The Powerful Link Between Play and Creativity

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Play is the highest form of research. Albert Einstein

When was the last time you played at work?  When was the last time you spent your workday having fun?  More importantly, if you are a leader, when was the last time you encouraged your employees to play?  If you are having trouble remembering, then you may want to give it a try because fun, play, and playmates are critical ingredients for generating creativity and innovation.

As Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO, asserts, playfulness helps us get to better creative solutions.  When leaders establish an environment of trust where people feel secure enough to be vulnerable, employees will feel secure enough to explore something new, take risks and play.

This is not only critical in jobs where creativity is a primary focus, such as design jobs, it also is increasingly important in any job requiring continuous improvement, operational efficiency or collaborative problem-solving.  And the last time I checked, most jobs in the American economy fit this bill.

When play is connected to an employee’s organizational tasks it facilitates the cognitive, affective and motivational dimensions of the creative process.  But even when play is only a diversion, it fosters the important social dynamics that encourage creativity in the first place.  In other words, play helps people develop relationship skills that take them from their own individual points of view to creative and collaborative solutions.

The importance of this social component to creativity was highlighted recently by Adam Grant of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Jim Berry of the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  In a study appearing in the forthcoming Academy of Management Journal, they share that “managers who are interested in fueling creativity will find it advantageous to create conditions that support prosocial motivation and perspective-taking.”

Prosocial motivation is the desire to have a positive impact on others.  Perspective-taking is the ability to understand the emotions and experience of others, and when that interest in understanding others is driven by a desire to make a positive impact, employees develop ideas that are useful as well as novel.

Play helps us understand and empathize with one another, and that in turn, improves our ability to see the world through another’s eyes, or role play.   And as Tim Brown points out, our ability to role play helps us have empathy for what we are designing or improving.  It helps us create services and experiences that are authentic.  Play helps us think creatively about the perspectives of others and identify new, more effective strategies for helping them.

So, Ideo’s founder, David Kelley, is on to something when he said he wanted to work in a company where “all the employees are my best friends.”  Friendship is a shortcut to fun and play.  And our ability to play improves our ability to relate, connect, understand, and trust that we can take the creative risks needed to innovate and change.

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