A bit of the absurd: the Comedy lessons for leaders

Shot from the series Silicon Valley

Strategy+business author Linda McRobbie suggests learning creativity from comedians and comedians

The business manager and comedian enter the bar. This is not the beginning of an anecdote - not least because I am poor at telling them. No, the boss and the comedian are having a really useful conversation over a glass or two about creative leadership and problem-solving. Comedians — or, as Peter McGraw calls them, “the world's least professional professionals” —can teach business leaders a lot: “By imitating the funniest people,” he writes in his new book Schtick to Business, “you can make a more successful career. and conduct business more correctly. "

McGraw doesn't argue that you have to be funny to be more effective managers or leaders. This is difficult and can backfire, so don't try it at home. Rather, relying on observations both in the laboratory - the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, also known as HuRL - and in the real world, McGraw concluded that understanding the basics of a comedian helps managers and leaders better manage their own work.

First of all, comedy is an industry and its product is laughter. This means that there is a process for making a comedy. But what makes people laugh is, of course, an unstable goal. Chasing her is like solving a puzzle whose parameters are constantly changing. This task is now close to everyone who is trying to navigate in business (and in life in general). It takes a certain natural talent to become a comedian, but practice and an arsenal of cognitive tools that business leaders can use are also important.

Creative fun

In 2010, McGraw and a colleague published an article that postulated a theory of "harmless offense" in comedy. According to him, humor occurs when some kind of violation (of social norms or the laws of physics) does not harm anyone, or at least looks acceptable.

This premise of inconsistency - that's what makes people watch America's Funniest Home Video - is now in its 30th season of random falls and deliberate pranks. So people laugh when Chris Rock says, “I love being famous. It's almost like being white, you know? " Finding the perfect point of unexpected contrast requires the same mindset that McGraw believes business leaders should try.

For starters, comedians use a structure in which the reward comes from creating associations between disparate, usually incompatible elements. This can be learned through improvisation, stand-up, and comedy writing lessons. A 2011 MIT study examining the link between what the title says "haha" and "aha!" Found that people who attended an improvisation workshop before brainstorming a product generated 37% more ideas. This, of course, could mean that naturally fun people are just more creative. But it turns out it's not so much that people think comic books, but in the fact how they do it.

Good comedians are attentive. “They very well notice everything that is happening around them, pay attention to many things. They're looking for cracks. They look for problems because they want to turn these problems and these cracks into comedy, ”explains McGraw.

However, having discovered a problem, comedians do not solve it. But maybe they should try. Research has consistently shown that people who score high on the humor scale also score high on creativity. Comedians are the best at tackling tasks that require creative thinking. “Both humor and creativity in design require a person to look from different perspectives and make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts,” researchers from the University of Strathclyde note in a 2019 article on the use of humorous processes in engineering.

Managers and leaders don't need to turn cracks into laughs. But knowing them can help you develop a better product or service, build your reputation in the industry, improve organizational performance, or even lead a team with problems more effectively.

Unexpected turn

The way comedians often line up their jokes is also useful for creativity. As noted above, many good jokes are based on unfulfilled expectations. The audience believes the story will take a certain course, and the comedian, knowing this, deliberately deviates from the course in order to create an unexpected association. Henny Youngman, known as the king of one-liners, succeeded in this: “If my mother knew that this is what I do for a living, she would kill me. She thinks I am selling drugs. " Or: "Love cannot be bought, but you can pay dearly for it."

The most obvious use of this approach in business is advertising. For example, even before Listerine (mouthwash) became peppermint, its antiseptic, medicinal taste was used as a selling point: "The taste you hate twice a day." And, of course, Marmite (yeast paste) has been running its "You Love It or Hate It" campaign for over 20 years. In these and many other advertising slogans, companies have exploited a flaw and turned it into a central element, playing on consumer expectations.

A 2013 study, also conducted at the University of Strathclyde, found that brainstorming with comedian models helps people create more ideas - including more original ones. In his book, McGraw offers a method of brainstorming what he calls "shitstorming": coming up with very unexpected ideas, ones that usually don't even get a chance to be rejected because they usually just don't get spoken out. It's fun, but it also gives a chance for ideas “so crazy they could work”. At the same time, it keeps us from giving in too much to the status quo bias - one of those cognitive quirks that we all suffer from and which forces us to do the same thing.

The status quo bias is especially dangerous now, in the chaotic atmosphere of our day. But the comedy from chaos only blossoms. “When something bad happens to comedians, do you know what they say? “Oh, something amazing will come of this,” McGraw says. Thinking like a comedian - that is, seeing opportunity in limitations - is helpful. Constraints "force us to work harder on a solution ... because they force us to exclude a whole bunch of solutions that you would otherwise automatically consider."

But perhaps the most important comedy lesson for leaders is how you can relate to business. Humor is obviously creative. But that running a papermaking company, an insurance company, or algae growing business can also be creative is not so obvious. “What is creativity? I call this the ability to “come up with a suitable original solution,” says McGraw. "In fact, this is exactly what is happening in all these areas: you have a bunch of problems, you are trying to solve them in a variety of more effective ways." And to think at this moment as a comedian maybe - pardon the pun - witty.

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