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July 5th, 2017

Never Grow Up: Why Encouraging Play Encourages Innovation

For those of us in the innovation business, encountering different corporate cultures is an everyday privilege. Ethnography is not just for our designated user groups, but begins with the first client handshake. We notice a lot of things in companies, some refreshing, some not so much. Occasionally we see a link between stale internal policies, whether explicit or implicit, and long-term erosion of innovative thinking. When that happens, we not only get to engage as a problem solver, but also to serve as an advocate for “loosening up” the process in general.

In many ways, a sense of playfulness is one of our most valuable innovation tools.

It’s been said that the creative professional is the child who survived. That may sound smug, but it has an important kernel of truth. Over time, traditional education and rigid work environments can erase the playfulness in us. The goal is to encourage sensible, mature adult behavior. The tragedy is that such methods crush our imaginations and ability to communicate abstract ideas. For innovation to succeed, we must rekindle playfulness.

Evidence shows a correlation between academic performance in youngsters and opportunities for physical stimulation at recess. The new popularity of “grown up coloring books” as a way to both relax and focus is an example of rediscovering playfulness. The fidget toy craze, while now reaching an absurd saturation point, still speaks to the need to occupy one’s mind and body using movement and play.

So how do we get the playfulness back into the adult?

First, let’s not confuse the need for creative play with office shenanigans. Although I’m not speaking about office pranks, they do suggest a lack of stimulation received elsewhere. Creative play is more about encouraging any process that genuinely infuses new thinking and new perspectives (not just boosting morale). Basically, nerf guns may enliven a dreary day, but they’re not going to create an upsurge in overall productivity.

The more our world has us working digitally, the greater the need to engage physically as a way to express or explore ideas. If your business manufactures products, give your development teams Play-Doh, LEGOs, KNEX, and construction paper to mockup quick concepts. Instead of using a team email to describe an idea, encourage everyone to use loose models to flesh out their thoughts together. Iteration, exploration, and insight will occur at the speed of their hands, not based on how many cups of coffee they’ve had.

If playfulness is how we exercise our ability to imagine, then we must not let those parts atrophy. By keeping play alive, we gain not only mental agility, but also agility in the marketplace. So, practice and encourage a spirit of playfulness in yourself and your employees. Set a new cultural expectation within your organization. Remove the stigma of play as juvenile, and watch your team recapture their imaginations and use them to benefit your company’s future.

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