Learning to play: lessons on creativity from an original disruptor

12 Dec 2016

  • Innovation
  • Leadership
  • Creativity

By: Nikola Hopkinson, Content Manager, ADMA

The start of the 21st century is defined by constant disruption and transformation to digital. The original disruptors like PayPal and Amazon, thanks to advancing technologies, have set in motion the rising power of the consumer, where companies need to adapt, up-skill and innovate in order to survive.

Each and every industry has felt the wrath of disruption, from publishing to finance, health to enterprise IT. At 18 years young, PayPal is already feeling its age – it’s now being disrupted by many different companies and at all new angles. The finance giant is focused on responding to the changing nature of the industry, and responding fast, as it is well aware of the ramifications of failing to do so.

"Reinvention is really important… 80 percent of the Fortune 100 from the 1950s do not exist anymore,”

says Daniel Schulman, CEO of PayPal.

At ADMA’s Global Forum 2016, Ben Edwards, Vice President of PayPal shared his insights on harnessing digital disruption. According to Edwards, the ‘ocean of disruption’ where disruptors are being disrupted, is changing products, customer expectations and the competitive dynamics of markets rapidly.

“New software, data and rising machine intelligence are changing the nature of careers and professions and the skills we need to remain relevant in the value we bring in creative work,” says Edwards.

So how do businesses compete and continue to stay relevant?

Edwards has found that learning and creativity are key areas to innovation and harnessing digital disruption.

“In my team, I’m looking less for domain expertise, and more for a curiosity and a desire to learn,” he added.

Developing dynamic processes and practices that work on the level of the individual will ignite learning and creativity and enable innovation – leading to disruption. 

Edwards and his teams have identified a universal learning process that can be applied to any department:

1. Discover – customer discovery
2. Define – defining needs and wants
3. Create – creating product/service to satisfy needs and wants
4. Deliver – delivering product/service to customers
5. Analyse – analyse results and adjust

What’s the best way to learn? Through play!

Numerous studies, including Hole in the Wall, have shown that we are born as natural learners. Especially at an early age, our brains are wired to learn – we learn to walk and talk, to read people and situations – all through play. 

Edwards identifies five core features of play that not only incite deeper learning but also ignites creativity.

1. Play is voluntary

The voluntary nature of play means that children (and the young at heart) want to actually take part in an activity, without any outside pressure.

Although most people don’t think of work as voluntary, it actually is. It’s a contract between an individual and a company, entered into on a voluntary basis. But in order to incite passion, employee values need to align with those of the company.

“You have to be inspired by the mission and purpose – a prerequisite to creativity and innovation,” Edwards explained.

2. Play is safe

Psychological safety – feeling safe to express yourself, your ideas and opinions within a group without fear of judgement or punishment – has been proven to have a strong effect on performance, as it incites open-mindedness, new ideas and possibilities. 

In fact, judgement and measurement can be devastating for creativity. With education systems and workplaces obsessing over performance and KPIs, Edward suggests that instead they should be focusing on harnessing creativity and encourage open mindedness.

3. Play is self-structured

“Creating the conditions where a team can effectively manage itself is a powerful act of leadership”

Esther Derby

Self-structured rules are arbitrary and dynamic, allowing for constant remodelling and upgrading - key to staying relevant in the digital age.

Organisations where teams are self-structured – have their own processes and rituals – allow for greater individual responsibility, openness and sharing, increasing creativity and improving performance.

4. Play needs space and toys

“The cubicalising of modern corporations is monolithic insanity” 

Robert Propst (the creator of the cubicle)

The importance of workspace design has never been more important. As roles, teams and technologies change, the physical environment where we work is extremely powerful.

Workspaces need to suit the dynamic nature of the digital era. Creating spaces with moveable furniture, walls and other work props allows teams to create workspaces to suit different purposes.

The toys tools we use can also hinder or facilitate learning and creativity. And one should never underestimate the power of post-it notes.

According to a DrawToast experiment, post-it notes allowed teams to conceptualise and illustrate much more complex processes than a simple piece of paper and pen.

A tool that is dynamic, can be easily altered/discarded/moved, which can lead to greater creativity and innovation.

5. Play for the sake of playing

Play is its own reward, much like learning and creativity. But most important, learning and creativity (much like play) need to have goals and feedback to propel them forward. 

Looking into the future, Edwards suggests that organisations that want to stay sustainable and relevant need to have the capacity to grow.

“And sustainable growth happens organically and starts with the individual and their capacity to grow,” he says.

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