The Surprise Tactic That Fuels Innovation at Work

When you hit a wall at work—when the ideas stop flowing, the solutions aren’t appearing, and you’re clashing with colleagues—your instinctive response may be to keep plugging away until the situation improves. Here’s an alternative: Put your work down, leave your desk, and play.


In work-‘til-you-drop America, play is sometimes seen as a childish pursuit that adults don’t have time to indulge in. But play is not just pointless recreation—among other benefits, it can help spark creativity, strengthen teams, and give you a space to fail safely. In short, playtime could be just what you need to improve your productivity and achieve breakthroughs that benefit your career.

Here are a few ways to make play work for you:

1. Ditch the work-versus-play idea.
In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown says that the opposite of play is not work—it’s depression. Play is not lazy. It’s essential. And it does not mean you aren’t taking your job seriously.

 Step away from the smartphone and pick up some crayons.

2. Learn about the play habits of top innovators.
Jacky Carter, community manager for Citi’s Connect: Professional Women’s Network on LinkedIn, recently published a blog post highlighting presenters from the TEDWomen  conference who have used play to make huge strides in their fields: MIT professor Dava Newman focused on fun among her engineers when designing a BioSuit for astronauts that allows for increased mobility; and Unchartered Play CEO Jessica O. Matthews created a soccer ball that generates energy the more you kick it around. If these women can prioritize play, so can you.

3. Find purpose in the purposelessness.
Play induces a state of flow in which you become focused on the present experience, not stuck in an overanalyzed past or worried about an imagined future. Being there in the moment feels much purer and more enlivening than the half-present haze that many of us live in. Step away from the smartphone, pick up some crayons, and you might just find the answer to a long-vexing dilemma.

4. Use team play to understand other points of view.
Problem-solving games are great for rallying teams, building social skills, and reminding everyone of the importance of empathy. The idea behind leading a blindfolded colleague on a trust walk is that the sense of triumph and teamwork will carry over to your workplace relationship.

5. Experiment—and fail—with confidence.
Play brings lowered stakes. You’re not negotiating a multi-million-dollar deal here—you’re just having fun and trying things out. This is immensely freeing, and allows you to take big risks without fearing the consequences. (What’s the worst that could happen if you’re terrible at origami?)

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