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(Published: 2008-07-28)

Scientists have only recently begun to realize that people may do their best thinking when they are not concentrating on work at all. It turns out that the unconscious mind is a terrific solver of complex problems. If you’ve ever had a big ‘ah hah’ when you’re out for a run, taking a shower, doing something fun, or even in a dream, you know what I’m talking about. When the conscious mind is busy elsewhere, or better yet, not busy at all, there’s room in our unconscious mind for new ideas to appear.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the harder we work, the more hours we spend in the office, and the more we focus our efforts directly on the problems at hand, the sooner we will have our innovative breakthroughs. It’s a paradox, but it turns out that as our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think tend to thicken along with our experience. It’s important for businesses to realize that if they are serious about innovation, they need to lighten up and have a little fun.

I remember a great example from my days at Target. One fine summer afternoon my boss was practicing MBWA (management by walking around.) He stopped by my office and casually asked where the industrial designers were. In his strolling, he had noticed that all of the cubes on one side of the floor were empty. I told him that they were out at the airport, hoping that would be the end of the inquiry.

It wasn’t. “Are they leaving on a business trip?” he asked, more or less assuming that that was the case. I ended up explaining that they were out doing ethnographic research—interviewing and observing travelers as they waited for their luggage to arrive (or not arrive, as the case may be) on the baggage carousel. We were starting a new luggage design project and the team felt that a short recreational trip to the airport might trigger some empathetic,innovative insights. In effect, I was encouraging my design team to get out of their box (cube?) and have some fun, while working hard, of course.

I’m not sure my boss liked my rationale. I got the impression that he’d have been happier to see them all working away at their desks. After all, isn’t that what they were being paid to do? And wouldn’t it be chaos if everyone were allowed to just take off in the middle of the day to do something creative?

What if, indeed!? Maybe we’d have a more enjoyable, stimulating, and creative work environment if we took more time to play. In “The Artist’s Way” author Julia Cameron notes that “serious art is born from serious play.” Her best-selling book has long been a muse to artists, poets, and designers. In it, she advocates nurturing our childish, playful side by taking ourselves on weekly “artist dates.” The idea is to do something playful, fun, intriguing, unusual, or adventuresome for an hour, at least once a week.

Innovation is the ability to envision possible future worlds, very different from the world we inhabit now, and to bring those worlds into being. That’s awfully hard to do if you never venture outside the boundaries that already exist. If innovation is going to thrive, we’re going to have to work hard to bring more play into our lives.

So, why not invite your inner child to work now and again? Do something daring, whimsical, or frivolous. Get serious about innovation….go have some fun!

The Artist's Way

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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