Innovation – A Lot Like Stand-up Comedy

Innovation is serious business. The lifeblood of your company depends on your ability to serve the changing world with new products and services while continuing to generate profits. What does this have to do with comedy? Turns out there are a lot of similarities.

There is, after all, a process….

In creating a stand-up comedy act, you follow a process. There are comedic formulas to help you create jokes as well as a process for shaping and filtering jokes, assessing your audience, building your act, planning your debut and charting a path to potential comedic success.

In innovation, you follow a process. You likely have a set of practices for generating and filtering ideas, assessing your market, building your product, planning your roll-out, and forecasting potential success.

Yet, there is loads of failure….

Consider this. It is estimated to take 80 hours to produce three minutes of stand-up comedy material. Eighty hours. Out of those three minutes of material, maybe there is one “good” minute that survives the beta test in front of a live audience. That’s one minute of output for 4800 minutes of effort, or 0.02% success. A stand-up comedian puts together his or her set minute-by-minute, discarding scores and scores of failed jokes until he/she gets to the precious few that work. And they don’t always work. Jerry Seinfeld, one of the most successful comedians of all time, said in a December 23, 2012 interview “I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” That’s a lot of failure. Most people give up.

In innovation, you generate a lot of ideas and sift through them. Only a few of them survive the initial weeding out period. A selection of ideas may be fleshed out further and even prototyped. Even fewer ideas progress to the development phase, and even after the sifting and shaping, many ideas do not pan out in the marketplace. That’s a lot of failure. Many new products bomb.

You don’t know what will work until you put it out there….Ask any standup comic about the road to success. The answer? Two simple words: “Stage Time.” There is no training program, no tip or trick better than getting out on stage and trying out your material.

So too with launching a new product or service. You can forecast sales and adoption rates, but you never really know the true success rate until you put it out there. (That is why the “Lean Startup” approach of testing your assumptions by putting things into the marketplace makes so much sense.)

And context matters….

Your stand-up set may have the college crowd rolling in laughter, but try the same jokes at your hometown senior center and you are likely to bomb. Success depends not only on the comedic genius of your material, but also on the intersection of your unique essence with the hearts, minds, and needs of your audience, and whatever is happening out there in the world.

As with comedy, successful innovation is about context, marrying your company’s unique capabilities with your customers’ hearts, minds and needs as well as whatever is happening out there in the world. There is a great distance between a near miss and a perfect hit, and often success is a matter of timing—hitting just when the market is ripe for your innovation.

Passion and determination are key….

Hard work and discipline are givens. The ability to handle failure and keep going is crucial. Beyond all of this is the sense of passion required. In comedy, without passion there is no connection to your audience. And without connection, there is no laughter. Without laughter, there is no comedy.

Passion is important in innovation as well. Passion helps you power through even when the work is boring or taking longer than you thought, when others are giving up, or when you’ve hit a snag. Passion keeps you connected to your customers.

Success, when you achieve it after all that hard work, is all the sweeter—and that’s no joke.

image credit: julie anixter

Global Innovation Management Institute certificationWait! Before you go…

Ivy Eisenberg is founder of Our IdeaWorks, an Innovation and Lean Customer Research™ consultancy that helps companies connect to customers and stakeholders to discover business opportunities, accelerate growth, and build and deliver successful products and services.  Ivy is an award-winning humor writer and storyteller, with an MBA in Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Innovation from NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Ivy M. Eisenberg




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