HOW PLAY MAKES PROBLEM SOLVING EASIER
I am sure that many of you already had some days at work , when you put a lot of focus to finish something very important than you literally skip all the breaks and you even work overtime, just to be sure that you make no mistake and to deliver your stuff exactly as expected. Unfortunately when you do that, exactly the opposite happens.You do more mistakes, you deliver crap and then you just come to the conclusion that you wasted your time being very inefficient. Almost 100% sure your work must be redone.
What the research demonstrates in such cases is that when it comes to solving a difficult problem or looking for a creative solution, working too hard can backfire. Conscious attention narrows our focus, preventing us from processing complex information and seeing the big picture. We get stuck. And the longer we wrestle with a particular problem, the more difficult it becomes to consider novel alternatives. What that effectively leads us to is an unlikely conclusion: Sometimes, what appears to the outside world like slacking off is actually the path to smarter decisions and more innovative ideas. Frequently our most brilliant insights come in the gaps between hard work, when we let our guard down and allow disparate ideas to emerge, in those moments when we distract ourselves with a walk to the restroom, the commute home, or the in-flight movie on a business trip.
Think back to your last truly great work-related idea. Now ask yourself: Where were you? Chances are that you weren’t sitting behind your desk. In many ways, problem solvers are like artists. Taking a few steps back provides painters with a fresh perspective on their subject, lending them a new angle for approaching their work. Problem solving follows a similar recipe, but it’s not always the physical distance that we need as much as the psychological distance – mental space for new insights to bloom. Walking away doesn’t just put our unconscious to work: It helps us see our problem with a new perspective. We become less emotionally attached and free ourselves from the influence of those in our immediate surroundings.
One way many organizations – particularly those whose employees are engaged in high-level thinking, like Google and 3M – leverage this insight is by deliberately scheduling play into the workday. Play may seem like the domain of children, and in some ways that’s the point. We are naturally creative when we’re young, in part because our brains have not quite developed the capacity to prejudge and censor our ideas. Putting ourselves in a childlike mind-set opens us up to alternative ways of thinking. As we age, we’re trained to believe that play is wasteful, that unless we’re producing or consuming information, our time is being squandered. But as the complexity of our work increases, play can actually serve as a vehicle for innovation, by providing opportunities for unconscious thinking to occur. But there’s more to play than simply distraction. When we engage in play we’re rewarded for exploring new possibilities, for practicing problem solving, and for taking risks. All of which helps us cultivate an attitude of curiosity and interest, often benefiting our work. Feeling playful also makes us more optimistic, which increases our willingness to take on challenges and helps us maintain a flexible mind-set. Then comes the question: What’s the right way of incorporating play into the workplace?
Twitter has a climbing wall, Zynga lines its hallways with arcades, and Google boasts several volleyball courts. Does that mean work amenities are the solution to getting employees playing regularly? Well… not necessarily. Simply because Play is a mind-set, not an activity. It has less to do with a fun diversion that happens to take place at the office, than it does with the attitudes managers express toward taking time out for exploration.
Ultimately, what’s important is for employees to feel safe about pursuing the occasional tangential interests without having to worry relentlessly about outcomes. That’s what contributes most to a playful atmosphere. Sure, it’s nice for employees to have access to exciting activities at the office. It certainly makes the opportunities for play more common. But placing a €5,000 billiards table in your break room won’t guarantee a playful work environment-especially if members of your management team barely touch it and there is an unspoken stigma about taking breaks.
WHY EXERCISE MAKES US SMARTER
All this talk of fun and games might lead you to believe that our best insights come when we let ourselves rest. But as it turns out, sometimes the best approach to jump-starting the mind is to strain the body. Most of us have come across research showing that exercise improves mood. Recent studies have found that a regular workout regimen is an even more powerful mood elevator than prescription antidepressants. What’s less well known, however, is the profound impact exercise has on learning, memory, and creativity. To understand how exercise can influence your productivity at work, it helps to consider what our bodies were originally designed to do. The human body was built to expend a great deal of energy on a daily basis. Our ancient ancestors had to walk between 10 to 15 km a day just to find enough food to survive.
Today, of course, most of us spend the majority of our day in front of a computer, sitting. And that relative lack of mobility creates an imbalance in the body’s functioning. It’s not the only way we differ from our ancestors. Compared to Paleolithic man, our life is considerably more nerve-racking. Sure, our environment is no longer plagued by free-roaming predators, but at the same time, the number of stressors we’re exposed to on a daily basis has increased exponentially. Many of us have very little control over our schedule. We face deadlines on a constant basis. And thanks to a 24-hour news cycle, we’re continuously reminded of every murder, plane crash, and weather disaster that happens to coincide with our existence on the planet. On the whole, there’s a lot more for us to get worried about. And the tension adds up.
Encountering threatening events activates a fight-or-flight response, releasing chemicals into the bloodstream that propel our body to move into action. When we deny it that instinct, we risk incurring side effects that include anxiety, attention deficits, and depression. Exercise restores the balance. The body was designed to burn off excess energy through physical exertion. Emotional buildup requires physiological relief. Interestingly, when we exercise, we not only heighten our moods with endorphins but also prime our brains to absorb more information. Neurological studies show that when we exert ourselves physically we produce a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) that promotes the growth of neurons, especially in the memory regions of the brain. A 2007 study found that just 2-3 minutes sprints were enough to elevate BDNF secretion in runners, corresponding to a boost in memorization by a stunning 20 percent. Then: Why would exercise promote better memory?
