From the mailroom all the way to the C-suite, employees have developed an exceptional capacity for reading between the lines. The boss or the shareholders may say they want innovation, but the unspoken message may be, “but only if it’s risk-free.” If we want innovation, we have to tolerate risk, and we have to make it safe for our employees to take those risks. When corporate leaders make it clear in their words and actions that employees aren’t expected to be perfect–that “mistakes” are not only acceptable, but are indeed just part of the process of getting to winning ideas and products–then employees can relax in a way that supports their own creativity. And when employees get creative, innovations can happen.
Cirque du Soleil, which reinvented the traditional slow-growth genre of the circus and in doing so became a multinational company with four thousand employees, twenty simultaneous shows running worldwide, and one hundred million spectators in less than twenty-five years, embraces risk taking and sees occasional failures as simply part of the creative process. In an interview, Lyn Herward, president of their Creative Content Division, explained that at Cirque du Soleil “employees are offered the protection and support that they need to take risks on the company’s behalf.” Successes and failures are seen as the result of a team effort, and this reduces the fear or shame that is associated with personal failure. As a result, individuals feel encouraged to take risks and even protected from adverse consequences
Making failure an acceptable part of the creative process is also a core value at Mango, a men’s and women’s fashion company. Founded in 1984, Mango now has the biggest design center in Europe in a highly competitive industry, and is present in ninety-one countries, with 1,220 stores and 7,800 employees. Mango explicitly promotes, “the practice of a culture of mistakes” in their written policies, or more explicitly, ”our organization encourages a climate of trust and communication, working in teams, and learning from our mistakes.” They acknowledge that the final design for a dress does not always manifest in the designer’s first draft. And they go as far as to recognize that not every single final design of the eighty million articles shipped out throughout the globe will necessarily become a success. Mango executives know it is essential to acknowledge this important part of their business, because not accepting it and denying the possibility of human error can become very stifling to the creative process of fashion designers.
How can you encourage “failure” in your company to allow your employees more room to innovate?
Space affects moods. A beautiful space can make people happy; a small cramped office can make them feel depressed. But more important, space also affects behaviors and communication. Open space offices allow an easier flow of communication among team members and can convey a strong feeling of belonging, but they also can make it harder to focus. Separate offices allow for more privacy and concentration but can easily create silos that separate people and teams. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you need to be ready to manage space not only from a budgetary standpoint but also from the perspective of what it is your creative teams actually need in order to be creative and to deliver the level of innovation your company needs. To achieve this, some companies will have to literally give away space–that is, to sacrifice space for its positive impact on the environment, the company culture and ultimately the creative output.
Office space is an expensive commodity, especially in the world’s most competitive markets, and historically offices have been designed and furnished to maximize administrative efficiency and minimize facility costs (private offices only for senior executives, “cube farms” for lower-ranking personnel). But today companies are looking at efficiency differently, and consequently they are looking at space differently. They are looking for ways to maximize the creative output of their employees, and from that viewpoint the most efficient use of space is one that supports creative interactions. For example, Pixar’s California headquarters–where bathrooms, mailboxes, and meeting rooms are clustered at the center of the building–are designed to ensure that employees from different divisions of the company are certain to run into each other throughout the day. This facilitates informal and random conversations among diverse team members and allows creative ideas and collaborations to be born. I once had a client who wanted to close off an open space in their New York City offices; I struggled hard to convince them otherwise. The company needed more private meeting rooms. Moving out of their existing facility was not an option, nor was renting another floor, so the president of the company wanted to build elegant glass walls to enclose what in his opinion was wasted space.
My observation was quite different. The open space, which offered an inviting round table nestled by a large staircase, was the only place in the office where different members of the product development team would spontaneously sit to discuss their projects. Account managers would stop there after coming back from client meetings to share the latest developments about those clients and their projects. In other words, it was the perfect spot for informal communication and feedback loops. In the end, the precious open space was saved in spite of financial pressures.
How can your workspace benefit by creating places for accidental encounters or informal meetings?
