Play has a positive impact on creativity at work

Next time you spend a little more than your lunch hour larking around with your colleagues, don't feel too guilty. Professor Babis Mainemelis of London Business School has identified two fundamental ways in which play has a positive impact on creativity at work.

In a new paper, to be published in Research in Organizational Behavior next month, Professor Mainemelis and PhD student Sarah Ronson focus on two manifestations of play in organisations.

The first is play as a form of engagement with work: when employees turn their core work into play, which in turn facilitates the cognitive, affective, and motivational processes that creativity requires. The second is play as a form of diversion from work, which is much more than water cooler gossiping. Play as a diversion, argue Mainemelis and Ronson, fosters creativity by creating a social climate that is conducive to inventiveness.

Normal work environments can be seen to stifle creativity. But should we worry about this? Work is what one gets paid for and productivity is surely key? Apparently not! According to Professor Mainemelis, creativity is increasingly important to companies and not only those in the so-called ‘creative’ industries. Encouraging creativity and innovation via play is beneficial on many levels: it can generate creative ideas for new products or processes; it can improve an organisation’s ability to respond to future challenges and it can also contribute to the creation of a social context that stimulates creativity.

So what can organisations do? Professor Mainemelis argues that companies can nurture play in three ways: by creating a playful work environment; by providing freedom, time and other resources that allow employees to select and turn their work into play and by dedicating organisational time and space in which employees feel safe to play freely with new ideas that may not, at first, seem useful in generating new products or processes.

Mainemelis and Ronson observe that some companies have started to recognise the power of play. IDEO and Pixar have created very playful work environments, while companies like Google, Gore and 3M, encourage people to use up to 20 per cent of their work time to play freely with new (even strange) ideas that may lead to new products or processes.

For example, manufacturer Gore’s ‘Elixir’ non-breakable guitar-wires were invented by an engineer who used his ‘free-time’ to improve the gear cables of his mountain bike. Then he asked how these cables could be used to develop less brittle guitar strings. He teamed up with an engineer who had invented Gore’s ‘Glide’ non-breakable dental floss and with a second colleague who was an amateur musician. They played together with this idea for 3 years without being subjected to any form of direction or control.

Today, Gore controls 35 per cent of the acoustic guitar strings market, although the company had absolutely nothing to do with the music sector prior to this invention. In fact, the Elixir guitar wires were invented in one of Gore’s medical product plants. Mainemelis and Ronson argue that play is the only form of behaviour that can lead to such unexpected and surprising discoveries.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

Related Topics