The Role of Play in Innovation

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The Role of Play in InnovationIn the Creative Economy, inspiring a sense of play in culture, marketing, and innovation is critical to success. You have to engage your people so that they can engage prospects and customers with a lively sense of mission and purpose. Too often the roles we assign diminish this sense of play.

In a tightly wound corporate culture, business people can become stuck in the role they are forced to assume while at work. They are not allowed to be human and expressive. Like a mask they cannot take off, they turn into a predictable cliché with a limited set of expressions to new ideas.

Talking about breakthrough innovations with such automatons can be as odd as talking to the tax man about poetry, even though innovation could supercharge their careers and help their companies gain or regain a leadership position in a market category. These corporate zombies have lost their sense of play, which is crucial for innovation.

The issue we are really discussing is one of harnessing the most creative value out of your team. As a leader or manager you cannot set up the metrics and measurements and stranglehold the results out of your team. Instead, you have to foster a deeply playful culture that inspires an environment of breakthrough thinking. The best way to cultivate such a culture is to allow play to serve as a North Star of all endeavors.

Let’s apply a lesson from a successful author, James Michener, from his autobiography:

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he’s always doing both.

We are not suggesting anything ridiculous here, but something cunningly pragmatic. Companies that blur the line between play and work thrive in the creative economy. Before you bring in a sandbox the size of a swimming pool, realize that we are recommending just a few simple exercises.

What we are saying is your culture needs to formalize a little playtime where the lines of work/play blur. Those responsible for innovation at your place of work should schedule a weekly exercise to expand the capacity to imagine and allow for wild possibilities of team members – one hour per week spent socializing the boon of the human imagination without judgment.

Further, we recommend that every new product development process have at least two formal points in the process where generative, creative thinking without boundaries is encouraged.

Very often, the most effective and brilliant idea sits close to the most ridiculous one, out on a limb next to the fruit and flowers. This idea will only present itself to those who blur the lines, enjoy themselves, and have a mindset that scans for possibility after possibility.

In the end, innovations will be judged by revenue or cost savings – and this counting itself is a deep form of play for the mathematically minded.

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Michael GraberMichael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis. Follow Michael @SouthernGrowth