Creativity is one of those words that often sparks a stereotypical vision of disorganised chaos, wacky ideas, or someone deemed artistic by others. It can be difficult to know what it means for those of us working outside of “creative industries.”
However, being creative is closely linked to being innovative, a word that is much more familiar in corporate contexts and is something more actively nurtured and encouraged in teams. And organisations that value innovation frequently use play as a catalyst for embracing and developing new ideas, thereby helping unlock creativity.
Creativity is key to an agile mindset and is critical to an organisation’s relevance and ability to prosper in the 21st century. So how does play fit into this picture?
Play enhances our cognitive abilities
When we find a sense of play at work, we are motivated by the work itself, quite simply because we enjoy it. This engaging power of play helps us to hone the benefits of creativity, such as mental flexibility, divergent thinking, evaluative ability, and persistence.
Employees can find joy in the act of “getting lost” in a task. — Professor Charalampos Mainemelis and Dr Sarah Ronson
Play can also include reconfiguring ideas, objects, or behaviour. This is known as combinatorial flexibility, the novel recombination of the existing elements in our own experiences and repertoires, according to Dr. Charalampos Mainemelis, Professor of Organizational Behavior at ALBA Graduate Business School and Dr Sarah Ronson, Associate Professor at University College London.
Play develops and hones creative skills (especially in people who think they’re “not creative”)
When play is woven into the fabric of corporate life, it has the capacity to transform the very nature of an organisation’s products and solutions. This increases the organisation’s capacity for innovation, productivity, and competitiveness. But when we speak to leaders about play, they often tell us that whilst they’ve tried play before, it generated some ideas that were inapplicable (and therefore not useful).
However, the creative process of generating and developing these ideas can serve a greater purpose than the ideas themselves, if they are used to enhance the team’s ability in analysing, improving on iterations, presenting ideas to others and hearing feedback. These skills all underpin creativity, but whereas creativity can sometimes be seen as something we do or do not possess, every part of the creative process can be actively practiced and developed.
Work typically focuses on “outcomes” while play focuses on “means”. By reframing the work activities as play, “work” decisions will make allowances for intuition, emotion, and taking a leap of faith. These deviations from organisational norms facilitate expression and creativity. — Professor Ronit Kark, Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Bar-Ilan University
Google, a company long hailed for creating a playful environment, encourages engineers to spend 20% of their time on non-core projects. They are invited to explore new ideas without allowing potential profitability or marketability to hinder their creative process and the play within it. In 2008 Bala Iyer and Thomas Davenport, academics at Babson College in Massachusetts, showed that this exploration has resulted in some of the company’s most popular products, including Gmail, AdSense, and Google News.
Play increases psychological safety in a team
In a time where wellbeing continues to be a critical issue for leaders, psychological safety is of paramount importance. It means that an individual trusts that they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, raising questions or concerns, or making mistakes. It allows individuals to take risks, be vulnerable with each other, and explore new frontiers. Google spent two years studying 180 of their teams to find out what makes a high-performing team. They found that the number one factor was psychological safety.
IDEO, a globally successful design company offers a weekly “tea time,” enabling “casual collisions” where team members can share what they are working on in a playful environment. Creating this space has connected individuals across the organisation and increased opportunities for creative collaboration.
Play amongst teams can lead to a communal identity that allows for cohesion and removes boundaries, such as individual differences, backgrounds, and hierarchies. This enables teams to work with greater imagination, flexibility and a spirit of discovery. — Dr. Charalampos Mainemelis, Professor of Organizational Behavior at ALBA Graduate Business School
If you took away the constraints of budget, time and resources, what ideas would you want to act upon for your organisation and why? Keep a note of everything that comes to mind. You may find that iterations begin to evolve over time – share them with your colleagues and see what it sparks for them.