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Business guru Guy Kawasaki believes that people generally waiver between two dominant mindsets: microscopes and telescopes. Microscope thinking focuses on understanding and improving existing processes, whereas telescope thinking gazes outward at new possibilities. He champions the telescope approach for forward looking organizations. I would like to telescope into the future with some first thoughts about humor driven innovation. 

A shift we have seen for some time is the shift from being data-driven to design-driven. Design has become a decisive advantage in countless industries, not to mention a crucial tool to ward off commoditization. We have seen this with many Valley based companies in which designers rule the scene. Apple of course being the dominant example, but also many web based startups like Pinterest or Youtube exemplify this direction. This connects well to the lean startup movement: fail early and often.

Design driven innovation is a process concerned with a product’s meaning, not just its use and usability.


Image credits: www.designdriveninnovation.com

The core is the empathizing with a specific user to uncover a core need and an unexpected insight that will drive innovation. The second element is the prototyping or pivot, in lean terms. The process is culturally independent, one of the reasons why the design driven innovation has caught on so well. The next good thing is that the process is converging into a product.

So nothing wrong with that…or maybe it is?

So design driven is great in commoditized worlds and where the infrastructure is in place. Which are many. Think banks or telecoms for example. All those online banks are design driven. Also the focus on users is relevant as a breakaway from regular innovators. However, I have seen some issues arise with this way of working:

  • Limited purpose for radical innovation. User centered design driven processes do not always work in radically changing environments, as the user does not know where to go to. Here the famous equation of ‘Building faster horses’ enters the scene.
  • Perfect worlds. There is no company who does not think of adding design to a product or service. However, when is it too much? As you can see in many (home and house) design magazines, humans do not play a central part in the final scene and picture. The solution is perfect. Or in smart phone terms, the product cannot be opened or altered after release. There is no possibility for tinkering. This connects to the styling aspect of design, but becomes more dominant in innovation thinking. If it's not perfect, it's not good enough.

  • Products are easily scalable thanks to the culturally neutral design approach. Scalability used to be a plus, a scarcity only possible for the big companies. In online worlds, scalability is a non issue. This creates copycatting behavior. Copycatting is not bad, but if you want to stand out in the crowd you need to think of other ways than just design.

The rise of humor driven innovation

So how to overcome these challenges? I would like to introduce an adjacent territory to ‘fix’ the flaws of the design driven innovation process. This would involve adding humor.

Humor is any form of communicational interaction between people that triggers positive responses and is expressed by laughter and/or smiling. Humor leads to ingenuity. It is a natural stimulus for creativity and innovation. Humor also implies play and fun. There are three functions of humor: relief theory, incongruity theory and superiority theory.

  • Relief theory focuses on how humor is used to relieve stress or to remove tension. An example can be someone making a joke to “break the ice”.
  • Incongruity theory states that people laugh when something surprising happens: when the status quo is challenged and patterns are broken. Seeing the joke is not too distant from solving the problem.
  • Superiority theory explains how people use humor to feel superior over others.

Humor can also be used as a social corrective: people laugh at the stupid actions of others. As Colin Powel once said: “Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard.”

humor-quote-for-innovationSo, these are all elements of being human. As you can imagine, designers are humans before being designers. Humor driven innovation is for persons who are very passionate about exploration, comfortable in fuzziness and able to navigate through contradictory emotions. These are experts who envision and investigate new product meanings through a broader, in-depth exploration of the evolution of society, culture, and technology.  These insights may not be perfect, but good enough. For an organization to be innovative, there has to be a culture that supports innovation and divergent thinking. Humor empowers those processes.

The main attributes for humor driven innovation are as follows:

  • Provocations. Provocations are deliberately unreasonable ideas that would be immediately vetoed by those who are not in the process. In any creativity workshop, adding humor makes people think more in provocations. This improves divergent thinking, a core element for radical innovation. Humor is not about perfection, but about progress.
  • Humor mostly happens in interaction. One joke building upon another, out in the open. This is different from design driven where there the focus is more on listening instead of interacting.
  • Humor is culturally dependent and not easily foldable. Therefore, the outcome is different per setting. Herewith new solutions will arise, that may not be as scalable (and perfect) as in design driven innovation, but in finding new radical ways for innovation, scalability is not the most important thing on your mind.

The innovation management focus on humor is new and emerging. The case for humor driven innovation might need to be stronger to replace other models. Actually, replacement may not be required at all. Design and humor can live in perfect harmony, where design driven is more an approach for incremental innovation, and humor for future research, divergence and radical innovation. Companies like Zappos and Google use a lot of humor driven innovation elements. So, why don’t you?

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Jaspar Roos

Jaspar Roos

Jaspar Roos manages Future Ideas, one of the largest pan European public private platforms dedicated to the startup and venture eco system. Together with Emerce, a leading online blog, Future Ideas pu