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Look At Work As Play

Experts estimate that organizations and individuals will spend more than 25 billion dollars this year to enhance the value of their creativity. Clearly, many people are making large bets on stirring up more ideas and turning more of the ideas into practical improvements.

When you read about such activities, you soon notice that almost all of them have one approach in common: stop doing business as you always have and provide instead something better. While applying that approach won’t be enough by itself to gain more value from creativity, it’s certainly a start in the right direction.

A few innovation-seekers have added other improvement methods, such as changing the nature of work, the topic of this article. Let’s consider an example.

While reading about Pixar, the company that has developed so many successful animated motion pictures, I was fascinated to learn that Steve Jobs, who received a lot of credit for this success while he was CEO, went to great lengths to shake things up for the people there. Creative people at Pixar credited Jobs with insisting on an office design that forced them to meet with one another in casual ways much more often, something they initially resisted, but that they now highly value.

How did Jobs do it? Each building could only have one set of bathrooms. Jobs knew that lots of helpful conversations and good thinking would occur while going to and from the bathrooms.

From where could such an insight have come? Well, you went to primary school, didn’t you? Did you have better conversations in class . . . or while you were going to and from the bathroom with a friend?

In fact, many of the creativity-enhancing “breakthrough methods” I read about are simply adaptations of what worked best in primary school for stimulating learning and enthusiasm.

What are some of the lessons?

1. Leave your work area to let your subconscious mind have uninterrupted time to deliver ideas to your conscious mind. Enjoy more recesses to increase your insights. Wander around with no purpose from time to time. Go for unscheduled walks.

2. Seeing something new and unexpected can trigger an enormously valuable idea. Take time to gain new experiences and perspectives. Imagine yourself boldly going where no one else has gone before. Explore something new every day with the heart of an adventurer and the joy of a discoverer.

3. Less structure at work produces more ideas. Valuable creative ideas don’t come out of machines like parts rolling off an automated assembly line. Take unscheduled breaks and fiddle around with unrelated ideas to create more mental space for imagination and integrating insights.

4. Someone else knows the answer to what you want to accomplish. Ask others for their thoughts as often as possible. Become a master of playing twenty questions.

5. Learn more about what you do well. Many people focus their energies on improving in areas that aren’t their strengths. They would do better to stay with what they do best and let others fill in the rest. If you are good, practice makes perfect. If you aren’t very good, practice may merely take you to being less ineffective. Think of yourself as a star putting on a performance that will enthrall millions.

To me, it seems artificial and not particularly helpful to build lists of how to be more unstructured. So let me provide a simple guiding direction instead: look at work as play.

When you play, your inherent interest in what you are doing draws you to ask new questions, seek out different kinds of answers, and be open to new influences. Those shifts in your focus are quite good for combining desirable attributes together for the first time, a common way of delivering new forms of valuable creativity.

Some high-tech companies formalize this way of encouraging innovation a bit by permitting employees to devote 10 to 20 percent of their work week to working on whatever interests them. The organizations that use this approach report that most of their breakthroughs have come from such “play” time rather than from formal projects that initially seemed to offer “logical” promise.

What if your organization doesn’t permit this freedom “to do your own thing”? Do it on your own. You will never know what good things can result until you try.

Here’s an example of what I mean by finding your own ways to stimulate imagination.

Dr. Jibrin Isah earned a Ph.D. in Economics from Rushmore University. His doctoral dissertation looked at privatizing banks in Nigeria and the resulting effects on efficiency. For many people that kind of research and writing would seem like an uninspiring way to spend time.

Dr. Isah didn’t see it that way. He saw this work as an opportunity to advance his banking career. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

Because his doctoral studies were done part-time while he worked full-time at a Nigerian bank, he gained a chance to play with aspects of banking that interested him that would not have been assigned at work. As a result, he learned unexpected lessons.

In assessing his personal strengths and weaknesses during these studies, he more highly valued his skills as a team player, analyst, and innovator, as well as the combination of his commitment to achieving goals and his work ethic for doing so. Becoming equipped with more knowledge and better appreciating his personal strengths caused his confidence to grow. Consequently, he was eager to handle bigger challenges than he had previously considered.

Dr. Isah also learned that the lessons of his research had a much broader and more important application than just making banks more efficient: they could be used for setting all government policies that affect business. Consequently, he wanted to gain a hands-on opportunity to explore what he could accomplish through improving government.

After graduating, Dr. Isah changed careers so he could have more latitude to play in the so-called real world of government. He feels that he can “boldly face the challenges that lie ahead.” That’s a pretty nice way to feel, isn’t it?

What can you do today to turn your work into play so that you can create many more valuable contributions? The world is waiting for your unique contributions.

I suggest you start turning your work into play by answering the following questions. I’ve included Dr. Isah’s answers to inspire you:

1. What are you most skilled at doing?

Dr. Isah’s answer: skilled at writing, innovative thinking, and good orator

2. What forms of play bring out the most creative juices for you where your skills are greatest?

Dr. Isah’s answer: golf and tennis with colleagues and friends

3. How can you gain more flexibility in your work style and focus?

Dr. Isah’s answer: More flexibility in work can be gained by not doing work/assignment in the conventional way, but always looking at the end result (positively achieved) regardless of the way it is achieved.

4. What creative activities would stimulate you the most outside of work?

Dr. Isah’s answer: golf and tennis

5. How can you gain more insights into valuable innovations from playing with others?

Dr. Isah’s answer: It brings out the best in me and enables me to see how others view my opinion or thinking, thereby making my thoughts or speech uniquely different and nearly perfect.

Recess has just started! Don’t just sit there. Play!

Donald W. Mitchell is a professor at Rushmore University who often teaches people who want to improve their business effectiveness in order to accomplish career breakthroughs through earning advanced degrees. For more information about ways to engage in fruitful lifelong learning at Rushmore University to increase your effectiveness, I invite you to visit