from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 3
March 1993 Laugh,
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
John Hoover, he wrote Leadership
When the Heat's On
(McGraw-Hill, New York, 1992).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Rusty tried to
pull the jet out of the dive, shoving
his feet against the console while tugging
on the stick. No
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
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.
Depends on the Environment
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
has endured environments that stifle laughter or the telling of
jokes. Likewise, the
characteristics of creative people require a conducive
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
surroundings don't allow room for sculpting new solutions.
A fondness for new ideas is stifled by a leadership that
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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
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.