Recycled version of an old afaqs! guest article. A Children's Day Special.
There lies a broken down swing on the lawns of my residential complex. Last evening as I was walking by it, I witnessed something utterly fascinating. The adults passing the swing saw it as an 'out of order' aberration. They murmured things about how this was symptomatic of the overall apathy which surrounds Indian infrastructure at a larger level. Then giving it a condescending final glance, they resumed scouting the area for other seating avenues.
But the children absolutely delighted in it!
For them, it presented almost a challenge to exploit their imagination. They saw it as a 'portal of creative opportunity'. There was quite a persistent crowd of kids that hovered around it. They took turns to go sit on it and interpret it in their own unique manner. In fact, the same swing seldom excited them as much, when it was in full working condition.
Children have this infinitely beautiful capacity of seeing beyond the obvious. And in an era in which the call for creativity and innovation is ringing almost like an 'SOS' call across most organisations, the adventures of these tiny mind magicians serve up some interesting insights on the ideation front. To paraphrase the age old proverb, 'when it comes to imaginative thought, the child indeed is the father of man.'
Embracing a spirit of play
What essentially transformed the broken down swing, from a place which would have been largely ignored by everybody, to a 'hotspot' for children, was an inherent trait of the childlike mind. And their ability to essentially 'play' with the problem at hand - a priceless quality which ensures that children are never far away from a good time.
Invariably, important meetings in the corporate world are conducted in the somber tones of a funeral procession. And yet, these are precisely the forums where breakthrough ideas are supposed to make their appearance. These meetings usually escalate into left brain-centric ventures, with rigorous debate and analysis inevitably taking centre stage.
While this is absolutely critical to sound decision-making, there is much to be said about infusing a sense of play in all such proceedings. Play has this unmatched side effect, of lessening stress levels and hence liberating the mind to make some truly novel connections. This meandering of the mind is absolutely crucial to any innovation process. But it can never be sternly asked for on demand. It almost has to be charmed into existence.
Hence, often, humorous digression does a lot more to spark creativity in the most urgent situations than a stubborn persistence with solemnity does. Eventually, laughter is the essential push one needs to get into the swing of creative things. Hannibal had famously used the power of humour to instill confidence in his troops before the epic battle of Carthage. To be fair, modern day meetings usually have less of such 'glory or death' implications.
Taking errors in their stride
Our educational system conditions us to be spiteful towards 'mistakes'. These are events which have to be avoided at all costs. But children simply view errors as doorways to alternative storylines... till they get educated out of that mindset. Thus, broken down swings merely represent an opportunity for vivid, alternative and original entertainment ideas, something which modern day television channels can surely learn from.
The corporate world is also rather unkind to errors. Yet in the journey towards innovation, mistakes are often the stepping stones to success. In fact, organisations which do well in the innovation game are usually ones that have developed a high tolerance for mistakes. These companies have also nurtured a culture of learning from their debacles, as well as that of keeping a keen eye out for some interestingly unexpected results from their mishaps.
The case of a young Jack Welch blowing up a plant, and yet being calmly asked by his boss what he had learnt from his mistake, is already part of corporate folklore. Viagra initially set out, in the testing phase, as a product to lessen blood pressure levels. While it failed on those objectives, the team working on it was alert enough to look for other interesting things that the brand brought up.
Employees today are petrified about making a mistake - this has become the stark reality of modern day organisations. But companies that truly aspire to take bold creative steps have to adopt a new mantra - 'to err is human, to learn from it sublime.'
Unleashing imagination with flexibility
What was also remarkable to note in the 'swing incident' was that the children playing on it were transitioning between different game scenarios in quick time. So while they might have begun by imagining themselves to be on a pirate ship battling a storm, they had no issues in transforming the same platform as an impromptu set for a rapid fire round of KBC. It was a fantastic example of what can happen when uninhibited imagination meets unfettered flexibility.
The beauty of human perspective is such that there are always alternatives that the curious mind can uncover. However, given our bias to seek the comfort of a decision, the search for new ideas often stops after 'an initially decent one' makes an appearance. The temptation to take that exit door, out of the uncertainty of the situation, is often too much to avoid.
Usually, from organisations to institutions, the quest for creativity ends with the one 'right' solution. However, it is only those who learn to generate many alternative possibilities that ultimately have the greatest chance of landing up with something truly innovative. The discipline of looking beyond the first answer, and truly embracing divergent thinking, is a very difficult one to make. But it is a skill worth cultivating in the organisational culture.
The story of human civilisation itself sees this wonderful attitude reflected over the course of history. From the story of our origins, to the discovery of the earth's true place in the cosmos, and the unraveling of the universal laws of nature, the search for richer understanding has always been driven by men seeking alternative answers to established concepts. The state of divine discontent with the present has always paved the road to a better future.
Walt Disney once mused that 'the greatest natural resource that we have, is the imagination of our children'. Indeed, as we have just seen, the search for great ideas might actually involve 'growing down' rather than 'growing up', as far as our minds go. Because essentially, and even in the most grave situations, the voyage towards innovation and creativity, might just be a matter of child's play.
(The author is an independent creative thinking trainer and brand ideation consultant. He has written two books, 'Lessons from the Playground' and 'The Madness Starts at 9'.)