Alastair Pearce continues his series on creatives and introduces’ Playful, that colleague whose childlike attributes disguise a genuine innovator
Have you got any annoying colleagues at work; yes? But is there one who sticks out? So irritating, but at other times really fun to work with? Odd, your mind is pretty much made up about the others, but with this guy? Just can’t figure it. Sometimes he’s a real pain: forgetting about that key meeting; missing the deadline; coming up with ideas totally off the point; sulks; even tantrums! But then his enthusiasm, the sheer joy of his working practice and the originality and fun of his creative ideas draw you into his world, a world closer to the school playground than the office coffee machine. His name’s Playful. Know him?
There are three conditions often found at the roots of creativity: time, ambition and optimism. Do you have all three? I certainly don’t – time is definitely absent, middle age makes ambition almost inevitable, and by old age I expect I’ll be crossing off optimism too. So the only stage of life when all three conditions stand a decent chance of being present is childhood: time to play; dream; and just know those dreams can be achieved. Playful, although middle-aged and working in a big organisation, has kept a door open to his childhood, and it’s on the other side of that door that all his most creative ideas germinate.
Perhaps the occasions when we find him delightful are when the door to his own childhood remains sufficiently open for us to glimpse our own
Inside he spots unseen associations between ideas, emotions and possibilities within a diverse world where everything is a pregnant possibility waiting to emerge. It may look like chaos to us who have forgotten the thrill of the place, but to Playful – who has never totally left childhood – it’s a sphere seething with life and demanding his creative alchemy. With luck, he returns through the door to our grown-up world clutching an idea with an almost magical genesis.
Is our irritation at his childlike workday characteristics genuine annoyance or rather jealousy. And perhaps the occasions when we find him delightful are when the door to his own childhood remains sufficiently open for us to glimpse our own, when we too had oodles of time, ambition and optimism. Maybe?
But back to business: there are at least two obvious management conclusions to draw from this sketch of Playful’s creativity: his manager needs to understand his creative process; and resist saying “Just grow up!”, “We’re here to work not play” or “You’ve got to learn to take the job more seriously”. These are obviously daft instructions to bark at Playful, for his creativity is dependent on his easy access to a childlike condition, and you hired him for his creativity not his skills with the new accounting system or diary management. To attempt to make him “Just grow up!” Will undermine his ability to do what you want him to do.So Playful’s manager might quite easily learn to adopt an unusually tolerant attitude to his professional behaviour, but what about Playful’s colleagues, how can they work happily and effectively with someone whose motivation comes from a source they’ve probably forgotten ever existed?
Perhaps some of the techniques a parent might use with a child will help. When Playful wants a playmate the parental “No, I’m sorry, darling I really haven’t time to play right now” could now be translated into “No way, got to finish this wretched report!” And the parent’s “Haven’t you got some homework” becomes, “I really do need that bit of work from you asap”. Playful’s colleagues should understand his divergent ways of working but nevertheless ensure their own preferred styles are protected though interactions that are more assertive and unambiguous than those generally voiced with colleagues. Playful’s childlike disposition may require, and easily accept, this more peremptory parental tone.
Working in a team with Playful can be problematical, for teams often base their innovations on evolution, so Playful’s apparently intuitive methods will seem disconcertingly spontaneous to them, whilst their frequent search for consensus and practicality will sit uncomfortably with Playful’s more anarchic creative process. So Playful’s manager should scaffold his involvement in teams ensuring his ideas are heard early on, but are carried forward to pragmatic outcomes without his continuing involvement. Fortunately, few Playfuls will object to being relieved of ‘all that boring stuff’.
Good training is key to working with Playful, and that’s training for his managers and colleagues rather than training for Playful himself. The wise organisation will conclude that attempting to train Playful out of his preferred way of working is pointless and contrary to the best interests of the company. Just let him get on with his own innovative work in his own way and train his managers and colleagues to accommodate his unique contribution whilst enjoying the fruits of his creativity.
Alastair Pearce is director of Working With Creatives