Fun is Serious Business: How to Inspire Creativity in Your Company

Meg Davis  

June 04, 2012

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I learned about many rigorous processes and methodologies in graduate school – from contextual inquiries to card sorting exercises. Arguably, though, the most important thing I know about user experience and design I learned from my peers: creativity is the lifeblood of problem solving, and creativity is only bred in an environment of freedom and collaboration.

As a key part of the Carnegie Mellon Masters of Human-Computer Interaction, students participate in a group project with a real client. My group and I worked on a project with GE Healthcare. None of us had worked together before. We each had different strengths - ranging from visual design to project management to coding prototypes – as well as areas we wanted to improve. At first, the differences in our communication styles and approaches to problems seemed to be in conflict. Some people in the group would directly say their opinion right away, some wanted to sketch ideas and then talk about them, while others in the group felt more comfortable sharing their impressions after some time reflecting over others’ ideas.

So how were we able to put aside our differences and work together?

We wore funny hats and wigs during our working sessions – afros, sombreros, bunny ears, cowboy hats, ladybug antennaes – you name it.

Really, we did. It seems so simple. In reality, it was as if we were making a pact to each other by wearing ridiculous costumes. The pact was that we were willing to put aside our own pride and our own ideas about the project and entertain any possible solution. We were communicating to each other that we valued any idea, no matter how crazy. It put us on a level playing field. Not only did we wear hats and wigs, we took walks outside to fun and different environments. We laughed. We told each other ridiculous stories about made-up interactions. We did crazy dances together. In the end, we created an environment in which any idea was safe. Each individual felt free to explore and to utilize his individual strengths. What this resulted in was a quantity of ideas that we wouldn’t have imagined. Where there is quantity of diverse ideas, there is opportunity for new connections.

Some other students thought that our group was odd – thought that we were sophomoric in our playfulness. What I know though is that while rigorous user research can bring forward problems and inspire solutions, rarely the first solution you come up with works well. It takes creativity to suspend different problems and solutions to understand how to merge them together. It takes a diverse team that is ready to suspend judgment and have fun to produce the ideas and the connections that will be game-changers.

In a work environment, we can get comfortable with our tried and true efficiencies and processes. We can feel as if we know exactly how our colleagues work or we completely understand how to approach a problem. We forget that playfulness allows us to leverage our diversity of skills to produce a quantity of ideas. I would challenge us to continually examine what our “funny hats and wigs” are: what we can do to be promoting trust and creativity within our interdisciplinary teams.