Using Toys to Foster Creativity and Innovation at Work

by Grace McGartland

Author of Thunderbolt Thinking and designer of the Thunderbolt Tool Kit, Grace McGartand uses fresh idea-sparking techniques to coach organizations by rejuvenating thinking and improving performance.  She is principal of GM Consultants (Toronto, Canada; phone 416-920-3841 and Murrysville, PA; phone 412-661-8325), email

Each of us has the capacity to scale our business challenges creatively.  Creativity is a skill that can be taught and learned.

Think of creativity as a habit.  On a daily basis, you look for ways to realign things or ideas into relationships that didn't previously exist.  Which means that creativity can be leveraged everywhere—from using duct tape and paper clips for purposes other than their intended uses, to finding new ways to approach the product design and customer service processes in your organization.

While creativity is the process of realigning existing resources into new relationships, innovation is the process of zeroing in on effective ideas and finding ways to put those new relationships into action.  In other words, your organization might come up with 15 unexpected and fresh ideas for designing a new product, but true innovation will occur only when you develop a creative environment that embraces change, allowing you to transform those fresh ideas into usable outcomes.

As a child, you used toys to express your creativity and expand your imagination.  Now you can use the same toys to introduce the spirit of change and innovation to your work environment.  When you bring toys into your meetings, you give people powerful resources to rediscover the child within themselves and integrate creativity into their work, stimulating innovative ways of thinking.  You'll be using toys as transformers.

Toys not only bring fun into the work environment; but, by strengthening the link between play and energy, the flow of blood to the brain increases to stimulate fresh thinking.  Designed to help participants through difficult periods, toys are often just the thing to break the ice, ease through a tough issue, kick-start the engine, diffuse the anger, ease the confrontation and curb the egos.

Toys can help you:  1) clean out clogged brains, so ideas can flow and connect freely; 2) charge up positive brain power, so your people can accept new ideas, different ways of thinking, and more innovative ways of working together; 3) expand perspectives, so that people learn to accept and value others' ideas and viewpoints, integrating them into their own.

The following list of toys may contain just the one to spark a change in thinking at your next meeting and start the creative juices flowing:

Try passing around a hat, ball, teddy bear or other toy to each person in the room as a sort of round-robin, ensuring that no one is left out of the discussion.

Bring a pair of outrageous glasses (kid's style work great), and encourage people to expand their perspective and see things in a new light.

Encourage people to doodle, sketch, or draw their ideas.  Display these drawings. Discuss and come to conclusions about what new insights you see.

Hold the breaks outdoors.  Invite your co-workers to bring jump ropes.  This allows them to get fresh air, stretch and increase blood circulation.

And don't forget to bring along your F.I.S.H.™—a plastic fish to pass to those who make Fatally Inappropriate, Slimy Hits that slow, or sometimes stop, conversation.  This tool "eats up" negative responses, and keeps the meeting in focus.  Common examples of these negative responses include, "You can't do that," "It will never sell," "It's not in the budget," "The boss won't like it," "I don't know if we can get to it," "That's unrealistic," and "We've done this before."

Typically, most people seem to lose their creative capacities as they age.  A UCLA study found that at age five, we engage in creative tasks 98 times a day, laugh 113 times, and ask questions 65 times.  By the ripe old age of 44, the numbers shrink to two creative tasks a day, 11 laughs and six questions.  As we play with toys, we'll be stimulating that lost-to-age creativity.

Creative thinking and analytical thinking are not mutually exclusive.  To be truly innovative, you need to do both.  When you introduce toys to your team, you give them powerful resources to integrate creativity and innovative thinking into all aspects of their work and communication. 

So, why not play at work?

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