How to Get Big Ideas on Demand (and Have Fun in the Process!)
When I ask people where they are and what they are doing when they get their best ideas, I am invariably met with a list of common responses: showering, jogging, commuting, reading, falling asleep, gardening, etc.
But in all the years of asking this question, never have I heard the words “at work.”
Because most corporate cultures do not believe in using one of the most useful Creative Behaviors at our disposal, a behavior that primes our brain to think of its best, most creative ideas: Playfulness.
Believe it or not, only 13% of your brain is conscious, yet we use that part for the vast majority of the day, completely ignoring the other 87% of our brain’s capacity. Just think of all those stimuli back there in your subconscious brain, just waiting to be used. Every place you’ve ever visited, article you’ve ever read, meal you’ve ever eaten, project you’ve ever worked on, all stored in your subconscious brain as a collection of unrelated stimuli, ready to be unleashed on the challenge you’re currently working on.
But there’s a problem: you can’t access your subconscious brain when you’re at work. Because when you’re at work, you are stressed, short for time, and feverishly using your conscious brain to try and tackle problems. Have you ever uttered the phrase “I don’t have time to think!”? If so, you’re never going to be in a position to leverage the power of your subconscious.
That’s why as soon as you walk away from work to ride a bicycle, go for a jog, etc., that big idea just pops right into your head.
So How Might We access our subconscious brain when we need to think big and develop brave new, innovative ideas, without being constrained by our adult “Reductionist” tendencies? How can you be more Playful and think Expansively on demand? How can you get people into that same mindset that allows for the best ideas…while they’re actually at work?
The benefits of play are profound, and yet continue to be under-appreciated inside corporate cultures.
The quickest way to achieve that mental state of play is to run an Energizer. An Energizer is a fun exercise that lasts for one or two minutes, gets people up and out of their comfort zones, and ends with laughter. The moment you hear laughter you know you’ve just opened up the door between your conscious and subconscious brain (known as the reticular activating system), and you can now access all that unrelated stimulus that makes up 87% of your brain (the subconscious brain),The same 87% of your brain that you don’t have access to when you are stressed at work and hear yourself say: “I don’t have time to think.”
Here are some of my favorite Energizers to get you started:
Ask everyone to stand up and get into a group of three. Have each person play the role of the Storyteller, while the other two interview them about their career. Let the Storyteller know that nothing they say is wrong, as they are the world’s leading expert on that particular topic. Give Person A their expertise and let the interview begin, allowing 2-3 minutes each.
You choose the careers/expertise but make them fun! Person A could be the world’s leading salesperson of invisible wallpaper, Person B could be a designer of parachutes for Elephants, and Person C could be a Cobbler (shoemaker) for millipedes. Within a few short minutes, your room will be full of creativity and laughter!
Heroes & Villains
Split the group into four teams and give each group a particular assignment. Two of the groups should be tasked with developing all the reasons they can think of why they shouldn’t host a Pet Olympics or an Invisible Clothing Fashion Show. Unbeknownst to them, the two other groups will be tasked with thinking of all the reasons why they should host a Pet Olympics or Invisible Clothing Fashion Show.
Have the teams with the assignment of outlining why the concepts are a bad idea report first. Then have the teams who believe it should happen report next. This debrief will reinforce the differences between Reductive (convergent thinking) and Expansionist (divergent thinking) and remind your team members about the difference in end results when you leverage each type.
Once Upon a Time
For this Energizer, ask the group to stand across the room and face the front. Tell them they are going to create a story together, one line at a time. The first person takes their place at the front of the room and delivers their line. It could be something like: “Just then the hippo fell in the pool.” Instruct the group that their role is to build on that line by listening to what has been said and creating a line that leads into why that happened or what happened as a result of that action. “The swimming pool deck was covered in banana skins” (which explains why the hippo fell in the pool) or “a tsunami flooded the house” (which was the result of the hippo falling into the pool).
Instruct the group to keep their lines short. You will be amazed how creative people can get in a very short period of time. The debrief is to remind them that ideating is just like participating in improv. Every idea is an offer, and their role is to take that offer and build on it.
Tower of Terror
Give each team of four a pile of regular size paper (8×11) that is made of heavy/card stock. Tell them that they are to prototype a Tower that: 1. Must be more than 33 inches tall, 2. Can only be made using three of the pieces of paper provided, 3. Must be free standing (no adhesives used), and 4. Must be able to stand for ten seconds.
Be sure to reiterate that they can use as many pieces of paper to prototype their Tower as they like, but that the final Tower can only be made of three pieces. This project will invariably get very competitive, very quickly, as teams make many mistakes and struggle to find a design that works. But in the end, when everyone showcases their towers, it’ll be an encouraging reminder that making mistakes while rapid prototyping is totally acceptable.
Ask everyone to pair up with a partner. Each pair is given one piece of paper and one Sharpie. They are then given one minute to draw their favorite monster one line at a time, alternating turns with each line. When the minute is up and they have completed the image, instruct them to come up with a name for the monster using a combination of their first or second names (If I was partners with Sally Peterson, we might come up with “DunAlly,” “PetDle” or even “Wally”). Then go around the room and have each pair present their monster, being sure to share its name and superpower.
No doubt this Energizer will bring much laughter to the group!
I want to be clear: I am not advocating Playfulness all the time, as it would be counterproductive. Sometimes you just need to buckle down, power through, and get things done. However, “Play with purpose” can be incredibly useful, helping your teams unlock the 87% of their brain that sits idle throughout the day.
So, the next time you need to find those big, bright ideas, remember the power of Play, and open the door to your team’s subconscious minds by launching an Energizer.