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All work and no play … makes for an innovation dead-end

New research by London Business School professor Babis Mainemelis and doctoral candidate Sarah Ronson shows how the best ideas are born in fields of play and how to ingrain more time and space for creativity within organisational settings.

Next time you spend a little more than your lunch hour playing 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 in companies. In a new paper to be published in Research in Organizational Behavior in August 2006, 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, play 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 in a peripheral way by creating a psychological and social-relational climate that is conducive to creativity.

Current normal work environments can be seen to stifle creativity. But should we worry about this? Work is what one gets paid for, and productivity surely is 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 calibrate an organisation’s ability to flexibly respond to future challenges; and it can also contribute to the creation of a social context that stimulates creativity in the first place.

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 delineating a dedicated organisational time and space in which employees feel safe to play freely with new ideas that may not seem at first useful in generating new products or processes. Mainemelis and Ronson observe that some companies have started to recognize the power of play. Companies like IDEO and Pixar have created very playful work environments, while companies like Google, Gore, and 3M, encourage people to use up to 20% of their work time to play freely with new (even strange) ideas which may lead up to new products or processes.

For example, the 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% of the acoustic guitar strings market, although Gore had absolutely nothing to do with the music market 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.

For more information about Professor Mainemelis’s research, or to speak with him directly, please contact their press office.