8 Keys to Innovation: Building Brands by Killing Frogs
Every once in a while I read something that is just so cool that I wish I was smart enough to write it. The Eight Things Stand-Up Comedy Teaches Us About Innovation by Paul Valerio is just such a piece.
Unfortunately, knowing about something usually doesn’t mean we’re any good at it. But Valerio’s piece is one of those rare works on innovation and creativity that is actually innovative and creative. Marshall McLuhan taught us that the medium is the message, and Valerio’s insights into comedy, products, and brands are so seamlessly intertwined that I was left wondering whether I was reading a great comedian’s take on innovation or a great marketing pro’s take on comedy.
Valerio’s use of comedy to shed light on business innovation also forcefully demonstrates that innovative leaders are usually generalists not specialists. Innovation depends on a knack for analogy, and the more general our knowledge, the more grist there is for analogy’s mill. It is not an accident that the greatest innovative insights are often drawn from places apparently as far afield as comedy is to creating an innovative brand. Analogies from my own knowledge of Russian history and the Korean War, for example, helped me innovatively solve two of the thorniest business challenges I ever faced.
But general knowledge and the ability to analogize are not enough. Valerio points out that the critical innovative movement is insight.Without insight knowledge, facts, and even analogies are little more than meaningless data and background noise. The word “insight” is literally to “see into,” and this means being able to get behind the surface distinctions to the deep patterns that “bring things together” until “everything falls into place.” Painful as it may sound, becoming a consistently innovative leader means becoming, like Valerio, a deep thinker as well.
Data and even information do not produce insight unless they are combined with a lens, default mode, or frame of reference that acts as an organizing principle. If we use a hammer as a lens, then most assuredly everything will remind us of a nail. A Grand Master may range far afield in his quest for analogies, but his insights will invariably be about chess.
Valerio describes establishing a lens as developing a “point of view,” and whether in business or life our point of view is the organizing principle through which our universe is strained. If we want to be innovative we must introspectively become aware of our current filter and then, if necessary, change it. Prisoners are some of the most innovative people on earth, but unfortunately the lens is all too often merely a self defeating desire to turn a tooth brush into a knife.
Most of us fail to reach our innovative potential because our lens, like a prisoner’s, is too narrow. In archery we’re told to aim past the target, but all too often in life we fail to heed that same advice. For example, to be successful at our job means being good at business; mastering business means understanding economics; innovative economics depends on understanding human motivation; understanding human motivation means mastering psychology; and mastering psychology means knowing ourselves. The further up the ladder we go the better we become at the lower levels. Success is almost always a by-product of aiming at something bigger. Money in particular is usually a trailing indicator.
Our lens also determines the kinds of questions we ask, and from there the process of innovative insight becomes just correlating more and more knowledge back to this frame of reference until we hit upon the analogy that solves the problem. Innovation ultimately depends on perspiration, and consistently innovative people all share one trait with prison inmates: tenacity.
Valerio picks up neatly on the importance of psychology to innovation when he notes that great comedians are great psychologists. As I pointed out in an article for Forbes.com, Lessons from ‘Mad Men’: Sales Tips from Don Draper great business innovations just like great comedy don’t arise out of reactively giving customers and end users what they say they want on surveys. As Valerio points out, great comedy and great innovations depend on transcending customer requirements. This means proactively leading the marketplace rather than slavishly reacting to it.
Great hockey players don’t go where the puck is. They go where the puck is going to be. Comedians and innovators like Steve Jobs don’t just use market research to find out where customers are; they use a profound psychological knowledge of themselves and others to anticipate where the customer is going. Successfully anticipating how others will behave in the future is what social scientists call a “theory of mind,” and the more well developed our theory of mind, the less information we need to make innovative insights. The best comic material arises out of the comic’s own introspection. Introspection is critical to developing the superior theory of mind that all great innovators have, and here again deep thinkers have the edge.
I was so impressed with Valerio’s work that I looked him up, and was not really surprised that we shared an interest in Zen Buddhism. My own lens is spiritual seeking, and like Zen I think the real goal of a spiritual quest isinsight. Zen is a system designed to produce the insight called Satori that gets behind all the surface noise of day to day life to the unifying principle that solves the greatest creative challenge of all: what Zen calls “the riddle of life and death.”
It is my quest for ultimate “answers” that has sent me far afield looking for the unifying pattern or principle that Zen describes as “the nature of things.” And it is philosophical digging–that widest of all possible lenses – that has provided me with the theory of mind and the countless analogies that proved so useful in business. In fact my seekers lens has now become so all encompassing that what really impressed me about Valerio’s piece was realizing that at heart he is not talking about either innovative comedy or business: He is teaching us the secrets to the kind of thinking that produces the insight necessary for an innovative and satisfying life.
Just for fun, as you read Valerio’s remarkable paper apply it to your personal mission, purpose, and brand. Take it a bit deeper and reflect on what he is telling us about the nature of thinking itself. If you take me up, I’d love to hear the insights that emerge from your own brand’s point of view.
Valerio humbly begins his article by saying that dissecting comedy and innovation is all too often like dissecting a frog: We learn a lot but the frog dies. I don’t know for sure how many frogs had to die, but based on all the innovative insights embedded in his work I’m betting not a single one.