Throughout the year, I have the privilege of engaging in insightful conversations with members of our Outthinker Network of strategy leaders. These remarkable individuals are not only strategists; they are artists (one member helped establish the Dubai art fair), athletes (another was the winner of an Indian gold medal for sports shooting), creators (one left a roundtable early for a drum circle with Lenny Kravitz – yes, the Lenny Kravitz!), and thinkers, each with unique experiences that shape their perspectives. Recently, a conversation with a member who had dabbled in stand-up comedy led me to draw an unexpected parallel: a good business strategy is like a good joke.
In the world of comedy, a well-constructed joke hinges on an unexpected punchline that evokes laughter. The reaction varies—some audience members laugh immediately, while others take a moment to process, then erupt into stronger, more resounding laughter. Strikingly similar, an effective business strategy should be designed to create a ripple effect of surprise, disbelief, and eventual support.
The anatomy of a joke
- Setting the stage
- The element of surprise
- Timing and delivery
- Shared language
Setting the stage: Contextual set-up
Comedians establish the context of their jokes by detailing the scene to their audience. Similarly, a well-formulated strategy requires a clear understanding of the business landscape. Giving your audience, or in this case your stakeholders, details on competitors, potential threats from outside your industry, and emerging trends helps them grasp the scenario you’re addressing.
Much like the comic’s opening lines that establish the scenario, your strategy’s foundation provides the necessary background for your bold move.
The element of surprise: Unconventional disruption
A punchline hits hardest when it’s unexpected and incongruous with what the audience might have been thinking. Similarly, a successful strategy introduces an element of disruption that challenges the status quo. People might initially react with laughter, not because they find it amusing, but due to the sheer audacity of the idea. The audaciousness of your strategy might prompt some to dismiss it as too radical, too implausible. This is where the similarity lies—the disbelief can be transformed into inspiration, just as laughter builds in intensity as the punchline sinks in.
Business history is filled with instances of disruptive strategies that first amused established giants. Much like comedians who build up to their punchline, these companies set the stage and then introduce a seemingly incongruent element. The punchline comes when the incongruent element is resolved in an unexpected way (this is known as the Incongruity Theory of humor). Walmart building stores in rural towns, Netflix distributing movies by mail, Tesla entering the electric vehicle (EV) market at the high-end—these moves humored Sears, Blockbuster, and GM respectively. Incumbents didn’t “get” the joke because doing so involved untangling cognitive processes, introducing mental flexibility, releasing long-held beliefs, and having the ability to switch between frames of reference. The longer you operate inside an industry, the more difficult it becomes to do any of these things.
And it’s not as if the attackers executed secret plans. Elon Musk famously had his plans for EVs posted on the Tesla website for 10 years before introducing a more affordable Tesla model. It’s rare that the incumbent can’t swat down the attacker. Rather, they choose not to because they think the attacker’s strategy is a joke.
Timing and delivery: The art of precision
In comedy, timing can make or break a joke. A well-timed pause before delivering the punchline enhances its impact. Similarly, in communicating and executing your strategy, timing is crucial. (Check out the recent blog post we wrote on Meta’s Threads timing vs. Twitter.) Choosing the right moment to execute your plan can magnify its effect.
Just as a perfectly timed punchline elicits uproarious laughter, a strategy executed at the opportune moment can lead to remarkable success.
Shared language: Building connection
Comedians often employ relatable topics or shared experiences to establish a connection with their audience. Likewise, a strategy’s success is often intertwined with its ability to resonate with stakeholders. Employing a shared language that aligns with your audience’s values, aspirations, and concerns can create a sense of unity and rally support behind your unconventional move.
The strategy comedians are killin’ it
Those who dare to disrupt the norm with audacious strategies are, in essence, the comedians of the business world. They understand the art of shocking the system, and much like stand-up comedians, they master the craft of timing their moves to perfection. Just as a comedian crafts a punchline to perfection, these visionary leaders meticulously mold their strategies to deliver maximum impact.
If your aim is to be a true disruptor in your industry, your strategy should echo the dynamics of a joke. Start by setting the context, then introduce an unexpected twist. Time your moves meticulously and speak the language of your stakeholders. Just as a well-timed punchline leaves the audience in stitches, a well-executed strategy can have a lasting impact on your industry.