Great comedians make their living by seeing the world in a fresh way and creating high-value "product" to match. Could your team learn from that?
Ask just about any entrepreneur, and he or she will tell you that creativity is the most valuable attribute a team of employees can have. Only problem is, the trait is frustratingly rare on most business teams, and it's next to impossible to instill in people who don't come by it naturally.
Or is it?
One group of professionals whose life’s passion is centered on creativity think you actually can foster it in an organization. That group is comedians, and they ought to know: After all, what demands more creativity than coming up with new routines week after week that make other people laugh?
Here is advice on how to enhance the creativity of your team from five of the most creative comedians of our time:
1. John Cleese: Don’t work; play
Cleese’s revelation is simple: “Creativity is not a talent; it’s a way of operating.” Though he admits being creative is a difficult art, he argues (using scientific research) that creativity is in no way “related to IQ.”
Cleese concludes, standing on the shoulders of scientists like Donald MacKinnon, that creative people are those who play at work. Play releases the creative spirit because play has no real purpose or end goal. Without a goal, there is no stress, and creativity can run riot.
Cleese mentions Alfred Hitchcock who, when a script deadline was fast approaching, would pause and tell a completely unrelated story to the frustration of those in the room. Hitchcock didn’t trust stress and deadlines to motivate his screenwriters, and he used the random stories to shift the focus from the looming pressure and get them to think creatively.
The lesson for leaders: Let the people working for you play, play, play. Don’t let them be overburdened by routine and mundane tasks. Build on their curiosity.
2. Ricky Gervais: Do something; anything
Ricky Gervais recently said in an interview with Esquire, "You should bring something into the world that wasn't in the world before. It doesn't matter what that is. It doesn't matter if it's a table or a film or gardening--everyone should create. You should do something, then sit back and say, ‘I did that.’”
His point is clear. Creativity doesn’t boil down to works of genius. It’s really about doing something, anything, with your own two hands. Nothing does more to instill a sense of pride.
The lesson for leaders: Let your team create. Help it not to be afraid of failure or the pedigree of its creations. The simple act of creating will increase team members' confidence and expand their imagination.
Every year, Carlin would create a new hour of comedy and throw out all of his old jokes. This baffled the young Louis CK. How, he asked, could anyone throw out jokes he has worked so hard creating?
But Louis CK realized he was in no position to question Carlin. He was broke, his jokes weren’t getting laughs, and his career was tearing his family apart. Louis CK decided to throw everything out and start over.
And it worked. Louis CK started telling deeper, more interesting jokes that related to his life. Audiences ate it up and demanded more.
Creativity can be unleashed by a constant purge of your old, comforting ideas. Renewing your old routine with “fresh material” can tap new springs of creativity.
The lesson for leaders: Don’t let your team members rest on their laurels. Encourage them to throw out or rotate their ideas, no matter how creative they might have been at one time. Let them search for better answers, fixes, and solutions--even if there isn’t an immediate necessity.
4. Jerry Seinfeld: Think about Pop-Tarts for two years
Seinfeld admits that he can spend up to “two years” writing a joke. “That’s what people want me to do,” he explains. That is, the audience wants Seinfeld to spend his time “wastefully” so he can come up with great material.
In an interview with The New York Times, Seinfeld explores how he comes up with his jokes. He begins by simply thinking of something funny and going from there. For example, he once decided that the word Pop-Tarts was funny. From there, he began to write material about how the frosted breakfast treat left a lasting impression on his elementary school days.
From these humble roots, a joke was born that has been featured in various late-night bits and stand-up performances.
The lesson for leaders: Don’t be fearful of the trivial. Sometimes creativity doesn’t begin with a brilliant idea; it starts with a simple observation. Encourage your team to observe and observe deeply. And remember, it may be a long process.
Every year, the writer and filmmaker goes into a drawer filled with his random notes and sifts through them. When he finds an idea he likes, he writes a script around it, polishes it, then puts it away until he begins shooting.
Woody Allen is a big proponent of not overworking material. Though he will allow his actors to play with his scripts, he doesn’t believe in reediting his work constantly, lest it become stale, forced, and dry.
The lesson for leaders: Encourage your team members not torture an idea to death. If it doesn’t click right away, tell them to put it in a drawer. There will be time to come back to it.
Pragmatic leaders understand that creativity has to be nurtured and that it thrives in an atmosphere where it is welcome. As a leader, you set the tone. If you’re willing to give others the opportunity to play, explore, fail, throw out ideas, think about the mundane, take their time--and sometimes break the ice by telling a bad joke--then you will create an atmosphere that will stimulate new ideas, new processes, and new directions and take your company to new heights. No kidding.
SAMUEL BACHARACH is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. @samuelbacharach