Better Than New

Presidential Gaffe Points to Innovation Problems by morepete
May 18, 2007, 9:14 pm
Filed under: Context for Innovation

By Pete Mortensen

In business and in life, context is king. This point was proven again this April at the annual White House Press Corps dinner, better known as the one time a year that the president tells jokes and invites professional comedians to mock him.

But for 2007, the context of the event changed. President Bush took the podium with a grin on his face and a mild chuckle on his breath. As his look-a-like Steve Bridges left the stage, Bush thanked the comic for his contribution.

“Thank you very much,” the president said. “Laura and I are delighted to be here.”

The gathered crowd of journalists laughed uproariously at what they believed to be an ironic quip from the nation’s leader. The president continued, praising the role of political humor as a sign of a confident and free people. Pretty standard fare. And then something really weird happened: The president said current events made humor inappropriate.

“I was looking forward to doing a little poking myself,” Bush said, “but in light of this week’s tragedy at Virginia Tech, I decided not to be funny.”

He acknowledged the emotionally draining work journalists had conducted since Cho Seung-Hui opened fire in Blacksburg, Virginia, killing 32 people. The audience had figured out their appropriate role: To quietly reflect on recent tragedy and be among friends and colleagues. Right? Not exactly. Though humor was inappropriate for the era

“So, really this dinner comes at a good time,” the president said. “It’s been a tough week for a lot of folks, particularly the folks at Virginia Tech. And so I’m not going to try to be the funny guy, but I have the opportunity to introduce one who will be. And so, thanks for the dinner, and it is now my honor to bring the podium, a talented and good man: Rich Little.”

It’s hard to imagine a worse context for a comedian, let alone one whose popularity peaked during the 1970s, to perform within. Here’s why: Bush set up two principles to shape the audience’s understanding of the evening’s entertainment.

  1. In times of tragedy, comedy should not be performed by amateurs.
  2. Professional comedians can help us cope with tragedy.

Together, these two ideas make it impossible for Little to succeed. The crowd has been instructed that they can only laugh if the jokes grapple with the issues of the day and if they are of a quality significantly above the humor of amateurs. Bush’s likely heartfelt introduction handed Little a sad room full of people with extraordinarily high standards for comedy. Try telling your cute jokes about Canadian naivete and mimicking Jimmy Carter’s accent in that room. It ain’t pretty.

Looking at this situation, we can all recognize that no entertainer in the world has a chance of even mild success given the chilling context that preceded the act. Ironically, though, we take it as good business sense when managers and CEOs proclaim that they are committed to innovation and design strategy in their organizations, but that they don’t want to do anything risky or release products that cost any more to produce than their existing offers.

Whatever good business sense it reflects, this kind of chilling context quite obviously has the same effect on employees that it does on press corps comedians. When an employee is asked to complete an extraordinary project and then told she must make sure that this project meets the company’s existing metrics for less ambitious work, she quite predictably will end up with a result that looks a lot more like what everyone else is working on.

If an organization is truly passionate about innovation, they need to create new ways for people doing that work to thrive. It’s all well and good to hope that a maverick with a vision will sneak in and innovate despite your mandates for accountability. But wouldn’t you feel better if you could take credit for the innovations that get produced in your firm?


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