Creativity, innovation, synthesizing ambiguity, re-imagining the possible, and making unexpected connections - all important stuff; all becoming (/is already) business imperative.
Finally, all of this is about the absence of (in nearly all cases) routine problem solving.
I'm definitely biased, but I think this means that if we (sometimes) want to problem solve differently, we need different, or at least, augmented routines which helps us to acquire comfort and facility with a different set of behaviours.
If I had to summarize the "different set of behaviours" I'm speaking about into a single word, I think "play" would be a good candidate.
I associate play with unconstrained exploration, with generative reflex, and with deep engagement. In short, flexing the muscles needed to feel more comfortable and be more skilled at not filtering or censoring ourselves, building on ideas, seeking wild ideas, making unexpected connections, etc.
If organizations can find time for webinars, lunch & learns, sick days, voting, emergencies, key note addresses, etc. Perhaps we could find time to play too (or substitute some of those things with play).
I'd imagine IDEO might be a good place to look at to consider practices to adopt (e.g., having physical materials in the environment for people to, you guessed it, PLAY, with as they puzzle through problems and priorities).
Transitioning from the industrial to the knowledge to the creative economy has changed what matters.
Even problems that prioritize minimizing variance (e.g., cost control, error reduction, replication, and all kinds of efficiency) are now beginning with a heavy, clear emphasis on maximizing variance (e.g., brain writing, storming, gaming, streaming – coming up with as many and as crazy ideas as possible). For the rest, it often begins and ends with imagination and creativity, individually and in groups.
The problem is, if we as individuals and we as organizations aren’t used to behaving in a way which facilitates, welcomes, and strengthens imagination and creativity we’re at risk of doing the opposite.
When we think about bringing back playtime, there are lots of ways to go right. Here are a few zones to focus on:
Signal – what encouragement and vision exists to help ignite people generate ideas, collaborate, and engage?
Often, to help alignment, this role is given solely to management or senior leadership. For some employees, this will be a source of comfort. For others, it might feel like “all work and no play.” To help balance the needs of employees we suggest having senior leaders communicate what matters, but also allowing for and encouraging employees to contribute their own ideas, speculations, and challenges – whether big or small.
Senior leaders or management could achieve this by regularly posting videoblogs on the theme of “what matters now”, engaging in townhalls, online large scale google hangouts, and with their own direct reports.
Beyond immediate visible messaging, leaders need to “walk the talk.” This means helping to create opportunity for play to happen, recognize when it does, and engage it in themselves. The other zones help to offer some assistance as to what this could mean.
Time – what time do people have to introspect as individuals and share as groups?
The number one enemy of doing things differently is doing things the same; usually, because of a lack of time to do otherwise (or so we like to claim).
Helping people to have time to engage in play and play-related behaviours can be the result of large scale practices like 20% time and quarterly hackathons or Fed-Ex days, but it doesn’t have to be.
Finding time can be as simple as booking yourself a few hours a week, or a day a month. You decide. Even a 20 minute walk instead of a bus, subway/metro, or travelling by car can help you to reclaim some time for mulling and reflection. It just takes the discipline to carve out the time and use it.
Likewise, for group activities it just takes the discipline. Whether in workshops or problem solving meetings, you can structure the time to allow for reflection. Separate “how” and “why” thinking, and engage in exercises which help to stimulate creative, divergent thinking before jumping into the necessary analysis.
Space – what space do people have to help them reflect and share as groups?
With the advancement of communication technology, the only reason to be collocated with other people will be to collaborate – to team up with others.
Ideally, this means space is adaptable to fit the needs of each individual to allow them: to collaborate intentionally and accidentally (think “chance encounters”), time to reflect, and make progress (e.g., by receiving feedback or resources needed to experiment).
However, redesigning an entire office or campus may not be possible. There still remain some simple things individuals can do:
- To augment chance encounters engage in the practice of meeting your organizational neighbours. Extend the circle of people you know by asking others to lunch in the pursuit of better understanding what other functions do, and simply in meeting more people and understanding their roles, challenges, impacts, etc. This practice could even be expanded to meet others from other companies in same or different industries.
- Convert your office into an adaptable space. If you have a “zone” for creative speculation and thinking and a “zone” for analytical, you can help to separate and strengthen different types of thinking by helping to carve out permission to engage in different sets of behavior and reinforcing them over time.
- Invite colleagues to connect. If there is no internal space available, ever, then consider a local green space (weather permitting) or a nearby restaurant during downtime. Consider one early morning a month where different folks bring in bagels or other “breakfast-y” type foods and connect on what matters.
- To facilitate rapid feedback in your space, consider “light” surveys or social platforms, even instant messaging could help receive some key information just in time. Many low-user number applications of social platforms and basic surveys are free.
Tools & Toys – what materials do people have to help them explore, imagine, and connect?
Play and play time usually needs fuel, beyond the call to action and a clear set of challenges to tackle. The more variety people have to choose from the better. For some a marker and a whiteboard or pen(cil) and paper may be enough, for others maybe it is Lego, for others, Playdough, construction paper, scissors, glue, or even electronic kits. Companies like IDEO excel at making materials available for employees to play with.
Toys help us to explore different realities or reimagine different features of problems or solutions. Making them available, at least for yourself, is easy enough.