Imagine yourself driving to someone’s house for a surprise birthday party. Every guest has been asked to arrive at a certain time to keep the surprise a surprise. You left home late. You’re in a hurry. You’re now focused on the road in order not to be late. You don’t want to miss the face of your friend completely surprised, between tears and laughter. You’re completely absorbed in one goal: to get there as soon as possible. You don’t have “time” to notice the surroundings. You’re all about the destination. There’s no real journey, because you’re not taking in what’s around. And if someone asked you whether on your way over you saw a house under construction a mile away from your friend’s house, chances are you’d say that you had not seen it because you were too focused on trying to be on time.
Now imagine yourself this time driving along the same road. The road goes through the Colorado Rockies. You’re here on vacation. This is the first time you’ve ever been in Colorado. It’s Sunday. You don’t have to be anywhere at a particular time. No real plan for the day besides reaching your next destination at some point, whenever you get there. You set out early. You have plenty of time ahead of you. Chances are this you will enjoy the spectacular scenery, very aware of what’s around you; you’ll notice the particular light on that day, the colors of the mountains, the vegetation, and many other minute details.
Same road, same person, two totally different attitudes; one is about the destination (result): the other is about the journey (play). So if we accept that creativity is essential in life in order to adapt to change and to keep evolving (whether as individuals or organizations), then we need to allow for and cater to the journey, the playfulness that defines the creative process. Being obsessed with results leaves out the playful, imaginative dimension of life. Our tendency is to focus too much on results, because our rational mind tells us that focusing on results is the best way to make good decisions. This focus also feels more comfortable and gives us a sense of control over the situation we’re in. This is why we tend to approach efficiency in a linear way. Yet in a highly complex environment, linear efficiency is not the answer.
It’s really not about results and play being in opposition. It’s about understanding the need for a collaborative synergy between play and results in order to reach a creative outcome. Obviously we need to get things done. But without a balance between the two, we run the risk of either never getting anywhere or getting someplace but not being aware of the changes in our environment. This is why it is important that in our approach to life, or a project, we keep a dynamic relationship between linear efficiency and the random nature of creativity.
Ritual is powerful and can be used to engage people in ways that words alone cannot. Rituals are meant to affect the body through regular repetition and dramatic staging; as a consequence of that drama and repetition, they affect us at an instinctual level and influence the mind in ways much deeper than logic and reason. From sacred ceremonies including school graduations and the public swearing in of elected officials, they mark the most significant moments of our lives, individually and collectively. On a more mundane level, they help us navigate through the average day—the morning cup of coffee, a hot shower. They send a signal to our brain that something of note is happening. In all cases they help us harness energy, stabilize our minds, and have faith in the future. In doing so they channel our thrust for survival in constructive ways. By conveying a sense of purpose to important aspects of our lives, they help us find meaning, go past inertia to move through the challenges of life, and creatively reach beyond the bounds of logic. Rituals powerfully harness the law of survival, the law of reaching beyond boundaries, and the law of inertia.
Rituals can also help in the business world. BETC, the successful advertising agency in France, provides an example that can easily be adapted to many different businesses and industries. The founder and chairwoman of the agency, Mercedes Erra, insists that whenever a brief on a new client or project is brought in by an account executive, it is and should be treated as a pivotal moment in the life of the agency. The brief is the first step in the development of a new campaign. Its arrival becomes a celebratory moment. It is the trigger for a professional ritual in which importance and meaning are conveyed. Food and drinks are brought into a special room, and all of the people who will be working on the campaign gather together to talk about the future of the project. It is fun and play and serious work all at the same time. Key elements of the brief are clarified, including the strategic context of the project. There is discussion about the agency’s or individual team members’ relationship with the client, and any convictions or doubts about the client, their company, the brand, or the communications plan that they want to launch. But what happens could not be achieved through an exchange of emails or written notes because they would not have the same impact. Allowing time, staging the meeting in a different way, and having the chairwoman attend the briefing all have a special emotional impact and show the significance of the event. People can feel its significance, and feeling it is more important than understanding it intellectually when it comes to harnessing creativity and enthusiasm. Feelings make an impact on our bodies, which in turn influences our ability to solve problems and imagine new solutions. Such a meeting reaches into people’s psyches, and the meeting’s perceived significance has a long-lasting effect. Rituals are powerful, as they help us go beyond what’s tangible and conscious. They reach deep into our unconscious, engage our instinct, and convey meaning.
