Serious play


Pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot made a bold claim in his book, Playing and Reality (1971):

“… in playing, and perhaps only in playing, the child or adult is free to be creative.”

And if you’ve ever observed your own kids totally immersed in play, you will have seen how the outside world seems to disappear completely and nothing else matters. They are entirely focused on the task in hand.

Actually, it’s not so different for highly creative individuals or teams in organisations. Time seems to stand still as the ideas take shape. And most of the process looks like fun.

Researcher Teresa Amabile (1998) pinpointed the factors that kill creativity in organisations. She argued that creativity stems from three main components:

  • expertise (deep knowledge of the particular field)
  • creative-thinking skills (such as flexibility, imagination and persistence)
  • motivation (when the inner drive to solve a problem or come up with an idea is perceived as much more important than the lure of external rewards. Daniel Pink echoes this view in his book, Drive).

If organisations squash these components through the way they operate day-to-day, then groundbreaking creativity and innovation are unlikely to emerge.

To maximise creativity, try asking people the question to be answered and then get out of their way while they work out their own solution.

This approach requires a great deal of trust on the part of management, and a willingness to accept that mistakes and blind alleys are part and parcel of the process. In the end though, if the right people are in the right roles and playing to their strengths, the creativity that results can be astonishing.

Coaching works along the same lines. Asking the right questions and getting out of people’s way while they think through their own solutions yields remarkable creativity. Giving people the space to ‘play’ with ideas allows some seriously good thinking to happen.


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