Want to be more innovative? Go play

Photo credit: Zurijeta, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Zurijeta, Shutterstock

There are many different strategies to brainstorming, developing creative ideas, and getting the juices flowing. Author Bruce Nussbaum talks about using play to get innovative in his recently-released book, Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire. In an excerpt from the book on Co.Design, Nussbaum shares examples of how letting people who trust each other have some fun in a safe space has led to innovation and development.

For some time, American society has viewed play as kid stuff; it’s been dismissed as trivial or marginalized as the territory of those lucky enough to work in creative fields or the arts. And there’s some truth to the misconception. For centuries, musicians, painters, and dancers have utilized the strategies of play to create masterpieces. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the sculptor Richard Serra, known for his huge installations of sheet metal bent into spirals, ellipses, and arcs, explained his process: “In play you don’t foresee an end product. It allows you to suspend judgment. Often the solution to one problem sparks a possibility for another set of problems. . . . In the actual building of something you see connections you could not possibly have foreseen on that scale unless you were physically there.” Though there are countless ways of playing, play can be defined as tossing aside the rules of “regular life” for a period of time in order to follow new rules or try new possibilities. Play can exist within the structure of a formal game, but it doesn’t have to. (In fact, the words “play” and “game” are interchangeable in a number of languages, including German, though we separate the two in English.)

We often aim to achieve a goal, but sometimes we play simply for the joy of it. Playing can involve strategies–some simple, some very complex. Some games teach you everything you need to know before you begin; in others, you learn to play as you play to win.

When we play, we try things on and try things out. We improvise, taking on new roles, imagining what would happen if we possessed new capabilities or behaved differently. We throw away what doesn’t work and build on what does. We can play alone or compete against someone else; we can collaborate with another person or a team against a larger enemy. We may lose a game or a battle, but there is always the chance to start again.

Nussbaum emphasized that there do need to be rules and boundaries—including knowing that there are no right or wrong answers and making sure it is the right group of people who trust each other—and that play doesn’t always lead to a breakthrough. When using play as a brainstorming tactic, Nussbaum encourages people and businesses to look at problems as challenges to be overcome and to be a bit silly in their actions.

Do you use play in your creative life? What rules do you put in place for your brainstorming? What ideas has playtime given you?

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