Mardi Gras Spirit: Insights for Innovation Leaders

Enter the vibrant streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and you’re immediately enveloped in a kaleidoscope of celebration, play, and free-spirited creativity. Colorful floats, extravagant costumes, and joyous crowds surround you. It’s a spectacle that captivates people from all walks of life, transcending age and social barriers.  

Last week, I was fortunate to visit the Big Easy with my family to join the festivities. Watching the colorful chaos, I felt a sense of city-wide camaraderie prevail. I was fresh from preparing a speech on inspiring innovation inside corporations, and it got me thinking: Why are humans permitted to play and express our creativity in some areas of life but not others? Why, in most companies, do efforts to provoke big thinking and unleash innovation fall flat while an innovative celebration like Mardi Gras sticks around for centuries?

Let’s explore what company leaders might draw from the spirit of Mardi Gras to support their innovation efforts.

Lesson 1: Embrace Widespread Participation

Rooted in the rich tapestry of cultural traditions that define New Orleans, some speculate that Mardi Gras traces its origins back to ancient pagan celebrations honoring fertility and spring. When French explorers settled the region in the 17th century, they brought the tradition of Carnival, a period of feasting and revelry leading up to the fasting and penance of Lent. European custom merged with African, Native American, and Caribbean influences to form the eclectic festival that we know today as Mardi Gras.

By the 19th century, elaborate parades, masked balls, and extravagant costumes had become hallmarks of the celebration, drawing visitors from around the world to partake in the city’s exuberance. Though there have been occasional interruptions, such as the Civil War, Mardi Gras has endured, evolving into the iconic display it is today—one that unites communities, celebrates diversity, and embodies joyous revelry.

Despite its complicated history, Mardi Gras has a parade for everyone and the entire city participates, breaking free from the constraints of their everyday roles and responsibilities. Similarly, successful innovation shouldn’t be confined to a specific department. But in many of today’s organizations, it often is. Innovation is considered the domain of research and development, engineering, or product management, and other roles are uninvited or unmotivated to contribute.

For innovation to take hold, it needs to permeate every aspect of the business, just like the parade of floats winding through the city blocks, encouraging fanfare as it passes.

Exercise to spark new thinking:  

  • Where does innovation “sit” within your organization? Is it relegated, officially or unofficially, to a certain department? 
  • What changes could you make to foster a culture where innovation is everyone’s responsibility, regardless of job title or department? 

Lesson 2: Create Space For “Crazy”

Mardi Gras provides a haven for wild imagination and unconventional behavior. Masks and costumes allow participants to play and act out imagined scenarios. Likewise, innovation in any setting requires space for “crazy” ideas to flourish.

In Outthinker workshops, I ask groups to assign certain roles. The timekeeper watches the time. The process person makes sure the group follows each step. Then, there’s the crazy ideas person. This person’s job is not to come up with the best or most plausible idea. Instead, their role is to raise the bar for the whole group to think bigger and crazier. Like the court jester, the crazy ideas person opens space for the other members to say what they feel they’re not “supposed to” say. You need people on your team who give you permission to have a crazy idea.

Another suggestion for leaders is to avoid expecting innovators to predict exact results, which Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, CEO of Xero, calls “false precision”.

As she explained in our recent Outthinkers Podcast interview: “If you want to create a risk-taking environment, you can’t expect people to give you false precision.” Allow your people to give a range of possibilities rather than a precise prediction. Embrace ambiguity.

Exercise to spark new thinking: 

  • Who are the “crazy ideas” people on your team or in your organization? 
  • Try this in your next meeting or idea-generating session: Ask everyone to share their craziest idea. Remember, it’s not the best idea or even one that’s likely to work. Jot down a list of the 10 craziest ideas you come up with.  

Lesson 3: Provide Social Currency

The imagery of modern Mardi Gras celebrations is most closely associated with one sparkly item: beads. It goes further than the plastic strands thrown from floats into the streets. As my family and I got closer to the convention center ball that closes out the parade, the beads and costumes became even more elaborate and larger-than-life. Beads act as social currency for participating in the festivities.

In the corporate world, recognition and positive reinforcement are essential for creating a culture that celebrates innovation. And it doesn’t need to be a major financial reward. In fact, many studies have found that monetary incentives hinder innovation. It’s about rewarding the process of ideation, not just the outcomes, and reinforcing out-of-the-box thinking.

Exercise to spark new thinking: 

  • How is innovative behavior currently recognized in your organization? 
  • What might you leverage as social currency to incentivize innovative thinking within your team or organization? 

Conclusion

The playful and united spirit of Mardi Gras offers powerful lessons for corporate innovation leaders. By applying the lessons highlighted here—embracing widespread participation, creating space for crazy, and providing social currency—leaders can create work environments where creativity flourishes, boundaries are pushed, and breakthrough ideas emerge. 

Header image courtesy of Nodar Chernishev/Getty Images 

Outthinker Networks is a global peer group of heads of strategy, innovation, and transformation at $1B+ companies who are determined to move their organizations to the next level. Members engage in curated learning, practical conversations, and networking opportunities to be more successful in performing their roles, solving their top challenges, and keeping their organizations ahead of the pace of disruption.

Authors

Kaihan Krippendorff
Kaihan KrippendorffFounder & CEO - Outthinker Networks
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Cori Dombroski
Cori DombroskiContent Director - Outthinker Networks
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