Humor is critical to the creative, innovative process that drives strategic advantage in the marketplace. Success demands constant market innovation. Employees want to be valued and challenged. This means being able to use their creative talents in ways that allow them – and the business – to grow.
But humor is often defined too narrowly. Humor isn’t about being funny; humor is play. During play, people experience “flow time” where productivity is at its peak. Innovation depends on this creative energy. Play allows the brain to think without restrictions; it’s openness to the possibilities. The creative process is fun. When you indulge the “humor brain” you tap into the creative center to generate the best ideas effortlessly. It’s the “what if we tried that?” phenomenon. It’s elegant biology.
In teams, fun creates a positive energy that leads to problem-solving when judgment is suspended. But without the cultural infrastructure to support it, innovation does not happen easily. People can be creative without humor, but humor as we have defined it has a multiplier effect on innovation when it is part of the corporate culture. Conversely, toxic environments will kill positive humor and, thus, play and innovation! Most people have the capacity to innovate, but hold back because of fear of “failure,” judgment, and fixation on specific outcomes.
Walking the Talk
3M Corporation has become an innovation icon for over a century. Key to its success is its unwavering commitment to innovation: “Mistakes will be made (by giving people freedom to act autonomously), but the mistakes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it is dictatorial about how people do their jobs. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative and it is essential that we have many people with initiative to continue to grow” (3M website).
One of several management practices that fosters this culture is “the 15 percent rule” where people spend 15% of their week on individual creative pursuits without penalty. Moreover, it’s a profitable practice: 30% of 3M’s profits come from products that are less than four years old at any given time.
Below are 12 components critical to a thriving innovative culture. How is your company doing?
- Playfulness: Is it OK to play and brainstorm?
- Fun: Is organic fun part of the culture? Or is it “fun by MBO?”
- Attitude: Are people happy? Positive people can withstand setbacks in order to innovate.
- Humor: Is humor appropriate? Inappropriate (or lack of) humor kills morale and openness.
- Risk-taking: Is risk-taking encouraged? Are ideas – rather than people – blamed for failure?
- Autonomy: Do employees have some autonomy in how they do their jobs?
- Trust: Does the environment foster interpersonal trust or competition for scarce resources?
- Rewards and compensation: Are people rewarded based on company goals, team goals or individual objectives? Is reward simply monetary or more challenging work?
- Commitment: Do people sense real corporate commitment to employees’ personal growth?
- Congruence: Do executives live the behavior extolled on coffee mugs and t-shirts?
- Conflict: How is conflict managed during disagreements? Does it get personal?
- Resources: Does the company support and fund great ideas no matter where they originate?
There are things that bosses and employees can do to regenerate their play muscles. And while some methods require little effort to implement, they do require commitment from executives and employees.
First, companies must embrace the value of creativity as a process – not just as an outcome. Edison failed to create a working light bulb in his first 9,000 or so tries. But he did not see this as failure – it was learning. Edison recognized the value of the creative process itself as the precursor to innovation. If the focus is on a binary success vs. failure mentality, creative growth and learning are missed. Learning how to think more creatively is the outcome that will eventually pay off. Moreover, executives must make productive play a consistent part of thought leadership. This institutionalizes the value of the creative process within a culture.
Second, play should be integral to the productive culture. Introduce more brainstorming games and improvisation into creative sessions, for example. Improvisation reinforces spontaneity allowing humor and creative energies to flow. Improvisation is innovation. Cultural values are handed top-down. People need to see that their bosses actively encourage play by creating support for it and engaging in it themselves. Talking about it doesn’t matter. Doing it does.
Third, align incentives to support creativity and smart risk-taking. Allow people a certain number of hours each week to be spent in a creative way on something work-related – similar to 3M’s rule. Creative freedom will engender trust and innovative thinking. Reward innovation with recognition and more challenging work. Money usually doesn’t drive people to be more creative or engaged. Allow people to be creative and to do meaningful work, and watch employee engagement rise. Never blame people for failure of ideas when smart risks were taken. The backlash will be a mistrust that hurts morale and innovation.
Another important approach is to encourage play by promoting group cooperation rather than inter-group competition. Aligning pay with new product ideas generated and vetted regardless of where they originate is one way to accomplish this. Innovation teams can help, but be careful of “groupthink.” Balance this tendency by allowing people individual time for creative play first before they get together and vet ideas as a team.
By doing these things consistently, humor and play can become vital parts of an innovative corporate culture.