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cartoon: businessman captures idea in office

Don't Capture Ideas. Play With Them

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Isn't it funny? If you wanted to be a better football player, you would look at professional football players and learn from them by emulating their actions such as their moves, their regular exercises and maybe even by wearing a team football shirt. If you wanted to paint portraits, you would learn to by copying the work of the great painters and portrait artists in order to discover their techniques and so develop similar techniques. This is why you occasionally see entire art classes in art museums copying old masters' works. Yet, when it comes to being more creative, do business people look to highly creative people, emulate their actions and learn from them? No, they do not. Instead, they use techniques and tools only used by other businesses trying to be creative, while utterly ignoring the methods used by artists, composers, authors and the most creative group of all: children.

Kids Do Not Brainstorm

If you buy a new refrigerator and give your kids the box to play with, do they sit down in front of a whiteboard and shout out suggestions about what to do with the box? Do they encourage freewheeling and prohibit criticism of ideas, aiming to generate as many ideas as possible, organise those ideas and vote for the best idea? Of course they do not! They play with the bloody box!

Neither Do Artists

Nowhere in the art history books will you find a picture of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in a room full of Post-It notes in order to come up with cubism. Admittedly, this is partly because Post-It notes did not exist when they developed the innovative new movement. But it is also because when artists collaborate, they do not do brainstorming or anything like it. Like children, the founders of cubism played with ways to present a three dimensional world, viewed from different perspectives, on a two dimensional canvas. In doing so, they developed cubism.

What idea management software does your favourite band use in order to compose new music? Probably none! Most musicians get together and play.

Capturing Ideas

Look at the vocabulary of creativity. Businesses invest in tools to capture ideas. Capture them! That brings to mind images of men and woman in suits running around, grabbing ideas and putting them into little cages so that they cannot get away.

When I was a child in America, we used to capture fireflies (also known as lightning bugs). We'd run around with little jars. When we saw a firefly, we'd nab it in cupped hands and put it in the jar. We also poked holes in the jar covers so that the fireflies could breath and would not die. But they soon died anyway. How about your business? Do you ensure your captured ideas can breath? Do you feed them? Or do you just let them die?

Businesses capture ideas. If they have trouble doing so, they can hire creativity consultants to help them find more complex ways to capture ideas. They can invest in software to capture ideas. They can imprison those ideas in databases and spreadsheets to ensure they never get away.

Do Children Capture Ideas?

But do you know a child, artist, composer, comedian, author, choreographer, film director or any other truly creative person who captures ideas? They would not dare to do such a stupid thing to an idea! Creative people do not capture ideas. They play with ideas. They play with situations for which they need ideas.

Imagine a group of young children in a wood pretending they are jungle explorers. One moment, they are being chased by a lion. The next, they are trapped in quicksand. Suddenly, Johnny shrieks, "Oh no, we are being attacked by polar bears!"

Susan, exclaims, "Don't be silly, polar bears do not live in the jungle. They live in the arctic circle."

Shocked, the creativity facilitator says, "Susan, there is no criticism in brainstorming. Let's accept Johnny's idea and build upon it instead."

No, of course, that does not happen! Kids bat about ideas and play with them relentlessly. They criticise ideas and dispose of them without a care. They compromise. They change the rules of reality to accommodate their games. Maybe they decide to allow a polar bear into their pretend jungle. That's okay.

But Businesses Capture Them

Business largely ignores the actions of truly creative people and, instead, invests in tools and techniques that creative people do not use. They capture tiny little ideas and fail to let those ideas grow through play. After all, playing is unbusinesslike.

Creativity consultants insist that following the strict rules of creative problem solving (CPS) and similar methodologies is the only way to be creative, even though children, artists and others do not do anything like CPS when they are creative.

Software vendors insist their idea capturing products are the best way to capture ideas. Yet their software has no air holes and the poor ideas it captures soon die from neglect.

Not surprisingly, companies that invest in these tools and techniques fail to develop creative ideas that might become true innovations. Instead, they capture small ideas, occasionally implement a couple of them and call themselves innovators.

You Need Play Instead

If you want creativity in your business, charity or government office, you need to facilitate and encourage play. Capture a kitten and put it in a box and it will soon die. Even if you give it air holes and feed it, the poor animal will grow up to be an unhappy, unhealthy and mentally messed up cat. Bring a kitten home, play with her, let her run around and feed her; she will grow up into a healthy and happy cat.

If you have worked with creativity facilitators and innovation consultants, reflect on the best of them. Most likely they were the most playful consultants. They probably inspired playfulness in you. Even if they used disproven techniques such as brainstorming, they got results; not because of their method, but because of their playfulness.

Give me your team and a room offsite and within a day, I can have them relaxing, laughing and playing with ideas that will quickly grow into amazing concepts. Even the most staid accountant will come up with awesome ideas when she's encouraged to play. But, put her back into the cold, businesslike and playless confines of the office and her ideas are likely to whither away and die. It is not enough to get people playing with ideas one day and prohibiting play the next.

A Playful Office Is a Creative Office

It is like school in the old days (and today in many places). During recess, kids go out an play in the schoolyard. Their imaginations run wild and their creativity soars. But, the bell rings and they go back to their orderly desks where they learn by rote and creativity fades. But, at least those kids go out and play on a daily basis. In the business world, they are lucky to get out and play a couple of times per year. No wonder, businesspeople struggle to be creative. They seldom get to play.

So, if you want a higher level of creativity in your organisation − and innovation requires that higher level of creativity in order to thrive − you need to encourage play. You need to create a more playful working environment. You need to provide spaces for people to play. You need to bring in facilitators who encourage playing with situations and ideas rather than capturing a stifling ideas. You need laughter and fun, not just during occasional creative outings, but regularly. People need to play not only to devise ideas, but to develop them, fix them when things go wrong and implement them.

It will not be easy. It will not be businesslike. But more than anything else you can do, encouraging and enabling play will facilitate serious creativity and innovation.

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium