Is Being Absurd The Secret Ingredient Behind Innovation Success?

Is it possible that the key to succeeding at innovation is for companies to get absurd? The success these companies have attained would seem to prove it so.

The following is a guest piece by Jamie Anderson and Gabor George Burt.

As Albert Einstein once said “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”.

But in the business world, there is a disdain for absurdity. Work has become far too serious, and in most organizations anyone making crazy, strange and outright weird proposals are typically met with frowns and grimaces from the folks in charge.

Our research has shown that the result is that innovation is often boringly incremental, with new products and services rarely triggering real excitement (let alone mirth) from customers.

Think about Gary Dahl, the independent inventor of the pet rock. He sold the rocks as “hassle-free” pets, complete with a pet training manual and a cardboard box fashioned after a pet carrier. Unlike real pets, the rocks did not need to be fed, walked, bathed, or groomed. They were an instant hit, and turned into one of the greatest toy fads of all time.

But imagine what would have happened if an intern at an established toy company had suggested something as absurd as a pet rock – market research would have almost certainly demonstrated that customers thought the idea stupid, and the intern would have been laughed out of the room. The naively optimistic young person would have taken this as a sign that ‘wild’ ideas are unwelcomed, and made sure to be reassuringly boring in the next product development meeting.

Or how about Joel Comm, the inventor of the iFart app for the iPad and iPhone. A digital whoopee cushion, the app includes 26 flatulent noises including “Record-A-Fart,” “Fart-a-Friend,” and “Sneak Attack.” Selling for $1.99, it is one of the All-Time Top 20 selling applications on the AppStore, and at its peak was generating revenues of more than $10,000 per day.

Again imagine suggesting to your boss at a software development company that your organization should enter the virtual fart business, and pitching the idea using a PowerPoint presentation and some ROI (or should we say ROF) projections? Imagine the look on your bosses face if you actually started to verbalise some of the potential fart noises. Get the picture?

Another example is Gino Daniel De-Gol, an engineer and inventor who had an absurd idea while looking at a factory robot designed to lift car parts, and asked: “What if you could attach a chair to the end of it? It could make a fun ride.” This amusing query was the genesis of RoboCoaster, the world’s first passenger carrying industrial robot.

To bring the design to market, De-Gol approached the Germany-based industrial machinery firm KUKA. At first, the company’s executives thought De-Gol was completely nuts, but he convinced them to develop a prototype. It was a huge hit, and the rides are now installed at fun parks around the world.

KUKA has subsequently diversified into a range of entertainment-oriented robotic applications through its KUKA Entertainment Division. You can’t get more absurd than the idea of German engineers strapping chairs to industrial robots – just for fun!

Also in Germany, Fun Factory has emerged as one of the world’s most successful designers and manufacturers of erotic devices for women and men. Founded by Dirk Bauer and Michael Pahl in 1997, the company challenged the idea that erotic toys should be low-tech and modelled on parts of the human anatomy.

The company has won numerous awards for the quality and innovativeness of its designs – its DeLight product has even been awarded a coveted RED DOT product design award by the International Design Association, becoming the first erotic device to be inducted into the coveted design hall of fame.

To imagine that an erotic toy could win a global design award might have seemed absurd, but the founders of the company decided to go for it anyway. Pushing the mainstream acceptability of erotic devices even further, the company’s futuristic Berlin and Munich flagship stores were conceptualised by New York designer Karim Rashid and look more like Apple Stores than traditional erotic product retailers.

If you had suggested a decade ago that erotic gadgets would be openly traded on some of Europe’s coolest shopping boulevards, many people would have believed the idea to be absurd. Fun Factory has done it.

Observing the rapid growth of companies like Fun Factory, Philips of the Netherlands has also ventured into the erotic toys market – an area that was previously considered taboo for established consumer electronics companies. Given that the global erotic toys industry is estimated at upwards of $50 billion, what seems absurd is the fact that the sector remains highly fragmented and very few established companies have entered the market.

As our final absurd example, how could we avoid the Snuggie created by American entrepreneur Scott Boilen. According to the original infomercial for the product, blankets can ‘slip and slide’ and trap your hands, preventing you from reaching for your remote or having a snack while you are sitting and watching TV. The Snuggie is basically a fleece bathrobe worn backwards, that overcomes these problems with the addition of sleeves.

Reminiscent of a Monk’s habit, the absurd nature of the Snuggie and the ridiculous infomercial lifted the blanket with sleeves to cult status. Different websites and books have also been created to cater for the needs of Snuggie wearers, including the SnuggieSutra. More than 35 millions Snuggies have been sold worldwide, generating revenues of over $500 million for Boilen’s company, Allstar Products.

What we see is that truly innovative organizations are not afraid to probe the absurd, in fact they embrace it. And humour plays a critical role. Having a sense of humorous observation and inquisitiveness is a natural gateway to the realm of the absurd, a foundation for asking tradition-shattering ‘what if?’ questions – even in established industries.

In the words of IDEO founder Dave Kelly: “if you go into a culture and there’s a bunch of stiffs going around … I can guarantee you they’re not likely to invent anything.”

Research has shown that creativity techniques such as brainstorming are pretty miserable in terms of generating real imagination and absurdity. The first 15 or 20 ideas generated by an individual are generally rather incremental and safe. It’s only when people really start pushing their imagination into the realm of the absurd – in the range of 30 to 50 ideas – that stuff starts to get interesting.

But in our innovation workshops with companies, we have observed that even if people generate some crazy concepts, they rarely have the courage to share their wacky thoughts with the wider group. We wonder if any Philips product designers proposed erotic toys during brainstorming sessions for new products back in the mid-1990s? Probably not, even though its unlikely they didn’t know these devices existed.

It is not enough to encourage creativity – organizations need to be comfortable stepping into the realm of the absurd, creating an environment where wackiness is openly shared and celebrated.

So in your next innovation workshop why not probe the absurd? Push the boundaries of everyone’s imagination and maybe you too can come up with a multi-million dollar idea as strange as a designer erotic toy, wearable blanket or virtual fart. Weirder things have happened.

May the farce be with you.

Jamie Anderson is Professor of Strategic Management at Antwerp Management School, and Visiting Professor at INSEAD. He has been named a “management guru” in the Financial Times, and included on Business Strategy Review’s list of the world’s “top 25 management thinkers”.

Gabor George Burt is a leading business visionary and creator of the Slingshot Platform, enabling organizations to overstep perceived limitations, re-imagine market boundaries, and achieve sustained relevance.

Jamie Anderson’s TED Talk “The Stand-Up Strategist-Leading With Humour
George Gabor Burt’s TED Talk: “Beyond the Wall of Our Imagination

One comment on “Is Being Absurd The Secret Ingredient Behind Innovation Success?

  1. Long live absurdity!

    The other take-away from this is that anybody can innovate, not just big companies. In fact, a small business seems better placed for innovation.

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