Productivity needs play

Given that innovation is practically a mantra for CEOs globally and that countless studies have laid out the conditions for creating it, you’d think workplaces would be operating a little differently from a decade or so ago.

The literature is overflowing with cries for agility, decentralized networks, collaborative architecture or cultures that enable creativity through play.

Yet few organizations walk their talk, demanding innovation while pinning people to desks and archaic behaviours that confer credibility simply because they are familiar.

Companies continue to worry about absenteeism rather than the far more concerning trend of what Harvard Business Review’s Paul Hemp calls presenteeism – where workers turn up without really being there, and which is far more costly than paid sick leave.

Why do we still measure inputs rather than outputs, promote head-down-bum-up cultures that drive outcomes from A to B when we know that quantum leaps result from more haphazard associations?

We have entrenched views on what a serious workplace looks like. And despite studies that suggest serious is not synonymous with productive, many of us cling to old ideas rather than pushing against them. But push we should.

Innovators like bees collect insights from disparate sources that they connect in new ways. If Steve Jobs had never stepped away his ‘real’ work to look at manufacturing, the famed continuous casing of an Apple computer would never have been designed.

As Gregerson, Dyer and Christensen say in the Innovator’s DNA, ‘innovators are intentional about finding diverse people who are just the opposites of who they are, that they talk to, to get ideas that seriously challenge their own.’

Yet productivity initiatives typically preclude room for movement and ask that every working hour of the working day demonstrably contribute to the delivery of predefined programs.

The pressure to conform is huge. Even open-minded executives can be beaten back by the status quo.

Creativity is valued only when it succeeds. And yet as every creator knows, success results when we persist despite early mistakes. When failures are ridiculed we create a culture in which it is unsafe to try and creativity is trivialised. We are given the message, often silently, that we work in a serious place where serious people make serious decisions. There is no room for fun. That we are reinforcing a paradigm that has been in place since the industrial revolution is irrelevant, at least everyone agrees.

Creativity, play and the happy accidents that result continue to be seen as the domain of design and technology giants. We admire but can’t relate to the use of ‘finger busters’ at IDEO or Google’s fun park approach of navigating the worplace on slides.

Yet we know that openness is the beginning of exploratory play, which in turn leads to breakthroughs. It seems natural that we should integrate opportunities for triggering it at work.

Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play created the institute in 1996 after more than 20 years of psychiatric practice and research persuaded him of the dangerous long-term consequences of play deprivation. Brown says play is the way we build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.

Researchers like Daniel Donahoo are now asking why design is not part of the school curriculum and how games can be used in education. Leaders need to consider how we transpose this approach back into the work environment.

We know that taking time out for imagining is great for the brain and ultimately makes us more productive.

There are numerous options organizations can consider for creating innovative cultures. It’s not easy which is why people have been wrestling with it for years. One option – give the innovator 50% of any savings/benefit for the first year. That would be a big incentive for people to bypass environmental restrictions. Or create collaborative spaces designed to encourage communication across disciplines and teams.

While such workplaces sound ideal, they may not always be within reach. As individuals though we can do our bit to step up and drive positive change.

Without being so impolitic that we alienate our superiors or risk our jobs, we need to push against cultures that demand compliance for the sake of it. This is not leadership and there’s every likelihood that those who demand it will not have the skills to adapt easily to the fast-changing future. So make sure that you do.

Carve out time in your working day to explore and experiment, bring in observations from seemingly unrelated disciplines and ask yourself how they might be useful in your current role.

Allow your natural curiosity to blossom. Each day do something that trains your brain to think differently. Go to a bookshop or a video store and randomly select something from the shelf and read/watch it, even if typically, the subject does not appeal.

And when you produce a piece of work ask yourself – why is this relevant, how is this relevant, could this be done another way?

Curiosity exposes us to that which is new and unknown. Creativity allows us, at the right time, to make sense of it. Both inform authenticity.


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