Play Your Way to Innovation

August 31st, 2017 | Posted in Change, Fit Leader, initiative, Innovation, Leadership Fitness, Reading List by

Innovation is serious business, and yet sometimes we are just too serious about innovation.

Throughout history, we can see that play actually has served as a reliable gateway to innovation. In Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson illustrates how playfulness has fueled a remarkable amount of innovation and new discovery.

Consider Charles Babbage, a pioneer in the development of the modern computer. When Babbage was just a child, his mother took him to a Mechanical Museum, where he was entertained by a number of whimsical devices, including a mechanical dancer.

As an adult, Babbage maintained his interest in machines, and after receiving a degree in mathematics he went on to develop a calculating machine he called the Difference Engine which then led him to invent the Analytical Engine.

The Analytical Engine is considered to be the first programmable computer ever imagined.

Without that initial playful experience in the Mechanical Museum as a small child, the wheels of experimentation and innovation may never have been seeded for Babbage.

Play serves as a gateway to new possibilities by presenting us with new ways to engage with our environment and with others. These opportunities to think differently and unexpectedly provide the necessary space for innovation.

According to Johnson, “when the world surprises us with something, our brains are wired to pay attention”. Einstein called play “the essential feature of productive thought”.

At Atlassian, an Australian software company, employees are given a full day each quarter to work on whatever they want, with whomever they want. At 3M, employees are permitted to spend up to 15% of each work week “to chase rainbows and hatch their own ideas”. Google and Hewlett-Packard now have similar programs.

3M, a multinational powerhouse, with more than $20 billion in annual sales, boasts 22,800 patents, many derived from its “15 percent program”.

Consider the role of play in moving you from what you already know into the realm of things you just haven’t figured out yet, and think about how you might encourage playfulness as you work to create innovative solutions with members of your team.

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