Bob Eckert : Humor and Creative Thinking

Creating Growth Through Innovation

Humor and Creative Thinking

How to lighten up for enlightenment.

By Bob Eckert | Updated 4/16/16

"Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun." Mary Lou Cook

We're not kidding: this article is focused on the impact of playfulness and humor on a culture of creative thinking and innovation. Seriously.

Find HumorFirst: Over 50 years of research on creativity has shown that playfulness and humor have a positive impact on the quantity of ideas and the quality of creative thinking in groups, which can lead to an increase in the organization's innovative output. Our direct experience working across industries (yes, even banking) at all levels of the organizations (yes, even the C-suite) validates this research every day.

Take your work seriously but don't take yourself seriously.

But: Many organizational cultures send the message that "our work is too serious," or "we take ourselves very seriously because we're very important" and so the humor is chilled out of the organization. Also, because playfulness and humor can sometimes cross the line and be inappropriate in the work environment, the reaction is to clamp down on ALL humor, not just the inappropriate kind.

"One of the best parts about being with the [Chicago] White Sox [baseball team] is just having fun, more so than with the [Chicago] Bulls [basketball team] or any other business I've been associated with. We just kid around a lot, yet the work gets done. We all feel that we work together, not that anybody works for anybody." — Jerry Reinstorf, Owner of the American League Pennant-Winning Chicago White Sox and the six-time champion Chicago Bulls, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, 10/18/05.

So, there is an interesting dynamic to balance: taking our work seriously, but not ourselves seriously. The primitive (gator) brain survives by seeing potential danger and avoiding it, whether in the swamp or in the boardroom. So the oldest part of our brain tells us to stay away from humor because it's risky and you might offend someone.

In many workplaces, this fear has pushed laughter into the sub-basement. In the long run this is unproductive for organizations that need innovation to succeed (read: all organizations). The companies that figure out how to safely integrate humor into their climate will differentiate themselves in terms of 1) overall work satisfaction, as well as 2) ideational output from their people which is essential for innovation. Accordingly, it's important to make sure that we're not over-compensating based on a fear of inappropriate humor. In other words, "lighten up… but keep it clean."

Why Humor Is Important for Innovation

Synaptic Connections

Quick biology lesson: Every time we make a novel neurological connection (between, say, an automobile and a can of SPAM® canned meat), we are maintaining our ability to continue to make other connections. Creative thinking exists at the realm of previously unconnected thoughts. Similarly, making connections between unconnected items is a big part of what makes humor work.

Here's good news about your health that you just have to have: as we look for and find humorous connections, we are maintaining good neural health. Yes, you can keep your brain healthy merely by having fun! Healthy humor falls in the realm of word games, puns, word play, and seeing the humor in a moment. It's about BEING humorous, not "telling jokes" that have been learned and are merely recited. An example of how having fun with language yields innovation can be found at Gnu & Improv ED. One of New & Improved's notable marketing innovations, the cartoon "Gnu & Improv Ed" came from a humorous, irreverent connection between the homonyms "new" and "gnu."


Psychologically, as you joke or "kid" around, you're embracing the playful nature of the child in you. It's the part of your psyche that has little tolerance for hearing, "No, it can't be done" and so responds to such adult drivel with "Why not?"

New & Improved Partner Russ Schoen, spent time with the famous MD, Patch Adams while working on his Master's Thesis for his degree in Creativity and Change Management. Dr. Adams was depicted by Robin Williams in a wonderful, eponymous* movie. While discussing devastating diseases like Alzheimer's, Multiple Sclerosis and cancer, all of which Patch had seen and treated, Patch noted that a far more devastating disease was the disease of loneliness. His prescription for overcoming it is his magic elixirs for life - humor, community, and fun. While we don't yet know how to prevent Alzheimer's, MS, or cancer, you can prevent the loss of your sense of humor. Your friends and family will love you for it… and probably laugh with you."

As our friend Andrei Aleinikov, Director of the School of Geniuses, likes to say as he's training children to retain their genius skills "'Why not' every 'not.' In other words, every time you hear the word, "not," ask "why not?" In order to reap emotional and financial rewards, "embrace your inner child."


Socially, an atmosphere that is playful and humorous is just plain more fun to be in. It's less stressful so people enjoy work. Innovation incubates, marinates, and percolates well in these kinds of environments. It shows up when people feel socially safe. Creating an environment where people can joke around will lead to a culture where they know that playing out loud with half-baked, poorly formed ideas will lead to a fun, perhaps valuable connection, rather than to censure, punishment or nasty ridicule.

Oh, and a word about "mean humor" (which seems like an oxymoron): "jokes" where people make themselves feel superior by laughing at another, or where people put others down, is not humor. It's an attack wearing a clown's mask, and it's a destructive, unproductive, primitive pattern. It also leads to retaliation, anger and hurt. No thank you.

So, find a way to play. It's important for your bottom line that you do so.

How to Find Humor

"You grow up the day you have your first real laugh — at yourself." Ethel Barrymore

The best place to start is where most comedians start… with yourself! No, the comedians aren't making fun of you, they're making fun of themselves… you know what we mean. Imperfect human being that you are, there is something to laugh at in your life every day. A dose of humility, and a smile on your face is all it takes to turn a mistake or imperfection from embarrassment into fun and relief. As you lead in this way, you make it safe for others to do the same. When a critical mass of an organization stops taking themselves so seriously and can see the humor in their day-to-day lives, then the entire atmosphere shifts to the positive. In these settings, spontaneous laughter, lighthearted play and playful productive thinking is enhanced. And from that profit flows. To thank us, just send us 2%.

But not milk. That would not be funny (Okay, maybe a little bit funny). •

Next: How to Build a Better Idea Trap

* Only one of the crew contributing to this article knew what the word eponymous means. Possible definitions:

  • E-ponymous: Traveling the internet with the speed of the pony express.
  • Eponymous: a very small virtual mouse
  • Eponymous: a cream for removing hair from your knees
  • A musical compilation by R.E.M.
  • one for whom or which something is or is believed to be named

©2005 Bob Eckert. All rights reserved.

Bob EckertBob Eckert is a Senior Founding Partner at New & Improved, LLC. His work focuses on developing innovative organizations and innovation leaders via training, coaching and facilitation. More »
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