One (of four) important leadership roles is the Chief Story Teller role. In applying this role, the leader conceptualizes the strategic initiative as a story with a beginning, conclusion, and turning points that resolve the tensions.
This article is about humor in storytelling. This article kicks off a series, “How to Improve Your Story Telling Chops.”
The Benefit: Removing Barriers to Commitment
Humor is a tool for gaining the audience’s attention, revealing truths, removes tensions, and sparks creativity. The deft application of humor in your stories will help you remove the barriers to strategic initiative success.
Four Places to Find Humor
Judy Carter* suggests that you can find humor in one or more of these elements of your situation: What is scary, weird, stupid, or hard?
Let’s examine the relevance of the four factors in Domino’s Pizza Turnaround: a successful strategic initiative. Briefly, Domino’s listened to the complaints of their customers and reformulated its core pizza product, exposing the complaints and the changes in a very entertaining video.
- It is scary to publicly repeat people’s complaints: “Your pizza crust tastes like cardboard.” It is embarrassing. Patrick Doyle (Domino’s CEO) told me that he was worried that consumers would remember the complaints, rather than Domino’s assertion that its pizza is improved. Doyle and his team had to trust in the data. They had to believe that things would get better and have the courage to peruse the vision.
- It is weird (strikingly out of the ordinary) for a company to publish videos of people ranting about poor quality of its product.
- It is stupid to maintain the status quo in the face of evidence that the status quo is no longer sustainable. Dominos took a smart and courageous route to make the changes.
- It is hard to change the status quo. There were people who were not convinced that there was a problem that needed attention. The strategic initiative team needed to bring things to their attention, and they did that by showing the videos of the focus group.
I was participating in a visioning exercise. Each member had prepared a set of items of what would be different about the organization three years. When it got to my turn, I presented a disaster scenario as well as a delight scenario. It created a lot of nervous laughter, and this laughter released a nervous tension that allowed people to be more honest with each other. I this case,
I was introducing the idea of failure, which was both weird & scary!
Being Weird is a Nuanced Thing
True weirdness is more than being “out of the ordinary.” True weirdness is often involves ghosts, spirits, and the like. Once I saw a project team at closeout stage. Everyone was dressed in black and they were holding a funeral for their project. That’s weird. But it’s funny and it’s remarkable and it offers lessons learned.
For another example, it is frequently said that markets are moved by animal spirits. Many strategic initiatives depend up on market responses that can’t be predicted.
If being weird makes you too uncomfortable, substitute the word unorthodox or the word unconventional.
Stupidity is Not the Same Thing as Ignorance
Stupidity is defined as taking a course of action (or inaction) with the knowledge that the action will cause you pain. The comic strip, Dilbert, does a nice job of pointing out stupidity in the workplace.
Stupidity is closely intertwined with the quality of decision making, and you should see some relationship to the leadership role of Chief Decision Architect. You might find stupidity revealed in the answer to a question like this:
What decision could we make that would assure our failure?
Ignorance is the lack of information, and the question to gain information is the domain of the Chief Learning Officer role that asks, “What do we need to learn?” Domino’s answer was asking the questions: what is the right combination of ingredients? What data is needed? How do we get people’s attention?
Humor Sparks Creative Thinking
Playfulness, curiosity, and zeal are hallmarks of the innovative team.
Playfully push the buttons of scary, weird, stupid, and hard. Get really weird, really scary, and really stupid. Push the extreme, and then you can pull back.
The element of hard stands apart from scary, weird, and stupid. Leaders overcome hardships by developing and applying courage and determination.
Humor Suggests the Turning Points in the Story
Stories get their energy from tension and release, and the release is a turning point when there is a resolution. When you sense that you are near a turning point – or you want to push for resolution of an issue – you should dig into your toolbox and see how humor can help you.
Humor, like strategy, is context specific. If you can find something humorous in the context, you are thinking strategically.
* You can read an excerpt from Judy Carter’s book, The Comedy Bible: From Stand Up to Sitcom: The Comedy Writer’s Ultimate How-to Guide at this link.