#196  from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 1          January 1996

A Rumor of Humor
by Anne Durrum Robinson

Ms. Robinson is a human resource consultant in Austin, Texas (phone 512-472-4412), who helps organizations implement creativity. www.io.com/~stellar/adr/anne.html

In today’s highly competitive world, when organizational demands for instant and constant innovation fall heavily on R&D groups, those two letters don’t stand for Risibility (inclination to laugh) and Delight.

It isn’t that researchers and developers don’t have senses of humor.  In many professional settings they’re simply not encouraged to acknowledge or hone them.  Yet an occasional resort to the light touch might ease the load of men and women who, Atlas-like, carry much of the weight of our future.

When I began thinking about this article, I asked two R&D acquaintances about the presence of humor in their working environments.  One laughed and said, “Well, if you’re talking about bad humor, we’re in it a lot of the time.”  (At least he laughed.)  The other looked thoughtfully at me and finally admitted that, “Most of the time, I guess, ours is a kind of ‘gallows’ humor.”


Obviously, two people aren’t an impressive sample.  So I’m hoping that in other R&D circles there may be attempts to infuse a little levity into the daily routine.  One way would be to have a cartoon bulletin board.  I teach workshops in eight areas of creativity and communication, and I am therefore constantly searching for pertinent cartoons.  I find ones on almost any subject you can mention.  For example: the drawing of a research-garbed figure holding a big blob of something in his hand and saying plaintively to a nearby fellow researcher, “What is the opposite of Eureka!?”  Any of us who have gone through some complicated process and come out with nothing more than an unholy mess can resonate to that one.

Rumper Stickers

Another approach which might find favor in less grim R&D circles is one I devised while in the hospital with a seriously infected hand.  Nurses, like R&D folks, are often pushed beyond their elastic limits.  As weary, rather grim-faced caretakers came and went, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it lighten the atmosphere if nurses were encouraging ‘rumper stickers’?”  Something like: “Sorry I’m late bringing your breakfast.  I’m a little behind in my schedule.”  Or other similar statements.

One of my first workshops after leaving the hospital was for the wellness facilitators in a high-tech consortium.  The subject was Humor in the Workplace, so I thought, “Why not have a go at the Rumper Stickers?”  The assembled group was from many different parts of the country.  With secret apprehension, I introduced the Rumper Sticker idea, stating that the only rule was that pornography wasn’t allowed.  Statements could, however, be tastefully suggestive.  The wellness facilitators had a ball.  I handed out background placards, colored markers, scissors and string.  For a solid hour, the participants devised Rumper Stickers, wrote them, illustrated and colored them, tied them on and modeled them.  The best ones were posted on the wall.  Afterwards, all agreed that their challenges didn’t seem so overwhelming after such a “silly” session.

In his book, Serious Creativity, Edward de Bono (the popularizer of lateral thinking) states that humor and creativity have much in common.  Both, for example, lead us in one direction, then unexpectedly veer off in another.  This sudden shift can be important in the efforts to infuse a little laughing gas into the heavy, nose-to-the-grindstone atmosphere of R&D.  In all my workshops on creative thinking and creative problem solving, I find that shared enjoyment and laughter really grease the mind-machinery.

You don’t have to go so far as to have investigators don red noses and huge, flapping shoes—though these might sometimes be appropriate.  Anything that produces a twinkle or a smile, a giggle or a guffaw, will help your R&D unit wear life “more like a loose garment and less like a hair-shirt” (as a long-ago magazine article put it).


There are all kinds of prop-shops that can supply grin-encouraging items and prizes.  One fellow I know brought for his unit a crying towel.  Furnished with batteries, the towel would first begin to sniff a bit, then whimper a little, then sob quietly, then go all out into wracking howls.  When things in the division began to get off track or when someone unhappily discovered his/her own opposite of “Eureka!,” the group brought out the crying towel and put it through its heart-breaking paces.  The absurdity of the gadget often saved group sanity.

A company called Paper Direct sells stationery with just a blank t-shirt on it.  For one humor workshop, I asked participants to design an amusing t-shirt they could wear when things went amiss in their own work area.  Suggestions ranged from lightly amusing to rip-roaring.  The winner was submitted by a very large young woman in a nutrition group who drew a skeleton holding a can of some kind of liquid, with the caption, “Finally my diet worked.”

Not only does “lightening up” make life more pleasant for each of us and all those around us, it’s also a health and longevity booster.  A good hearty laugh is said to be like “inner jogging.”  It gives a life-lifting workout for the entire system.  Many books have been written, many videos produced, many speeches made about the salutary effects of the right kinds and uses of humor.  A study of mature coping mechanisms has humor high on the list.  A physician, treating a patient undergoing heart therapy, said to the anxious wife, “I truly feel that he’s going to make it.” “Why?” she asked, “because he walks?”  “No,” said the doctor, “because he laughs.”

If your group has difficulty finding ways to lift the spirits of its members, send one of your colleagues to Joel Goodman’s Humor and Creativity annual conference in Saratoga Springs, New York.  Several hundred people from all walks of life attend (some of them over and over).  The suggestions on how to make life and work more enjoyable range from subtle to slapstick.  So any sense of humor can find its own level.  Or check out materials of the many humor purveyors now in the marketplace.  You’ll find anxiety and stress levels going down, creativity and productivity going up.

Finally, be sure to remember the ancient adage: “Laugh and the world laughs with you.  Cry and it won’t even lend you a handkerchief.”  (However, it just might buy you a crying towel.)

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