Return to journal

The power of play: how to unleash your creative superpower

Damian Nowell 01 March 2022

A pile of Lego toys

I was chatting with an old friend the other day and we found ourselves reminiscing about our childhood and how free and innocent our imaginations were at the time. I found myself bemoaning adulthood and how, even in the creative world, we rarely have time for inventiveness. At work, I said, our instinct for invention through playfulness is more dismantled than developed. 


My friend stopped me mid-whine and began to talk about the benefits of something called ‘Lego Serious Play’. Yes, it’s a thing, for actual, serious grown-ups. And it had won my friend over. 


It turns out their company had recently invested in Serious Play – a facilitation method that gets people to literally build ideas, encourage creative thinking and collaboration – to solve important challenges. And it seemed to work. Which begs the question: if this approach gets results, why isn’t play more valued in the world of work?   


All this has got me reflecting on the last two years, our experiences of lockdown and the importance of play for adults as well as children in that time. Could it hold the key to unlocking better creativity at work?


We’re only a Google away from proof that we grown-ups benefit from even the most childlike forms of play. For many, lockdown meant much more time sharing in practical play with youngsters. From fort-building to storytelling, research suggests that adult and child brains are literally ‘on the same wavelength’ during these activities. For all of us, playing loosens inhibitions, floods the brain with positive chemicals and opens channels that are responsible for prediction, language processing and sensitivity to social cues. 


This, I think, goes some way to explaining why the UK saw a whopping 62% per cent of adults engage in computer and online gaming since mid-2020. This wasn’t just about having more time on our hands. Whether it was driven by a need for escapism or social connection, lockdown gaming helped us practice some of the skills we’d normally show in our professional lives – pursuing mutual goals, allocating shared resources and team troubleshooting, for example.  


If play is such an instinctive, shared and human path to creativity and problem-solving, how can we adopt practical play, play through technology – or even the creative benefits reaped from solitude in the workplace? And how can we reverse the ingrained idea that, despite the fact that so many of us got into this industry because it promised creativity and fun, play has no place at work?  


There’s a lot to be said on the subject and, while we practice much of this at RY in various forms (creativity is our lifeblood, after all), I’m sure there’s more we could do. Nevertheless, here are a few starter-for-ten thoughts.  


Broaden your creative landscape


Much of creativity comes down to making connections: connections between things, ideas, people, concepts, images – whatever. Creative people aren’t just good at making connections – they’re good at exploring and gathering ideas that will form a diverse ‘bank’ of stimuli upon which connections can be made. Feed people’s curiosity. Give them time to explore passions and interests and responses to your world in culture. In group sessions, encourage connection-making by exposing them to surprising and diversionary stimuli – music and memory are great starting points.


Visualise problems (and solutions)…live


Try this: when looking at a problem (creative, organisational or otherwise) ask people to respond to the problem first by representing the challenge itself visually, and then the solution in the same way. Let them do this in their own way (drawing artistically, creating a flow chart, or constructing something in three dimensions, for example. In representing something conceptual physically, people begin to understand, reflect on and connect with problems in dramatically new ways. It creates better dialogue and deeper, more innovative solutions.


Make problem-solving a cooperative, ego-less game


More and more board games these days are cooperative rather than competitive: they bring people together to win as a team. It can be a rewarding experience – provided players feel like equals. Think about bringing this feeling to tackling creative or professional challenges. The simplest of techniques – ‘that’s great, and…’ – helps to create equal and productive creative paces where problem-solving is cooperative and gamified. It’s easy: one person puts forward an idea, the next says ‘that’s great, and…’ before building on it – and so on.


Embrace ‘build, test, learn’


Traditional, linear ways of tackling challenges or running projects naturally put intense periods of work under pressure to deliver products or ideas that are flawless right away. That’s fine, but all too often this way of working bakes fear into the process and doesn’t allow for runaway creativity or working at speed. There’s another way: don’t let your people worry about their answers being perfect right off the bat. Encouraging them to be instinctive, to build simple products or ideas without worrying if they’re going to fail (before testing and refining them), is essentially putting them into a playful mindset that will drive creativity that is faster and generates better outcomes. 


Make it real for everyone


Some companies schedule time for play (so-called ‘play breaks) across their business. That might seem a little radical to some and, if so, an alternative is to gently encourage people to find small ways to bring play into their working lives. Make this about everyone – everyone in your business problems to solve – and give them simple ideas and techniques to help them engage more deeply with ideas and in more surprising ways.


Make the case to leadership


There’s good evidence that allowing your people to engage in playfulness at work drives better outcomes: more productivity and a more engaged workforce. Getting agreement at the highest level will help unlock time and spaceless traditional styles of working.


Instinctively most of us feel play as no place at work. It’s not for us, it’s for the kids, right? But play alters the brain’s chemistry, whoever you are and whatever age. It helps the hemispheres to work together, it forges connections and surfaces memories – all wonderful catalysts of creative solutions to all kinds of problems. It makes us happier and more effective, too. It’s more than worth its place in the creative toolbox.


By Damian Nowell, Creative Director