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Imagine yourself working in an exciting place like this

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe a group of creative knowledge workers in their stimulating creative zone for a couple of hours. (By the way, in-the-field observation is a time-intensive yet often insightful innovation tool used in the first stage of the creative process, which we call Xploration in our X-IDEA innovation method). Allow me to share with you the uncommon behaviors at work and play that I noticed at this interesting workplace.

Picture yourself working in an environment like this

What was the first astonishing thing I noticed upon arriving at this extraordinary site? People are eager to come here! And, once checked in, they get started straight away. The place is buzzing and humming. The sound from the motivating background music playing all day long is supplemented by occasional excited cheers and joyful screams when someone achieves success. 

The stimulus-rich environment offers lots of different activity zones, tools, props, visual stimuli, sounds, and tactile stimulations, which inspire the participants to easily, effortlessly, and enjoyably come up with lots of ideas. Some participants opt to sit at a work zone with desks to collaborate or learn something new from seniors and supervisors; others are excitedly moving around. Surprisingly, many even run from one zone to the next and, at times, excitedly jump up and down like so many jack-in-the-boxes. 

These knowledge seekers tend to curiously listen to the suggestions of their leaders and typically follow their directions. A spirit of trust pervades the air; rookies have confidence that their more experienced colleagues know the right thing to do and care for everyone’s well-being. Juniors also do not hesitate to ask their seniors for help when needed and then wander off to work alone.

Overall, I sense that everyone has a strong desire to learn and try doing something new. I see much experimentation and trial and error; participants enjoy constructing and building models of new things they imagine using whatever suitable props are at hand. 

Also, I spot various individuals courageously trying out some bold new activities. After taking risks and failing, I observe that many dust off their ego and endlessly repeat the process until achieving their goal. Then, they celebrate by raising their arms in the air, clapping their hands, and high-fiving and hugging each other.

Everyone focuses on working, learning, and being in the present moment. I can spot several knowledge seekers who are wholly absorbed by what they are doing and are in a state of flow (also labeled the state of “optimal experience” by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Little wonder that in this environment, time seems to fly by. When the place is about to shut down in the evening, many knowledge creators are disappointed when they’re told it’s time to go home, and some plead to be allowed to continue working a bit longer.

Revealing what’s behind this extraordinary environment

You might wonder now: What is this stunning workplace all about? Last Sunday, my 4½-year-old daughter Zoë and I visited an indoor kids playground in Bangkok. Watching my daughter and the other children play and interact with each other, I couldn’t help contrasting their immense positive energy and creativity with what happens daily in most workplaces. (I also couldn’t help noticing how much the staff cares for their primary customers, a wild bunch of energetic, creative kids).

Undoubtedly, the “work climate” at this kids playground is noticeably different from that one can observe in a typical workplace environment, especially in a mature, well-established organization. Let me flesh out some of these differences below. 

How does the climate in the kids playground differ from that of a typical work environment?

The climate at the kids’ “workplace” is energetic, positive, and playful, as illustrated above. In contrast, most work environments are serious places where solemn knowledge workers concern themselves with —often negatively framed— work situations, such as dealing with issues, noticing and solving problems, debating and arguing about disagreements in meetings, weeding out inefficiencies, and many others. 

The organizational cultures of most mature, settled corporations are reactive, static, and self-preserving in nature. “Don’t rock the boat” and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” are well-known maxims that describe such a low-risk, slow-moving and comfortable climate. But as we all know and can readily see in a playground, learning and growth happen when people do things outside their comfort zones. In the playground, proaction, change and movement occur from the get-go.

Because of their reactive nature, most long-established companies also exhibit an idea-hostile climate, where managers and knowledge workers routinely judge and shoot down ideas using well-known idea killer sentences like “It won’t work,” “Don’t be a dreamer,” or “It’s never been done before.” In comparison, the playground is a highly creative environment where kids let their imagination run wild, and educators, caretakers, and kids share, nurture, and test ideas. 

Most companies frown upon knowledge workers who take the initiative and try something new at work; if they work on an idea that fails as a project, it might even lead to a career setback and a black mark on their employment record. What a difference to a kids’ playground: here, trying something new, failing, trying it again in a slightly different way, and eventually succeeding is an essential part of learning and acquiring new skills and know-how. In fact, planning to fail is in line with evolutionary principles of negative feedback and trial and error (not trial and rightness). 

This learning by failing is possible because, in the playground, the educational staff (and most parents) trust the kids’ abilities and vice versa. There is a constructive conflict of ideas about what to do or not to do next. Still, the atmosphere is very different from many office environments characterized by distrust, politics, and the dark arts of B.S. These aspects also explain why managers direct, monitor, and closely control what people do at work in most companies. In the playground, however, kids freely wander around and decide for themselves what to play, learn, do, and try out next.

Also, many company cultures encourage sameness, collectivism, and conformity to the organization’s set ways of doing things. In contrast, kids are encouraged to let their individuality shine in the playground, where diverse kids of different age groups, genders, nationalities, ethnicities, and religions peacefully and naturally play together.

One final and significant difference: In a typical company, most people work because of monetary rewards (such as a high salary, bonus payments, promotions, and other extrinsic motivational factors). In contrast, no kid shows up at the playground because they expect to get paid for their “work.” The fun, excitement, and challenge of the different activities they can do there drive them. They don’t need to be paid but are intrinsically motivated by the various activities themselves.

Playing a CooL game to teach executives about creativity-limiting and -inducing cultural factors

Conclusion: Visit a playground to learn more about cultural factors driving organizational creativity

So what? Freedom and self-management; playfulness and positivity; proaction and movement; an idea-friendly climate; collaboration and constructive conflict of ideas; initiative and failure tolerance; brainstorming and prototyping ideas; trust and cultivation of individuality and diversity; and intrinsic motivation as the driver of work activity; all these factors that we can observe at a playground are vital aspects of a creative organizational culture that is lived at some of the world’s most innovative companies, such as 3M, Google, Apple, and Pixar, among others.

Compare these creativity-inducing and innovation-affine factors with the following list of more settled (and, for many companies, typical) cultural factors:

  • Seriousness and negativity
  • Preservation, reaction, and stasis
  • An idea-hostile climate full of judgment and idea killing
  • Failure intolerance
  • Distrust, politics, and B.S.
  • Command and control
  • Uniformity, collectivism, and conformity pressures
  • Extrinsic motivation as the primary driver of activity

The companies that exhibit many or all of these innovation-hostile factors tend to be followers, not leaders in innovation. And as Steve Jobs noted: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

So, at the advent of the Sixth Wave of technological innovation, ask yourself: Do you want to lead, manage, and work in a “Me Too”-company that lags behind the innovation trends and will eventually be threatened by creative destruction? Or do you want to help to creatively transform your company with a creative culture that we call “Creativity UnLimited”? My tip: Head off to the playground. It’s more fun, lively, creative, and success-prone in the innovation age.

  • CooL—Creativity UnLimited is Thinkergy’s creative culture transformation method to guide companies in industries facing disruption and the threat of “creative destruction” driven by the Sixth Wave toward building an innovative culture. Please find out how we might help you start the change from copycat to CooL.
  • We also create an experiential “idea playground” for innovation teams when doing Ideation in an X-IDEA Innovation Project workshop or our 3-day flagship innovation training, The X-IDEA Innovation Playshop. 
  • Contact us if we can support you and your teams to get back into the innovation game as we move into the endemic phase and business rebounds in many countries.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2022. This article is earmarked to be co-published in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.