The body was designed to be pushed, and in pushing our bodies we push our brains too. Learning and memory evolved in concert with motor functions that allowed our ancestors to track down food, so as far as our brain is concerned, if we’re not moving, there’s no real need to learn anything. The cognitive jolt we experience following exercise can also yield a more creative product.
Another study, for example, found that just 30 minutes on a treadmill led to improved creative performance and that the benefits endured for a full 2 hours. Running has also been linked with greater cognitive flexibility. The improvement in mood, coupled with increased blood flow to the brain, provides joggers with a significant mental boost. To their credit, a number of organizations have taken these findings to heart and looked for ways of incorporating exercise into the workplace. At many companies it’s no longer surprising to enter an office and discover a receptionist sitting on a large rubber ball. Or to learn that her manager has given up sitting altogether and now stands all day in front of an elevated desk. Most organizations can’t afford an in-house gym. But they can afford to give employees wireless headsets that allow them to walk around their office during long conference calls. Another low-cost approach is: offering employees free weights they can use over the course of the day. Rewarding daytime gym-goers with an extended lunch can also benefit workplace performance.
It was also proven that on days when employees exercised during lunch, a majority reported interacting more with colleagues managing their time better, and meeting deadlines more effectively. The gym isn’t the only place employees can get their exercise fix. There are for example companies which keep bikes in the lobby so that employees can go for a ride during lunch. Or companies which encourage employees to bike to work by offering them an incentive of 50 cents per km. Or another method is enticing employees with a desirable destination to head to by foot. A complimentary art gallery membership to which workers can go for a quick stroll is one example. Organizations can also offer to reimburse teammates who take an internal meeting on the road and pass a nearby cafe.
Walking meetings may not be ideal for every conversation, but they are likely to spark new ideas by taking employees out of the office and exposing them to a different environment. The shared elevation in heart rate that comes from walking together can also provide an added benefit: better workplace relationships. Exercising with a colleague can therefore do more than improve your health. It can also make you more likable.
THE CREATIVITY DIET
So far we’ve seen how unconscious thinking, play, and exercise can all contribute to a smarter workplace. But when it comes to fostering innovation, is that really all it takes? The answer, of course, is no. A well-timed diversion can help employees process information they already have in a way that leads to better insights. But when you’re looking for outside-the-box solutions, sometimes what you really need is a way of encouraging them to be mentally adventurous.
Some people will say product knowledge is the most important thing to do before to deliver the best recommendation for maximizing the profitability, while other people will prefer to make a cross-industry expertise instead. In reality the product knowledge and cross-industry expertise are not mutually exclusive. A good marketing manager does both. But it does illustrate an important point: What we create is a function of the information we consume. Our minds naturally search for connections between ideas. And where we direct our attention determines the combinations we find.
When we stare at a problem using a single lens, being creative is difficult get stuck in old ways of thinking. To uncover new solutions we need to break our mental frames. A diet of diverse mental stimulation is a vital component of creative thinking. Researches have indicated that creative geniuses have a surprisingly high failure/rate. But that is no all. It was also shown that on average, creative geniuses tend to have more unusual interests and hobbies than their less successful peers, which likely contributes to their seeing problems differently. Steve Jobs for example said in an interview in 1996 that:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty, because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. The more ideas we’re exposed to, the more likely we are to find novel solutions. Provide enough inputs and new outputs will emerge.
The challenge in most workplaces is that employees are exposed to the same information day after day, making it difficult to come up with new and innovative solutions. But a growing number of companies, inspired by well-known success stories at Google, Yahoo and Facebook, are trying to break that mental rut. They’ve begun inviting employees to set aside a portion of their time each week for free-form exploration and for pursuing projects of their choosing. The only requirement is that their efforts have the potential for benefiting the company in some way. The practice isn’t quite as unstructured as it first sounds. At Google, for example, where developers devote up to 20% of time to self-authored projects, employees are encouraged to work together in groups. The interpersonal dynamic and shared responsibility make productive team projects a point of pride. Employees naturally want their team’s contribution to stand out, because, among other things, it means elevated organizational status.
Handing employees the keys to 20% of their time may not be workable or even advisable in every industry. But it does have a few undeniable benefits that are worth considering, no matter what business you’re in. By asking employees to identify a work-related interest and empowering them to actively deepen their knowledge base, organizations like Google are turning employees from order takers into job co-creators. It’s an approach that helps employees feel autonomous, motivates them to keep an eye out for new business opportunities, and turns every employee into a developer.
With 20% time, there’s always another product in development. For Google the gambit has clearly been paying off: Gmail, Google News, Google Earth, and AdSense- an advertising vehicle that nets Google $10 billion in revenue a year-are just some of the products that were developed during 20% time. Which raises the question: Would Google be nearly as profitable if the employees sat around waiting for Larry Page and Sergey Brin to tell them what to do? The answer is obvious: Of course NOT.