For many, mundane workplace practices that were once taken for granted: Commutes, watercooler chitchat, coffee breaks, small talk with the boss. Now, these formerly commonplace activities stir up feelings of nostalgia and a longing for the way things were.
With so much uncertainty in the world, now may seem like an inopportune time to talk about workplace creativity. Creativity may feel superfluous, but it can actually help us stay sharp and adapt to our ever-changing world. Learning through play helps us to embrace uncertainty around change, provide support in our approaches to creativity, and ultimately, enhance our workplace collaborations and the innovative potential that creative leaders can cultivate.
Play’s connection to creativity
While many of us have already graduated from the traditional classroom and are climbing the professional ladder, our ability to learn never ends. Adults, like children, need to remain engaged in learning and creativity to thrive in life. Research tells us that learning through play is vital to a child’s well-being and ability to thrive in life because it helps them develop a breadth of core life skills: Creative, Social, Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive. These core skills also lead to success as adults.
Akey ingredient to performing executive functions as an adult is bringing out your creativity. Many professionals will answer that their “biggest strength” is their focus and drive. While some believe that these traits are intrinsic and ingrained, others argue that our ability to maintain focus, manage our time and meet deadlines can actually come from creativity. Studies confirm that pretend-play interactions can help children enhance these executive functions, while adults who perform above average on creativity also perform significantly better on executive function.
Further, research demonstrates intrinsic motivation and creativity are closely linked. The more we are self-motivated to contribute our best ideas, explore new perspectives, and consider creative thinking strategies, the more likely we are to consistently come up with ideas and solutions that are unique and innovative. Not surprisingly, there is evidence to suggest that being creative for its own sake (or when we are intrinsically motivated) is more sustainably productive than when done for extrinsic rewards.
Just as we cannot overlook the impact of learning through play and creativity during our early years, we must also engage in play and creativity in our adult years, as professionals, in order to continue cultivating our abilities to learn and adapt. After all, skills like confidence, communication, and critical thinking are necessary to stay motivated and innovative in the workplace.
Practicing creativity at work
How can we tangibly promote creativity and play in the workplace, particularly when today’s office is most likely your living room, kitchen table, or even bedroom? For starters, creativity cannot exist without uncertainty. It requires us to let go of inevitability and open ourselves up to the possibility of messiness and discomfort, but also to the prospect of something new and exciting.
Creativity—and play, by extension—embraces this uncertainty. Many of us live and die by “to-do” lists, and it’s easy to create a false narrative in our brain that if we don’t cross everything off our list in a given day, that we’ve fallen short or even failed. This is a difficult cycle to break. But diluting ourselves down to a list of chores is not a ideal method to engage in our creative potential.
Try taking projects from your to-do list and reimagine them from a different point of view or from using a new approach. For example, you could pick one slide from a presentation, and ask your pairs of your team to build summaries of the slide using items around their work areas; afterwards, have them upload a photo of their work. You may be surprised to find how tinkering with alternatives to slide deck presentations, can spark creativity and engage your audience through a more meaningful and memorable message.
A significant part of sparking creativity has to do with challenging your mindset. Research points to the benefits of play in contributing to these healthy challenges. How we re-define play and reimagine learning for children in schools can absolutely work for adults in the workplace. Brainstorms should be seen as a blank canvas where all ideas and thoughts are welcome to be iterated upon. Mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow as a team. Getting up and moving around (like a quick crab walk across the living room) can help get the blood pumping again as we change perspective. And if you manage a team or are a C-suite executive, creativity is that much more important because it’s difficult to overcome obstacles if you don’t see yourself as creative.
Interdisciplinary collaborations has shown to be a firecracker for creativity. You can set up virtual brainstorm meetings with small groups of professionals belonging to different teams, roles and departments. Combine your marketers with your C-suite members; your technologists and sales teams. These settings force us to accommodate different perspectives. Everyone has to challenge their own ideas, and each other’s status quo.
It may be tempting to invite those who you identify as the most creative, and bring them together to creatively solve problems. However, I recommend a focus on convening people with a diverse set of perspectives and skill sets. This helps to avoid “hive mind,” where like-minded groups agree too often. Diversity of thought brings about solutions that, without it, your team may have never even considered.
Even when accounting for the abundance of research underscoring the importance of play and creativity, we cannot overstate the novelty of our current environment. It is a genuinely challenging time for everyone. And while many factors are beyond the realm of our control, such uncertainty provides an opportunity to grow, learn, and push ourselves to step outside of our normal comfort zones and harness our creativity.
Amy Jo Dowd, PhD is the head of evidence at the LEGO Foundation, focusing on the critical role of learning through play for children’s development and creativity. She joined LEGO’s leadership team to apply her passion for rigorous research to improve practices in child development and education. Amy holds master’s degrees from Stanford and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where she also earned her doctorate degree.