Humor and Innovation

They have a lot in common, and we desperately need both.

June 7, 2013

Humor and innovation have a lot in common. Humor has a certain element of spontaneity about it. People often create humor by lampooning stodgy institutions, inflexible traditions, or other people who are exceedingly not funny.

Humor, like innovation, often provides a fresh perspective on the mundane.

You can’t force humor. It’s hard to be funny when someone is standing over you and demanding that you be funny—now.

Innovation is similar. It’s hard to be innovative when someone is demanding that you be innovative. Innovation, like humor, often takes you by surprise and is spontaneous. It requires a certain amount of breathing room.

CEOs sometimes try to force innovation—a classic mistake. They assemble all of their employees in a big, sterile, windowless room and demand that they “be more innovative.” That’s like Homer Simpson banging on his television and demanding that it “be more funny.”

Ultimately, both the CEOs and Homer are left disappointed.

It’s difficult, but not impossible, for organizations to create formal innovation processes. Most organizations are better off trying to create environments that are conducive to innovation and then creating processes or conduits for capturing innovation when it happens.

When the innovation process yields a truly remarkable new idea, the reaction is usually, “That’s so obvious, why didn’t I think of that?” As journalist Arthur Koestler said, “The more original a discovery, the more obvious it seems afterwards.”

There seems to be a certain randomness or unpredictability about innovation. It’s like lightning—you never know when or where it will strike.

Imagine the possibilities if you could harness the energy of a lightning bolt and put it to work. A single bolt of lightning contains five billion joules of energy—enough to power a household for a month. The energy contained in an entire thunderstorm approaches that of an atomic bomb.

How about the energy contained in a transformational idea? The promise of harnessing that energy has given birth to countless books, conferences, consulting gigs, businesses, and fortunes. The energy contained in a game-changing idea can be extremely disruptive and displace entire industries—just ask the music industry about digital file sharing.

It seems the entire credit union movement shares a sense of urgency to innovate right now. There’s an uneasy feeling among leaders of all financial institutions that their traditional business model could fall prey to disruptive innovation at any moment.

In this month’s cover story, we profile the work of a handful of credit unions, the Disney Institute, and the Filene Research Institute’s i3 Group as they stoke the fires of innovation.

If these stories inspire you to pursue innovation at your credit union, be prepared for some hard work. Innovation is, as Thomas Edison noted, 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.