Aside from business executives, there are other professionals who use intuition and instinct, and in some cases it is about crude survival tactics. In war, life-and-death decisions must be made instantly, with little if any time for rational analysis. And what’s more impressive is that the army has discovered that the ability to act effectively from gut feelings can be improved through training.
Time after time, the army has learned that “the speed with which the brain reads and interprets sensations like the feelings in one’s own body and emotions in the body language of others is central to avoiding imminent threats.” The U.S. military has spent billions of dollars to protect against improvised explosive devices (IEDs), investing in hardware and technology to seek and destroy these homemade roadside bombs. But experts say it is the human brain that has proven to be the most perceptive detection system. Troops often credit their experience and perception—their gut feelings—for their ability to notice and foil IED attacks.
U.S. troops are a central focus of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others can. Experience matters on the battleground. If you have seen something before, you are more likely to anticipate it the next time. Yet it is not just experience that matters. Research suggests that something else is at work too. “Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense imminent danger before most others do.”
Unfortunately, for some time feelings have been perceived as having little to do with rational decision making. In fact, it has long been thought that they just get in the way of it. But according to Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, “Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often because we’re not conscious of it. These processes are at work continually.” All scientific facts point to the evidence of an inner knowing preceding our rational mind.
Gut feelings about potential threats and opportunities are not always correct, and neuroscientists debate the conditions under which the feelings precede the conscious awareness of the clues themselves. But our instinctual skills evolved to ensure our survival, and research findings suggest that in some people those skills are exquisitely sensitive. So although the many serious researchers who say that gut feelings are not always correct do have a point, they may be missing the most important point: gut feelings have other functions that transcend the logic of reason, and to leverage their role fully we should not evaluate gut feelings on a narrow basis of whether they are right or wrong.
When we engage in solving a problem using logical skills, we follow certain rules or protocols based on past experience with a similar problem. The rules and protocols we follow are generally well defined and measurable. If we succeed in solving our problem, we typically attribute it to the efficacy of the protocols we followed. If we fail at solving our problem, we can look back and analyze the steps we took to find where our approach failed.
Conversely, when we engage in solving a problem using our instincts, we follow a path that is highly specific to our problem and ourselves at a particular moment in time. If someone asks us how we solved the problem, we may be able to recount what we did, but even a detailed recounting of what we did will not necessarily apply to a similar problem. And that’s fine, because instinctual problem solving isn’t necessarily about replication; it’s about dynamic adaptation to circumstances. The problem is that when we are successful, we (and others) may attribute our success simply to luck, even though calling on our instincts is a skill we can develop. So although we may never be able to measure the efficacy of instinct-based problem solving precisely, that doesn’t mean it is a random phenomenon. The difference between logic-based problem solving and instinct-based problem solving isn’t necessarily efficacy; the difference lies in our ability or inability to precisely identify cause and effect. And when we can’t identify cause and effect, we often feel out of control or inefficient, when in fact we may have some instinctual clues to next steps or answers.
No, no! You’re not thinking, you’re just being logical.
–Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winner in physics
To date, our collective approach to human intelligence often relies on outdated concepts. The misplaced expectations we place on the ability of instinct and intuition to guide us in life often obliterates their original contributions. We expect intuition and instinct to give us black and white answers that logic can evaluate. It is simply not their function. Yet this misunderstanding of intuition and instinct, which is evident in questions like, “Can I trust my intuition to make the right decision?” or “Can I rely on my guts to do this?” is often encountered in business. This in turn limits our ability to better understand the breadth and depth of a situation and make decisions with a broader perspective, which is exactly what instinct and intuition are meant allow us to do.
