A New Corporate Mandate: Rethink Efficiency and Play!

“Play is the highest form of research”
– Albert Einstein

“I was not working, I was playing. I was letting things reassemble in front of my eyes and … I knew I had come up with something that would get me the Nobel Prize… and it did!’
– Dr. Kary Mullis, Scientist, Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry (1993)

Since 2006 IBM has published a series of biannual studies highlighting the priorities of CEOs around the world. This year’s study, released in February, was based on interviews with over 1,500 CEOs who represent a broad range of industry sectors. In the study the CEOs overwhelmingly identified complexity as the leading factor impacting the future of their companies, and they identified creativity as the single most important leadership quality. Tellingly, a sub-set of interviewees whose companies are identified as “stand-outs” – those whose performance was highest in comparison to their peers not just between 2003 and 2008, but also since the 2008 financial crisis – reported that they have already been leveraging creative leadership in their approach to innovation and customer relations.

This increased attention on the importance of creativity in the business world resonates deeply with me. In my consulting work with leading beauty, media, medical and industrial companies, I speak extensively about how and why creativity is the driving force behind sustainable innovation. Without genuine creativity, no amount of strategy, fiscal discipline, marketing prowess, or brand equity will result in a consistently thriving company. This concept is at the heart of The Intuitive Compass, a book I am now writing that will offer a practical model for innovative problem solving, decision-making, and sustainable value creation.

So, how can business leaders go about increasing the level of creativity in their companies? As I hinted at above when I said “genuine creativity”, there may be some misunderstandings about what creativity is and how we can go about eliciting more of it in the service of innovation. Creativity is more than a liberal dress code or letting your employees ride their skateboards through the C-Suite (not that there’s anything wrong with that either). Genuine creativity happens when we find ways to tap into our own, our employees’, and our business partners’ innately playful nature. We can, in many ways, play our way to an ongoing supply of great new and profitable ideas.

Why is that so? Because Play is actually the door to our unconscious, and our unconscious is where great ideas – the innovations that we all so desperately need today to remain competitive – come from. In our fast moving economy innovation more and more often implies something completely new, or the adaptation of existing ideas and elements to a completely new use. And what is completely new is necessarily unknown. Play has the power to take us efficiently into the unknown, to the deepest parts of our mind where genius lives.

When we play we become immersed in the moment, engrossed in the challenge of completing a puzzle, drawing a picture, or dancing to a song that reminds us of our carefree days at college. And when we become immersed in the moment, we stop abiding by the usual rules of engagement and linear thinking. We stop worrying about outcomes. And when we do that, our mind and body relax and quite naturally we notice things that we didn’t notice just a moment before, things that we never noticed in the past. These are the connections – the sparks of genius – that can result in breakout innovations. For more insights into the science behind play and its transformative power on our analytical intelligence and creative abilities I recommend visiting the Science page of the National Institute for Play.

Now, from a practical standpoint, how, as a CEO or senior manager, do you create a playful atmosphere in your organization? There is no one recipe, but as you may have guessed, the possibilities are only limited by our imagination. Here are some of the things that successful companies have already done to unleash the power of creativity in their organizations:

  • Create a physical environment that is more like a playground than a corporate office: At Google’s headquarters in Zurich employees can ride a slide into the company’s gourmet restaurant, hold meetings in rooms shaped like igloos, or contemplate a vexing problem while sitting in a bathtub facing a flat screen television with underwater images drifting past. Creativity does not abide with rules, but it requires very specific circumstances to come through. Google is a model for balancing different types of intelligence and manifesting both efficient management and leading edge creative ideas.
  • Give employees permission and resources to explore their own ideas and passions: Since the 1970s 3M, the highly diversified American industrial company most famous for Scotch Tape, has allowed their employees to spend 15 percent of their working hours pursuing independent projects. This practice has resulted in many new products, including the wildly successful Post-It notes. Google has a similar program in which employees are given up to 20% of their time to develop new ideas provided that they present the ideas to their peers for critique. Both companies understand well that human creativity needs deep and wide mental space to emerge.
  • Facilitate intensive play experiences: Amdocs, a publicly traded Israeli company that provides software and services to leading telecommunications companies worldwide, has hosted two innovation camps. For the most recent one, held in June 2010, hundreds of employees competed to be one of just 75 who would spend a week brainstorming new product and service ideas and then refining and presenting the best of the new ideas to senior management for immediate funding approval.
  • Host a muse: Kohler, a leading manufacturer of kitchen and bath fixtures and materials, is one of a growing number of companies who have established an artist in residence program. Annually, up to two dozens artists are invited to join Koehler for two to six months stays, during which time they have access to the company’s sophisticated technologies, technical expertise, materials, equipment, and studio space. In return Koehler and its employees benefit from an ongoing supply of fresh imagination and new perspectives.
  • Play to fail: Mango, a Spanish fashion company with over 1,200 retail stores in 91 countries around the world and sales nearing $2 billion, has officially incorporated the importance of failing in its business model. Mango’s Values and Policy Statement encourages risk taking and celebrates failure, giving employees great freedom to explore their creative impulses without fear of reprisal.

What we see above are roadmaps to playful atmospheres. Companies in which openness to the possibility of new ideas takes precedence over bureaucratic control, where half-baked concepts are given the benefit of the doubt, and where linear paths are replaced with the messy experience of exploration. We also see how the playfulness that is encouraged is approached wisely to yield great and tangible benefits.

The world is more complex than ever before, and change is happening faster than ever before, so tweaking – or even substantially reforming – yesterday’s solutions simply will not yield the competitive advantage that companies need to thrive today and will need in the future. What companies are seeking in order to thrive are innovative ideas, and innovation is the result of creativity. So, it’s time to start playing!

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