The Role of Humor in Innovation

by Mitch Ditkoff

The Role of Humor in InnovationHolmes and Watson are on a camping trip. In the middle of the night Holmes wakes up and gives Dr. Watson a nudge. “Watson,” he says, “look up in the sky and tell me what you see.”

“I see millions of stars, Holmes,” says Watson.

“And what do you conclude from that, Watson?”

Watson thinks for a moment, “Well,” he says, “astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful, and we are small and insignificant. Uh, what does that tell you, Holmes?”

“Watson, you idiot! Someone has stolen our tent!”

Right on, Holmes!

For those of you trying to figure out why your business isn’t more innovative, consider the above joke. The answer is in the punchline.

Your CEO looks up and sees the Board. Your CFO looks up and sees Wall Street. Your CIO looks up and sees Blackberries. Your HR Director looks up and sees diversity. And your workforce? They don’t look up — overwhelmed as they are with the tasks they’ve been given to deliver on next quarter’s results.

The beauty of the Holmes/Watson joke (excerpted from Thomas Cathcart’s and Daniel Klein’s delightful book, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar…) is that it cuts to the core of the issue in very few words.

Humor does that. Which is why the Court Jester was the one who had the King’s ear.

HAHA and AHA are two sides of the same coin. The same thing that triggers laughter triggers insight.

It’s all about a momentary shock to the system — the unexpected…a surprise… delightful discontinuity. And when that happens — when we are momentarily boggled by an input that does not fit with our logical expectations, VOILA! Breakthrough! And along with it, a jolly good time.

Unfortunately, the sound of laughter in the workplace is often interpreted by managers as proof of a slacker workforce — as if laughing and working were mutually exclusive.

Nothing could be further from the truth. “If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think” explained Clarence Darrow.

Or how about this from Carl Jung?

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct arising from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves.”

Or this from Isaac Asimov:

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny.'”

OK. These two innovation consultants walk into a bar…

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Mitch DitkoffMitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions and the author of “Awake at the Wheel”, as well as the very popular Heart of Innovation blog.

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  1. Great piece! I’m going to bookmark your web site. We spoke one on the telephone, not long before the Lehman Bros. collapse.

  2. Excellent article

    Show me a person with a sense of humour – and I’ll show you a creative individual.

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