It is necessary to better understand how our brain functions in order to better leverage its creative capacity for in-depth reflection, original thinking, and efficient and sustainable decision making. But with the exception of rare initiatives, business schools and educational institutions in general seem quite resistant to change in this field of interest. Our economy is highly complex and unpredictable. This makes traditional decision making, which is predominantly guided by the laws of logic, inoperative or plain dangerous. Therefore we need to better understand our mental life–and its larger potential, which is hidden to the conscious mind yet accessible to the newly educated and insightful individual; this is where intuition and instinct com into play to help us identify in the midst of complex systems the decisive piece of information that would have otherwise eluded our rational mind.
Instinctual aptitudes can be instrumental in business. People who employ instinct and intuition have a more and more decisive competitive advantage when navigating in the new economy. But what exactly is instinct? Here are some simple definitions to keep in mind:
– Instinct is our innate inclination toward a particular behavior (as opposed to a learned response)
– A gut feeling or a hunch–is a sensation that appears quickly in consciousness (noticeable enough to be acted on if one chooses to) without us being fully aware of the underlying reasons for its occurrence.
– Intuition is a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the between the gap conscious and nonconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.
In everyday language these three terms can at times be substituted for one another. Some people may also understand or define these words differently. But at The Human Company, these definitions reflect the specific meaning we attach to each.
In the 1960s, Dr. Douglas Dean, along with his colleague John Mihalasky, studied approximately five thousand executives. Eighty percent of them said they believed in extrasensory perception (ESP) and used it to anticipate and seize profitable business opportunities. ESP is casually referred to as a sixth sense, gut instinct, or hunch, and for this reason ESP pertains to our subject matter: the importance and the role of instinct and intuition in decision making. This belief in ESP did not stem from the fact these highly successful businessmen had any theoretical knowledge of the subject, nor did it indicate that they would seek advice from a person with psychic abilities. It was simply the reflection of a direct experience with these abilities and their concrete applications to business. Dean and Mihalasky also studied a particular subgroup among the initial five thousand executives. They focused on 165 presidents and CEOs of American companies who had doubled or more than doubled their company profits in a five-year period. They found that 80 percent of them had above-average predictive computer test scores; that is, they demonstrated precognitive abilities. This piece of research on the use of everyday intuition for decision making in business led the authors to believe that precognitive ability was a reliable indicator of financial success. According to the authors, measuring potential aptitudes for ESP would be a much better indicator of professional success than other psychometric instruments. Some of the highly successful global companies I have worked for, like Estée Lauder Companies and L’Oréal, do give great importance to intuition. Mrs. Estée Lauder herself would rely greatly on her intuition, and today Estée Lauder Companies CEO Fabrizio Freda insists on maintaining and supporting intuition–in conjunction with a strong analytical capacity–in the work of his teams as a fundamental aspect in the success of the company. L’Oreal’s former CEO, François Dalle, who built the beauty company into a world-renowned multinational, insisted on “intuiting what is arising” as a key competence the beauty company executives had to develop and work with. This type of belief is not limited to the beauty industry. Konosuke Matsushita, Japanese industrialist and founder of Panasonic, once said. “No matter how deep a study you make, what you really have to rely on is your own intuition.”
Dean and Mihalasky’s well-known research has been available since 1974, the year of its publication. It is not new knowledge. And since then, similar studies have produced similar results. Another study was conducted in the 1980s, using two thousand managers over a period of two years. This study revealed that executives used intuition like “explorers” to “foresee” the correct path to follow, but they did so secretly. A well-known 1994 study conducted at the Harvard Business School produced a global survey of more than 1,300 practicing managers in nine countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Austria, Brazil, France, India, Japan, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Of the 1,300 polled executives, 80 percent explained their success through decisions made intuitively, and 75 percent claimed they used intuition and logic equally. However, the study also shows that more than 50 percent of them would not publicly admit to relying on intuition. These last two examples prove that gut feelings and intuition are widely resorted to in business, but that there is definite prejudice against this type of aptitude.
