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January 26, 2017

Play Matters When You're Being Creative at Work

Rachel Salaman

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chris-lewis-squareChris Lewis is the founder of one of the world's largest marketing and communications agencies, LEWIS, and he still serves as its CEO. So creativity in the workplace is his bread and butter. He has given a lot of thought to the conditions in which the best ideas emerge – and he’s discovered that there usually isn’t a whiteboard or Post-it note in sight.

He interviewed people from all walks of life for a new book on creativity, including senior military officers, business people, clergymen, and film directors.

"They all report that they have their best ideas out of the office, very seldom in the workplace," he tells me, in our Expert Interview podcast. "They are on their own and frequently – and this is the most interesting partthey not trying."

This confirmed his hunch that the subconscious has a role to play in generating ideas. But we don't give it much of a chance in the modern workplace, where many of us are focused on speed and logic-driven tasks, such as collating and interpreting data. This idea is captured in his book's title, "Too Fast to Think," and inside the covers we find insights and tips for stepping back and slowing down, so that our natural creativity is given a chance to bloom.

Lewis has identified eight key factors that help with this: quiet, engage, dream, release, relax, repeat, play, and teach. They all have their place in the genesis of new ideas but, for Lewis, play is especially important.

"I didn't speak to anybody in the book who wasn't playing to some extent," he reveals. "It's always a good question to ask people who are at the top of their profession, 'What percentage of the time from zero to 100 are you playing, enjoying yourself, being playful?' For those who were the most successful, that was well over 50 percent, often 80 to 90 percent."

He points out that all of us, without exception, could once do this well – and without thinking.

"Play is associated with children and it's not associated with adults. And that's a great shame, because when you ask a class of five-year-olds who can draw, they'll all put their hands up. You ask a crowd of 15-year-olds who can draw, who's creative, and only one or two will put their hands up. The difference is that, in that 10-year period, they become what we call 'educated.' They seem to have lost the capacity to play."

So, how can managers help team members to regain this capacity and harness it for the good of the organization and the individual? Trust, engage, and tone down the criticism, Lewis suggests.

"You can't really tell people to have fun, otherwise you look like an idiot," he points out. Rather, if you trust your people and engage with them, the fun will follow and, with it, greater creativity.

"You can engage people by just using the phrase, 'What do you think?' So often, nobody from senior leadership actually goes around and says, 'What do you think? We've just bought this company, what do you think?' Nobody does that. And so sometimes, going to the quieter people and asking what they think and allowing time for them to give you a response, really [helps with] engagement," he says.

"And also recognizing that, if you're the smartest person in the room, you're probably in the wrong room. The leader's job isn't to be the smartest person… the leader is there to make other people feel like they're the smartest person in the room," he believes.

This will lift people's confidence and spirits, and open the door to more fun and better ideas.

Sleep is another enabler of creativity. In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Lewis explains why he included a chapter on it in his book.

How do you ignite the creative spark in your team? Join in the discussion below!

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