Five-year-olds are brilliant. If you give them a fistful of crayons and ask them to draw their perfect home, they’ll happily set to work and give you something surprising. You’ll get multi-coloured rocket boats, tower blocks with a helter-skelter down the outside and all sorts of wild ideas. It’s an amazing stage of life. Ten-year-olds, on the other hand, will start saying things like “I’m not very good at drawing” and “what do you mean by ‘perfect home?’” And if I was to do the same exercise with adults like you, there would be even more complaining and even less imagination.

As someone who helps organisations come up with powerful ideas, I’m often asked: “how do you make people more creative?” My answer is usually that I don’t. Instead, I help people to be less uncreative.

That may sound like a ridiculous thing to say but hear me out.

How we lose the magic

I find that everyone has the ability to come up with ideas. But for many, these abilities are lying dormant behind barriers that have been erected over time. Each barrier is a layer fear. 

It starts at school with the fear of doing something wrong. Kids are told off if they don’t colour inside the lines. They get marked down if they don’t give the correct answer. They even get berated if they get the right answer but don’t reach it the right way. These are the first dampers to douse our creative sparks.

Sadly, education focuses on what to think rather than how to think. 

And the situation only gets worse when we enter the workforce. There’s a legitimate fear that if you don’t do the right thing, you might lose your job. So people are scared of rocking the boat, of disagreeing with their boss or making suggestions that aren’t backed up with solid proof. Arse-covering becomes more important than original thinking.

This leads to conformity. It stifles thinking. It creates a barren landscape where ideas are unable to germinate, flourish or bear fruit.

Ideas are your future

But all organisations are now operating in a shifting landscape that requires them to evolve if they want to remain relevant. 

A 2010 study by IBM found that CEOs around the world believed creativity was the most important skill for the future success of their business. 

Innovation is seen as a vital business function. In recent years billions have been invested in it by the world’s top companies all hoping to be the next Uber or Tesla or Airbnb. 

But a recent McKinsey study revealed that 94% of business leaders are dissatisfied with their innovation efforts. I didn’t leave out a decimal point there. The figure really is 94%.

Something is clearly amiss.

I believe it’s the crippling effect of conformity. I believe it’s the layers of fear that prevent people from truly extraordinary thinking. I believe it’s the focus on productivity and utilisation that perpetuates the lie that repetitive doing is more important than ground-breaking thinking.

But I also believe it’s possible to bypass these limiting mindsets.

Being businesslike is bad for business

We all have a concept in our minds of what work is. And what it isn’t. Few people think that play belongs in the workplace. And this is a really harmful assumption based on a misunderstanding of what play is.

Play is a hugely valuable state that helps you break out of the limiting assumptions and fears that prevent fresh thinking. 

Let’s look at what happens when you play a game of Monopoly. A group of people agree to operate by a new set of rules for a limited period of time. You assign roles, agree a process, outline what is acceptable behaviour and define the end goal. Once the agreed goal has been reached, the play session ends and you all return to normality.

In the workplace, play allows a group of people to temporarily take on new assumptions, adopt different perspectives and measure success by new criteria. That helps them generate ideas they would not normally be capable of.

Just like the play of your childhood, it can take on various forms, from role play and competition through to skilful play and tinkering. And these different activities make it incredibly versatile. In the world of business, you can use play to discover information, understand your audience better, discover valuable insights, test hypotheses, generate ideas, judge ideas, find ways around obstacles, develop strategy, explore new markets and so much more. 

Businesses tend to operate within a limited set of thinking. Over time, the organisation’s thinking becomes ever-more focused and less flexible as they strive for efficiency and higher profits. Play allows an organisation access every other kind of thinking outside of their constrained approach. And, in turn, allows them to come up with ideas that can have a radical impact on their business. 

All that’s left now is to make these ideas happen without being destroyed by the corporate antibodies that exist to eliminate anything outside the norm. 

But that involves management embracing some of the other amazing abilities of five-year-olds, which is a topic for another day.

Dave Birss, creativity and applied thinking expert and speaker in the Thought Expansion Network – a community of world-class thinkers, business brains and social activists:

Prepared and edited by @EdinaZejnilovic, Journalism Student at DCU.

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