So how come organizations I know and organizations I hear about still evaluate executives on criteria such as team management, interpersonal communication, entrepreneurship, and, more recently, emotional intelligence, but they do not integrate in their evaluation templates the ability to manifest as well as encourage in others instinctual intelligence and intuition at work? How come classes about intuitive skills are still so rare in business schools? A first answer seems obvious: we are culturally uncomfortable with what’s not exact and what cannot be demonstrated. Even if research shows that many successful business minds use intuition, it remains hard to conceptualize intuition and make it a tangible capacity that can be taught and measured. Besides, to share an intuitive opinion or to defend it in a fact-based environment such as a business presentation requires self-confidence and courage. All these issues are cause for leaving the challenging topic of intuition out of modern society in which the scientific mind is clearly seen as a warrant for truth and reliability.
Because creativity is such an important factor of success in business today, play should be part of every CEO’s mandate, and companies should be rated according to the level of playfulness in their culture in the same way as they are rated as a great place to work or as a socially responsible organization. A number of practical steps can be followed to navigate this cultural shift towards play.
Think about what play looks like. It is personal, engaging, and interactive. It is often exuberant and messy. It is filled with light, color, and sound. When you think about play, you may instinctively think about a children’s playground or children’s toys. Now, think about corporate offices, or, more specifically, corporate boardrooms. There are lots of straight lines in boardrooms, (or perhaps an artistically, elegantly curved accent wall); there is typically an imposing table made from fine polished wood or sleek metal. That table likely suggests a hierarchical seating arrangement that people intuitively understand: the boss will sit at the head of the table and the chief advisor will sit next to the boss or perhaps will anchor the other end. The rest of the employees will fill in the sides of the table. So, before the meeting even starts, everyone knows his or her relative importance. And everyone knows that polite behavior is expected: sit up straight, papers stacked neatly in front of you, a pen at the ready, smartphone close by in case of an emergency.
These rigid boardrooms are where major strategic decisions are being made about innovation and the future of our organizations. They represent a very logical environment geared toward conscious conversations that will unfold in a very linear and efficient way. They appeal to the 20 percent of our intelligence that lives in our conscious mind with its wealth of creative ideas, and the intelligence that we can reach through play.
Dr. Marian Cleeves Diamond, one of the world’s foremost neuro-anatomists, advocates the establishment of “playful environments.” I too believe that we need to create offices, boardrooms, and activities that engage our playful nature—a corporate sandbox or playground. We are playful by nature and efficient by necessity. So let’s embrace our nature, and less effort will be needed for the same, or better, results. When we do this we can break through the mental barriers that are keeping us stuck. Certain corporations are already doing this.
Three key things that you can do to create a play-friendly atmosphere include:
-Allocating significant time in which employees are explicitly encouraged to play
-Creating, or giving employees access to, physical spaces that are conducive to play
-Giving employees implicit and explicit permission to “fail” or be “unproductive” in their pursuit of innovation.
Try these and notice how the implicit culture change affects your employees’ levels of creativity and innovation.
Play opens us up to the possibility that we don’t need more of anything—time, money, knowledge, and so on—in order to produce more. It is a radical idea, especially in business, where we often hear the argument that budgets are limited and therefore the ability to innovate is limited. How can you get the same result with half of the resources? How is that possible? It’s possible because human motivation is not linear; the way one person gets motivated is a complex function of many intertwined factors, which do not follow a linear continuum, but which can be greatly influenced by play. When we tap into the part of people that responds to play and inspiration, we unleash possibilities and huge potential for new sources of motivation that we could not have predicted or accessed otherwise. Thus when people are engaged in play, truly and deeply engaged, they lose track of time, they stop thinking about whether their paycheck is bigger today than it was yesterday, they form close and fruitful bonds with their playmates, they withstand discomfort and inconvenience, and more often than you might imagine, they create magic. Play moves people into an optimistic frame of mind, a place where they are more adaptable to change and more likely to improvise, and where they begin to dance in the groove of life. In that joyous groove, success and innovation become far more likely outcomes than they ever could be in an atmosphere of grinding unhappiness and perceived lack.
Take, for instance, a story of how dice games were invented, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. In pre-Roman times, 2,500 years ago, the kingdom of Lydia was suffering a famine that left it only able to feed half of its citizens. The Lydian king invented a game—sheep knuckle dice—and established a policy that every other day, every person in the kingdom, would do nothing but play sheep knuckle dice. They would not work, they would not just hang out, and they would not run errands for their grandma. And they would not eat. Such was the level of immersion the sheep knuckle dice provided that the people managed to survive an eighteen-year famine.
What does this tale reveal to us? It shows that the impact of play reaches far beyond the realm of reason. It also tells us that the power of play is such that it can provide an effective distraction even from something as elemental as hunger. Play is a strong catalyst for changing behavior, helping people shift perspective and refocus their energy to overcome hardship or challenging situations without necessarily increasing material resources or the number of team members.
Play is magical. And profound. Not only is it essential to our growth and development when we are children and a source of joy throughout our lives, but it is also a largely untapped channel for innovative ideas in the workplace.
Play is essential to the survival of organizations in a complex and fast-changing marketplace, as it is a key factor in creativity and agility. I have used play to help people become more creative, deal with challenging emotions like self-consciousness or even fear, and regain energy, enthusiasm, and hope when their company was going through difficult times. Play opens the doors to our deeper creative potential, helping us achieve change and implement innovative solutions.
To understand how play works, it’s important to understand what it is. It’s also important to understand what it isn’t. Play isn’t some reprehensible at-risk behavior that threatens to make slackers of us all. Western culture, unfortunately, often sees it that way. Play is perceived to be, at best, a child’s pastime, or an indulgence for the very wealthy or in the worst case, the hallmark of a slacker. Certainly play does not come across as something that serious people in serious businesses should be doing on a daily basis. In fact, play isn’t even necessarily perceived to be beneficial for our children. It is often thought to be more of an at-risk behavior that prevents children from doing more important things.
Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the National Institute for Play, who has extensively researched the functions and purposes of play, believes that one way to overcome negative attitudes toward play is to offer skeptics a view of play that is closer to their comfort zone: the science of play. He says, “Our experiences indicate the executives require sufficient immersion in the science of play before they understand and value it. The intellectual and scientific basis of play can provide the understanding—and permission—to deploy new play-based practices in their organizations. But, they must also value the new practices: without a positive play ethic, the climate for innovation is spoken of as important, but is not acted upon.”
So what is play? Is it the same as fun? Sort of. The key ingredient in play is engagement: engagement within your own mind, with another person, or with an object. Play is always a dynamic experience. Play is really about immersing oneself in a pleasurable activity for the sake of it, with no other particular intent or specific goal. It can be about immersing oneself in reading a book, drawing, sculpting, or fixing a collector’s item such as an antique piece of furniture for the love of restoring a beautiful object. Play can be experienced alone or in a group. In business, observing people play, I have seen the energy in the room immediately become lighter and stronger. Play creates new ways of interactions, allows a different type of bonding, encourages trust among team members, lowers inhibition, and facilitates the production of original ideas because people dare to speak up and express themselves more.
According to theorist and professor Johan Huizinga, play is “free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life.” He also described it as being “‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.”
The National Institute for Play defines play as “a state of being that is intensely pleasurable. It energizes and enlivens us. It eases our burdens, renews a natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” They go on to note, “Scientists—neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, scientists from every point on the scientific compass—have recently begun viewing play as a profound biological process.” In other words, play is a core aspect of human nature. As such, it needs to be an essential part of work in order to leverage all that people have to offer. When play becomes a key component of a healthy corporate culture, it fosters positive thinking and creative imagination.
If we choose to leave our childish things behind, we not only deny our essential humanity but also cut ourselves off from a tremendous reservoir of creativity with the potential to make us happier and make us more effective contributors at work.