in Tustin, California, is a popular speaker, addressing major corporations on the topics of leadership, customer service, higher productivity and personal performance.  With John Hoover, he wrote Leadership When the Heat's On (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1992). http://www.dannycox.com

Laughter has to be spontaneous—humor can't be forced.  Ironically, people who spend too much effort at being serious stimulate more laughs than people who try too hard to be funny. 

Creativity is like humor—people are the most creative when they're not trying to be.  Innovations that result from forced creativity usually resemble jokes that people are forced to hear.  To put it another way, people can't tickle themselves.  But they can put themselves in a position where tickling is likely.

Equally, they can put themselves in a place where creativity is likely.  But before I get to that, let me return to the connection between humor and creativity.

I think the same mechanism that triggers laughter also triggers creativity.  Although the consensus is not complete, many medical researchers feel that creativity has something to do with the funny bone. 

Humor and Panic

A case in point concerns two famous test pilots, "Rusty" Roth and Chuck Yeager.  Bear in mind that pilots are generally “linear” by nature:  They adhere to strict codes of aviation conduct. 

When they were not testing new aircraft, Rusty and Chuck were fishing buddies (they often scouted early-thawing mountain lakes during test flights).  At the time of this story, they had anticipated some great spring fishing and had bought thousands of worms, only to discover that the spring thaw was still weeks away.  As neither man wanted to care for the worms, they ended up shuttling them between their houses.  Finally, Chuck's wife prevailed and Rusty got temporary custody—until the lakes thawed and they could feed the worms to some fish.

Back to the process of crashing.  Rusty was flying an XF-91, the first fighter with an afterburner, and Yeager was flying the chase plane.  As Rusty was putting the fighter through its maneuvers, he suddenly found himself in a deadly vertical dive known as "aerodynamic lock."  Rusty tried to pull the jet out of the dive, shoving his feet against the console while tugging on the stick.  No use. 

Both he and Chuck knew the end was near.  Realizing the gravity of the situation, Yeager carefully chose his last words, then hit the "mike" button and asked his friend an important question: "What the hell am I going to do with all those damned fishing worms, Rusty?"  In a sudden burst of strength—probably stimulated by the relief only a good laugh can give—Rusty pulled out of the dive—laughing!

If Chuck had demanded that Rusty laugh, his friend was destined to become a smoking hole in the ground.  At the most serious moment in his life, the order to "laugh, you fool" wouldn't have made much sense—or done much good. 

Creativity Depends on the Environment

Like humor, creativity can’t be commanded.  The best that human beings can do is work to build and sustain environments that are conducive to unbounded and spontaneous thought.

Everyone has endured environments that stifle laughter or the telling of jokes.  Likewise, the characteristics of creative people require a conducive environment.  For example: 

  A child-like sense of wonder requires an atmosphere of patience and acceptance.  Pressure and threats smother this sense of wonder.

  A constant openness to alternatives requires a flexible environment.  Rigid surroundings don't allow room for sculpting new solutions.

  A fondness for new ideas is stifled by a leadership that fears change. 

  An eagerness for the future operates best in an environment that stresses what's ahead rather than what's behind.  In other words, creativity depends on a sense of anticipation.

  An ability to test new ideas is just as important as dreaming them up in the first place.  In an encouraging environment, no one is punished for "successful failures."

  A creative person's ongoing flexibility is nurtured by an environment that encourages elasticity in all things and promotes the discovery of new ideas where they're not expected.  An organization cannot expect its employees to be truly creative in the lab and uncreative everywhere else.

Triggering Creativity

We all have the capacity to be humorous and we all have the capacity to be creative, but our backgrounds influence our humor and our creative abilities.  Creativity is more evident in some people purely because they have lived and worked in environments that encouraged it. 

Identifying various people's creative specialties should not be difficult; a little detective work will produce big results.  Any super-salesperson knows that everyone is curious and inquisitive about something.  The challenge to team leaders is to find each team member's “hot button.”  How does a person spend his or her free time?  What topics of conversation elicit the greatest response?  Who does the person associate with? 

The list could go on and on.  The point is that people are constantly signaling their unique interests and preferences to anyone who is observant.  Matching people with their interests is the first step.  Step two is creating and sustaining a free, tolerant and creative environment. 

Reward Creative Failures

One way to foster a creative environment, instituting a reward for the most creative failures, sends the message that initiative and daring are encouraged in the organization.  A failure, after all, might be a success when it's turned upside down or inside out.      

George A. McDermott, the executive idea stimulator, uses coffee as an example of a classic successful failure.  In the P.C. (pre-coffee) era, the human race evolved from a non-culinary existence (eating everything raw) to develop the art of cooking.  Our ancestors not only roasted food over an open fire, they began boiling food in water, throwing away the water, and eating the food. 

This boiling business worked great until somebody boiled ground-up coffee beans, threw the water away and ate the grounds.  The most amazing aspect of this successful failure is that someone was sufficiently tantalized by the taste of cooked coffee grounds to try drinking the water they were cooked in.  The rest is history.  Had there been a reward for the most successful failure back then, it probably would have gone to the chef who first boiled coffee beans.

What do I conclude from this?  The quicker we can get from failure to laughter, or from failure to creative thought, the faster we can enjoy the fruits of success.

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