It is conventional wisdom to believe that as we grow older we become more knowledgeable, more respected in our field, and should pass on this understanding to others. Our careers are mapped out in this linear way, with CEOs and senior managers presumed to be at the peak of their learning curve. After all, isn’t that why so many people work 20 years through the ranks to reach the top? They earn their stripes. They pay their way.
But what if how we think about learning is fundamentally flawed? What if, by presuming that all valuable knowledge comes from the top, from the oldest and the wisest, we are missing out on chances to challenge conventional thinking, push the boundaries of creativity and limiting our chances of a breakthrough? Cue the children.
THE FIVE-YEAR-OLD CUSTOMER
Receiving feedback on your brand has never been easier. Online forums, customer service email addresses and social media have all meant that the customer is able to engage in almost constant dialogue with their favourite brands. Although this has caused some difficulties for CRM, it has also provided a wealth of insights that organisations can use as rich data to inform best practice, innovation in processes and generate new ideas.
That being said, not many organisations expect to receive feedback from a five-year-old customer. Yet this is exactly what happened to fashion retailer GAP recently, when a young girl named Alice Jacob wrote a letter to the brand, asking them to consider more variety in the clothes offered to girls as opposed to "just pink and princesses and stuff like that." Inc.com reported that Jeff Kirwan, CEO of Gap, took the time to reply to Alice personally, and handled the request in a way that innovation leaders can learn from.
Inc.com suggests that in ‘identifying that customer complaints are a gift because they offer valuable feedback and the opportunity to improve’ Kirwan could teach all customer-facing brands a valuable lesson. Yet even more than this, by actually acknowledging that a 5-year-old had identified a major problem, even as CEO of a multibillion dollar company with over 100,000 employees, Kirwan demonstrated that all leaders can learn something from even their youngest clientele.
The role of play in childhood development is well acknowledged. But when was the last time you played as an adult? Chances are in the inevitably busy modern schedule, taking time out to play is not high on many leader’s agendas.
Yet did you know that play has been proven as a valuable tool which can help to facilitate innovation, creative thinking and mindfulness at work? Back in 2013 Bruce Nussbaum, mentor at NEW INC Incubator, published a book entitled Creative Intelligence in which it was argued that for some time ‘society has viewed play as kid stuff; it’s been dismissed as trivial or marginalized as the territory of those lucky enough to work in creative fields or the arts.’ Exploring the value of play, Fast Co. Design quoted sculptor Richard Serra as saying:
‘In play you don’t foresee an end product. It allows you to suspend judgment. Often the solution to one problem sparks a possibility for another set of problems…In the actual building of something you see connections you could not possibly have foreseen on that scale unless you were physically there.’
By using play as a technique to delineate some of the accepted boundaries of thought processes and attitudes to problem solving, innovators can open new avenues for exploration within an organisation. As leaders, making time to play ourselves, but also factoring this into the routine of employees and team members, is important in fostering an organisational culture which actively promotes innovation.
One of the most valued elements of childhood is the capacity to be curious. That desire to explore, to understand the world around you and to treat every day as an adventure is often lost, as the cynicism and worldliness of adulthood sets in.
Yet simple changes to your working schedule can in fact open your eyes to opportunities for new thinking and innovation, with taking yourself outside being one of the easiest and cheapest ways to achieve this. In an article entitled ‘7 lessons you can learn from kids that will make you a more successful adult’, Business Insider suggested:
‘go[ing] for a walk with a kid and do[ing] the same with [an] adult ... use the same route. You will be surprised at the different things you end up noticing and explaining about when you are with [a] kid. Age tends to make us oblivious to nature.’
By reconnecting with your ability to observe the world around you and the people in it, you might be surprised how little you choose to see on a day to day basis. New environments and experiences are key to generating ideas and creative solutions, so remembering your inner childhood explorer is a great place to start.
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