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Learn from a comedian: innovation is about trying things out

Sep 28, 2009 Business Daily, Strategy

“Sometimes innovation comes from funny places. For insight into how to balance creativity with the practicalities of commercialisation, we turn to a somewhat surprising source: the Marx Brothers, one of the world’s most famous comedy teams. Each one of the Marx Brother’s acts was developed in small pieces in the creative marketplace.
“It was developed by groping, trying out, grabbing at any material that offered itself. I was just kidding around one day, and started to walk funny,” Groucho Marx once wrote. The audience liked it, so I kept it in. I would try a line and leave it in too if it got a laugh. If it didn’t, I’d take it out and put in another. Pretty soon I had a character.”

Tony Davila et al, Making Innovation Work (2006)

Managers wondering how to make their organisations more innovative should look at Davila and company’s fine book on the subject. Not least because it contains many real-world examples of the sort excerpted here.

As a lifelong fan of the Marx Brothers (I loved them at age eight, I love them in my forties), I was delighted to read what Groucho Marx had to say about their famous act. What is he saying? That it’s not about innate creative talent or effortless idea-generation at all; innovation is all about hard graft and a willingness to try things out.

As the book explains, Groucho’s world-beating comic performances have enthralled many generations of viewers. They seem smooth, spontaneous and effortless – a natural comic genius, you might think. Groucho was indeed a genius, but not because he was born with it; he was a genius because he was willing to keep trying different things and improving his act bit by painful bit.

He also knew how to commercialise his ideas, by trying things out in the creative marketplace – stage shows, clubs, radio – and then taking them to the film world when the motion picture took off. In business, innovation is futile if it can’t be brought to market at a profit.

After much trying, fumbling, improvising – “Pretty soon I had a character”, said Groucho. If you substitute the word “character” with “strategy” you will see why I’m so keen on this story. In my experience, the best strategies are also formed in this way. They do not come from blinding flashes of brilliance, or epiphanies encountered during strategy retreats at Lake Naivasha. They come from acute observation of what the market likes, and from a systematic and disciplined process of trial and error.

So try stuff out, people. Don’t pretend that you can get it all right first time, or that you have a beautifully refined strategy. That strategy document sitting on your shelf, which you show so proudly to visitors, is a piece of fiction. You can’t plan out the world ahead – you can only prepare for it and take advantage of it. Companies would be far better off if they learned to focus on a few essential things: values, positioning, big goals.

Innovative strategies are the result of many burned fingers, failed projects and trashed ideas. Life’s like that. It’s painful and annoying. But those who persist emerge victorious. Most importantly, ideas need to be tested in the marketplace. That’s what Groucho Marx was doing: trying ideas out on his customers, and refining and polishing them until he had something sublime.

Groucho Marx, comic genius and word twister, always had the last word. Let’s give it to him here as well: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.”

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