Innovation is a Joke: How companies Can learn Innovation Through Comedy

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Stand-up comedy and business image

A company enters a market, releases a new product and makes tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, a stand-up comedian walks on stage, opens her mouth and brings an audience to tears. So, who has the harder job, the stand-up comedian or the company CEO? Who has more to lose? Is it scarier being in front of 500 people and dying on stage, or releasing a product that dies in the market?

If you read my resume (or, more realistically, stalked my LinkedIn), you’d probably say that the five years of college and my early career as a management consultant has shaped the way I approach business. However, my approach to business has largely been formed not in the boardroom, but in dimly lit clubs across London and New York, trying my hand at stand-up comedy.

Around the same time I started stand-up comedy, I also started working with companies to help them become more innovative. Little did I realize that so much of what I learnt on stage would redefine how I though about business and product innovation.

The process a comedian goes through to make an audience laugh hysterically is exactly the same process a company needs to go through to create a product that its customers truly love. Let’s look at how a good and a bad comedian develops a stand-up routine, and then let’s compare that to how a good and a bad CEO approaches product innovation.

We’ll start with the comedian.

Scenario 1: The good comedian.

The good comedian gets invited to perform in front of 500 people. Later that evening, as she’s watching the news, she hears something that she thinks might have comedic value. Perhaps she hears about an absurd law in a foreign country. She thinks it’s amusing and, if delivered correctly, could make an audience laugh out loud. So, she writes a short routine, goes to an amateur open mic night and delivers it. She’s doesn’t get a laugh. She rewrites the routine and goes back the next day. She gets a giggle, but is still not happy with it. She rewrites it again. She gets a proper laugh. She tweaks it, slightly adjusting her tone and pace. She goes back to the open mic night and has the audience in stitches. Two weeks, later she performs the routine in front of a 500 strong audience and they are in tears.

Scenario 2: The bad comedian.

The bad comedian gets invited to perform in front of 500 people. Later that evening, as he’s watching the news, he hears something that he thinks might have comedic value. He retreats to his room for five full days. He writes down the perfect routine. He’s in love with it; he thinks it’s hilarious. He shares it with his housemate, who also thinks it’s hilarious. Two weeks, later he performs the routine in front of a 500 strong audience and there’s an awkward silence.

Now let’s compare it to the good and the bad CEO.

Scenario 1: The good CEO

The good CEO has set an aggressive target of doubling revenue in 12 months. She learns about an interesting trend, say the explosive growth of big data. She thinks it has potential and, with the right product, could make a lot of money. The next day she hacks together a few ideas and gets it in front of customers. The customers like it, but aren’t “wowed” by it. She hacks some more. The customers love some aspects of it. She tweaks it, making a few additions here and there. Her customers want it now and are even willing to pre-pay for it. One month later, the product is released in the market and it’s now the company’s biggest revenue maker.

Scenario 2: The bad CEO

The bad CEO has set an aggressive target of doubling revenue in 12 months. He learns about an interesting trend, say the explosive growth of mobile. He thinks it has potential. He brings his best and brightest team together, locks them in a “war room” and gets them to analyze every aspect of the market. Two weeks later, and after hundreds of hours of research, he’s presented with the perfect solution. He approves budget for a large-scale rollout. Six months later, it’s released in the market and turns out to be a total flop.

The comedian’s greatest fear is dying on stage; silence after a punchline. To de-risk the situation, she tests her material at numerous open mic nights in front of small audiences. She most likely rewrites her material 5-10 times, continually testing it, before she’s willing to deliver it in front of a large, paying audience. In her life, dying on stage is her greatest fear — it scares her to the core — so she does everything it takes to make her material work. Testing and iterating is not a choice, it’s the only path to success. She doesn’t like failing at open mic nights, but it’s those failures that allow her to be successful when it really matters.

The CEO’s greatest fear is failing in the market. The successful companies — much like the successful comedian — will be those that understand that testing and iterating is not a choice, but the only path to success.

When I first got on stage, way back in 2006 in Kings Cross in London, I was the bad comedian. The silence was scary. I didn’t try stand-up again for six years. In 2012, I spent months learning stand-up from seasoned comedians. I learnt that stand-up comedy wasn’t about being funny — it was a rigorous process, underpinned by solid principles, and a culture of testing and iterating. Funnily enough, around the same time, I also learned that business innovation wasn’t about being creative, it was a rigorous process, underpinned by solid principles, and a culture of testing and iterating. I’m still trying to perfect both processes … and I still get equally as nervous both before a product launch and before getting on stage.

My advice to CEOs on the fence about bringing a culture of testing and experimentation to their companies: try telling a joke at your next company meeting.