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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ask A Comedian How To Spearhead Innovation

Robin Williams and Pam Dawber as Mork and MindyThere is something about Robin Williams that scares the hell out of me. It's that genius-cracked-up thing: The same genes that give him brilliance also make him willing to be just a little bit crazy.

Yet there are two kinds of crazy, the bad and the good. Bad crazy is when you're out of touch with reality and don't realize it. Good crazy is when you realize it and are willing to play.

When I was a kid it was with trepidation that I watched Mork & Mindy on TV. If you don't remember it, the show was a sitcom about an alien ("Mork"/Robin Williams) from another planet ("Ork") who comes to earth in a giant egg and lives with/falls in love with/eventually marries a very "normal" lady, "Mindy."

"Normal" meaning she thinks inside the box. She doesn't even know that there is one.

Like I say, Williams in character scared me. He was just...so...frighteningly...weird. And yet I was compelled to watch. There was something about his character that felt real. The things he said were really a social critique.

A few comedians have shown us the shock of the foreigner really well:
The characters these comedians portray have three key things in common:
  • A personal experience of culture shock: Cohen, Pinchot and Allen are all Jewish, and Robin Williams describes himself as an "honorary Jew." Jewish culture, and religious culture in general, is decidedly different from mainstream secular culture and to join the larger group you have to learn new values that contradict what you were raised with. Thus the natural comedy about being a foreigner in a foreign land.
  • Love for the rejected past: Williams once described being an Episcopal just like many Jewish people describe their religious upbringing: "Catholic Lite - same rituals, half the guilt." When you are raised to believe that salvation depends on following the rules, but then you reject those rules in favor of another system that makes more sense to you, a part of you is constantly torn. Underlying the comedies about acculturation is a kind of familiar longing for the past, that you know doesn't work, but that you still remember with love anyway.
  • A pretended sense of innocence: There is a reason that Mork, Balki, Alvy and Borat are all characters situated in unfamiliar places where they cannot possibly know the rules. Obviously they are written by people who do know very well what what norms they are challenging. But the way they become palatable to the mainstream - the object of the critique - is for the comedian to feign ignorance. In the process of the "ordinary" person teaching the foreigner "right and wrong," which are really just social decisions, both the alien and the native question whether those rules make sense in the first place.
If you are really serious about promoting innovation where you work, think about these fictional characters as you develop your strategy. Here are three specific things that you can do as a result:
  1. Immerse yourself in another organization, culture, or experience for a period of time so that you get in touch with the "culture shock" that occurs when people are forced to embrace change.
  2. Find, preserve and celebrate aspects of tradition that people are attached to and don't threaten the way forward. Not everything has to change - only the things that get in the way of productivity.
  3. Get into the world you want to change and talk to the people there, rather than lecturing them from above (think like Undercover Boss on CBS). Observe and then ask employeesto explain their processes to you. As they talk, innovative ideas will come from them and they will be more receptive to your suggestions as well.
The bottom line is, try to distance yourself from the situation you see as the "problem" and remember that every organization is a loosely collected set of rules that can be adjusted for whatever purpose makes the most logical sense. Nothing is set in stone anymore, and today you can be sure that change is going to happen faster than ever - whether you want it to or not.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!
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Image via Wikipedia

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