Beyond toys to help stimulate play and thinking, other tools which help to facilitate collaboration create the opportunities for ideas to connect and slow hunches to be catalyzed. For example, you can invite your colleagues to share by posting up flip charts with challenge statements or invitations and providing sticky notes.
Method – What methods (or techniques) are available to help people think differently?
Pulling people into a room and asking for their best ideas, and debating which one or few are ultimately “best” may not work out so well. The method you use matters, and can make a huge difference. Generally speaking, any method should help you:
Solve the right problem. Often one of the biggest obstacles to solving the problem is solving the right problem. A great answer or solution to a different question doesn’t get you much further. Spending time to define the aspects of the problem or opportunity, and settle on what is really the heart of the issue is a critical piece. Some like the 5 Whys, some like Gary Klein’s “pre-mortem” (analyzing failure before it happens), others brainstorm on lists of questions or features that matter and then work to pair them down.
Incubate. Our conscious minds can only process so much, and get very distracted. If you are set on solving or exploring the difficult, complex, and ambiguous its really beneficially to give your unconscious time to chew. It will filter away all the unimportant stuff and help to refocus on what matters.
Separate “how” and “why.” Again, our marvelous minds have limits. One of them is that the resources required to think about “how” compete with resources to think about “why.” Doing both at the same time is a recipe for underperformance.
Manage intro, extro, and ambiverts. You need to allow for a blend of individual and group activities/exercises/practices to ensure that all participants with different levels of comfort expressing new, different, possibly conflicting ideas. This might sound difficult, but is as easy as making sure to preface brainstorming type activities (groups sharing/listing ideas) with brain-writing type activities (individuals work on lists alone first).
Facilitate unexpected connections. Individuals sharing ideas helps to stimulate unexpected connections, but you can push this further. Consider emphasizing “mashups” of different features or themes. Evolve ideas further by discussing what is liked, missing, or could be changed. Frame questions as “how could” or “how might” to open up possibilities. Expose people to examples of outcomes and processes to help stimulate.
Fundamentally, separate making lists vs. making choices and practice the deferral of judgment, censoring oneself or others.
No matter what method is preferred (if there is a preferred method), what’s important to help employees develop facility using it regularly. Building in these practices into meetings where problems are discussed, or solutions created helps to establish the message that these behaviours are welcome, encouraged, and valuable.
The role of HR in bringing back is to help facilitate the flourishing of these behaviours by taking a macro and micro perspective. Fundamentally, it is about identifying the opportunities (signal, time, space, tools, and method) to make play and play time a normal part of how business gets done.
Impact on attitude: the fostering of curiousity, the belief that any one individual can make a significant meaningful contribution, the belief that ideas, speculation, questioning are all valuable, welcoming learning with and from others, seeking new, ambiguous, creatively demanding challenges.
Impact on actions: a learned, practiced ability to think differently across multiple ambiguous, creatively demanding situations – both as an individual and as a collaborator. Greater willingness to proactively meet and get to know people outside of established circles of colleagues.
Impact on outcomes: many more ideas, projects, and notions are created, shared, and acted upon creating the opportunity for significant value generation. Practices, procedures, or systems which unnecessarily limit or restrict curiousity, transparency, accessibility, creativity, and change will be questioned and pulled apart. Many more people will be networked together. Employees, on the whole, will probably be more engaged, more likely to look forward to working (playing!), more change and future oriented, more optimistic and resilient, and more excited about what “could be” when faced with ambiguous, complex challenges.
As I’ve stated elsewhere, the first challenge is mindset – overcoming “the now.”
There will be many excuses: “this isn’t a good time”, “we have other priorities”, “we are here to work not play”, “who else has done this before?”, “if it wasn’t made here, we don’t want it”, “we tried something like this before and it didn’t work”, “we’re different...” and so on.
It may require a significant amount of vision, courage, and persuasion from key senior leaders to help shift the gears of tradition to a more modern setting.
The second challenge is weaving together all the pieces in a coherent and easy (enough) to explain manner. If it looks like a random assortment of sometimes useful things, but each or many are disconnected from an overarching and clear purpose – most will not be able to see or understand how all the pieces fit together – it will seem to many as if the actions are uncoordinated, misaligned, and, in sum, ineffective.
The third challenge, related to the first, is to start doing something, and to build on it. Start small, work with what you can do as an individual, then invite like-minded others, and slowly create mass over time. Don’t wait for the organization to be ready.
Starting small, I’d probably recommend looking at “method” and then building in these practices, consciously into the appropriate forums (meetings, events, etc.). Even within a 20 minute span, you can usually double or triple the amount of output a group is capable of simply by providing some light methodology to help people think differently.
At the individual level, most (save signal, as it would come from yourself) could be implemented within one or two weeks.
Beyond the individual level, for a department, it would require the buy-in of the key leader(s) and a support person to help translate and provide decision support around the spirit and intention of the hack. Otherwise, you would simply need people who are willing to volunteer to imagine, create, and thinking differently more frequently.
Beyond the department level, you would probably need multiple levels of approval. Again though, this could be based on a pilot-test, volunteer-based method.
To conduct an experiment you could use the same group over time (e.g., base vs. intervention) or different groups (e.g., experimental vs. control), or blend both. You could use self and peer report to measure changes.
I would imagine this would all be doable on a very small budget, but the wider the scope the more investment of time it would require to communicate and organize.