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Great innovators play with ideas. However, the ability to play with ideas is a rare skill. Instead in groups we see bumper cars of the mind. Most people don't know how to do any better. I use games to embed advanced collaborative creativity skills in the central nervous system.
People fail to produce innovative ideas because they don't know how to. Techniques of creative thinking are not in their skill set.
Consequently people’s informal conversation is typically routine and unimaginative, instead of being an occasion for the exciting, and at times useful, play of ideas.
In groups people tend to fight over ideas instead of enthusiastically collaborating. No doubt you have seen this. Or people go round and round talking about problems, instead of getting stuck in to designing solutions.
So the lack of creative thinking skills shows up as routine or boring conversations at lunch, whingeing, and as lacklustre problem solving in meetings.
The invisible costs of this are huge. We cannot see the great ideas that never get born. We cannot measure the hidden costs of boredom. We cannot tally the small hurts that fester when people's ideas are put down, discounted or ignored. But we know they are there.
Our challenge is how to embed the thinking skills that lead to innovative ideas within organisations.
Certainly giving advice, or even examples, is of limited use. We develop skills through practice. Therefore I have developed a set of games and exercises that embed collaborative creative thinking skills in the central nervous system. Some of them are from improvisation acting; some are from martial arts; others are adapted from Synectics, and some are from my observations of great innovators. My article Creativity and high-performance team collaboration tells the story.
By playing the games you develop the skills. They are then available to be used spontaneously in your own musings or in conversations with others.
The underlying neurological theory is that skills developed at the level of the motor system of the brain create 'templates of action' that can be applied without rehearsal in other contexts.
A common (and useful) rule of thumb in improvisational acting is to go with, don't block. Accept what you're partner offers, and build on it. For example, an improvisation game that cultivates this skill directly is Chain Story. Perhaps you played a version of it when you were a kid. One person starts a story, the next person adds to it, and so it goes down the line.
In naive groups the story is often unsatisfying because people contradict what came before or go off on unrelated tangents. Ideas are not developed, and the story lacks cohesion - the same thing that we often see in work groups. Feedback about what worked and what didn't from the rest of the group (who are being audience) will illuminate this. When the group is encouraged to build on each other's ideas the story becomes much more coherent and satisfying because the participants are working hard to tune in and collaborate with each other. An exciting flow emerges
Common to the thinking of many innovators is their ability to make jumps to loosely connected but somewhat distant ideas. An example might be going from coffee cup to the Melbourne Cup or the Holy Grail. This gives them access to unusual approaches that ordinary thinking would not have produced. I call such jumps ‘Rich Associations’. In workshops we have people play with Rich Associations to develop the skill. Playing with Rich Associations is also a great performance game. It is fascinating to watch people on stage letting hot ideas just bubble up!
You can embed these skills in organisations by offering a series of workshops.
Attendance should be voluntary. A senior executive team or a work team might choose to do the training as a group. Regular brain training makes everything work better
Workshops might be held every week or so, and run for a bit more than an hour each. Since the workshops are stimulating, they may become the highlight of some people's week. We are developing skills, not offering silver bullet solutions, so ongoing reinforcement is important.
Many innovative ideas arise from chance encounters where people are just kicking around ideas or comparing notes. This is what 'creative conversations' are about - teaching people how to jump into play mode, and then kick around ideas creatively.
So what we would see is a new order of playful conversation in the informal spaces of organisational life. The conversations would be more energising and fun, and occasionally innovative ideas would pop up.
More formally, the quality of thinking in meetings will greatly improve, because people will have internalised collaboration skills such as building on each other's ideas and designing for an outcome. They will also have mental models such as 'following ideas to their conclusion' instead of struggling over which way to go.
Teaching the skills throughout the organisation enhances creativity, communication, and joie de vivre!
Theoretically the games can be facilitated just by reading the instructions out loud. I have had distance learning groups do this successfully. The on-site facilitator would discuss the games with me on the telephone, and we would play the more complicated games over the phone until they got the idea. It was not hard.
A better way, of course, would be to bring in an experienced improvisational acting director to facilitate the games. It is helpful if the person facilitating the games is comfortable with them. Many cities have Theatre Sports or Theater Games improvisation groups.
The games sequences that I would use are given in Creative Conversations.
It would be wise to have the facilitator use these games and exercises. Some improvisational actors go for expressing feelings, or doing wacky stunts. These have their place, but here I am after developing advanced thinking and communication skills. The approach outlined has been field tested for some years.
Andrew Gaines synthesised this approach. His breakthrough insight is how to use games to develop explicit communication skills as patterns of coordination in the motor system of the brain that can be used spontaneously in other contexts.
Andrew gained powerful insights into the neurology of improving human performance from Moshe Feldenkrais. George Prince's The Practice of Creativity showed him how to get movement with ideas. He got his foundational experience in improvisational acting by working with The Committee Theater in San Francisco. Jean Houston, Moshe Feldenkrais and others were exemplars of how great innovators play with ideas. Matt Taylor and DesignShops introduced the idea of designing for an outcome.