Trying to develop a new product or process? Are you looking for a solution to a particularly vexing problem? Is your company working on a new marketing or communication campaign?
The work world isn’t suffering from a dearth of boring brainstorming sessions, especially when just a spoonful of fun can spur the kind of breakout success we’ve seen in conjuring clever and creative ideas. In fact, research shows you can boost scores on a standardized test of creativity by exposing people to humor or other conditions that establish a “playful atmosphere.”
Basically, there are a few ways to get to that sweet spot: one—make the work environment more fun; and two—awaken your team’s latent funness (not a real word).
Most employees are passionate about something—fishing, gardening, nose rings—just not their jobs. Finding and tapping into employees’ passion can fire up creative juices. To spur the kind of creativity that leads to wins, it’s not unusual for sports equipment giant Nike to send its people to far-flung places of the globe to get them into a creative mindset. Employee groups might attend the Boston Marathon or the National Hockey League All Star Game; they might get a sense of what’s cool in attire by hanging out at a skate park in New York or riding the waves with the surf dudes at Redondo Beach.
Now, you may not be able to send your employees to the beach to get better ideas, but there are some simple things you can do to lighten up brainstorming meetings and get creativity flowing. One of us worked for a company that began each big idea meeting with hot pizza and a fifteen-minute cock and bull session. We chatted, caught up on current events and laughed a lot. Barbs were exchanged. Stories were shared. The Heimlich was performed. All good fun. Then the ideas really flowed. Mostly unexpected, “out of the box” creativity, born of innocent levity.
Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling:
- Before any brainstorming meeting, take a few minutes to watch some especially witty and clever TV/online ads or look at a few imaginative magazine ads to get minds in the right, creative frame.
- Cover the table with white paper and give everyone colored pencils or crayons to draw out the problem. Many people can see and solve problems visually, while they struggle verbally.
- Encourage people to dress casually and meet in a place with natural light.
- Keep a stack of toys, puzzles, Nerf balls, balsa airplanes, Slinkies and Silly Putty in meeting rooms. To play with of course, not just for adornment.
- Take a quick break every hour to do something physical and fun—spin in your chairs a half dozen times, tell your worst clean joke, stand and recite the company mission statement with your best impression, rhyme every phrase for a few minutes, play a round of charades, play 20 questions, do a quick Pictionary activity, and so on.
- After the project is over get back together to celebrate.
The key to encouraging innovation within the ranks of the Virgin Group (the company), suggests owner and founder Richard Branson, is to create a lighter environment where managers listen to any and all ideas. Employees often leave companies, he says, because they are frustrated that their ideas fall on deaf ears. Interaction between employees and managers is fundamental. For the companies in which he serves as both chief executive and chairman, Branson writes his staff what he calls fun “chitty-chatty” letters to tell them everything that is going on and to encourage them to write him with any ideas or suggestions. He gives them his home address and phone number. Sometimes people come to him with personal problems, while others have suggestions for improvements in their companies. Either way, they get the chance to be heard … by a billionaire, no less. And he responds to each with a personal letter.
Of course the top concern among your average brow-knitting leader in allowing employee-sponsored fun to spur creativity is that it usually involves giving latitude and discretion to the workforce. That can be a tough pill for some highly structured leaders to swallow (without hiding it in a spoonful of applesauce). We can’t help but think of these types of leaders standing over employees with a stopwatch and yelling, “Have fun! Damn you, laugh! We need that new idea.” Of course, the concept is ludicrous. Really! Who owns a stopwatch anymore?
Sometimes the best way to increase creativity is to simply discontinue telegraphing disapproval of employee levity. Un-knit your eyebrows. De-clench your jaw a little. At work, create flexibility, encourage fun, get out of your comfort zone, and trust me, the ideas will start to flow.