The crossing guard waved her arms and held up the stop sign. On my way to a prototype shop to pick up some parts, I slowed, and stopped, and watched.
Behind the yellow vested guard, thirty to forty seven year olds began crossing the street in a relatively organized manner, except for one girl. She wasn’t particularly tall as far as 7 year olds go. She had straight, dirty blonde, just-past-shoulder length hair, and was wearing a white number 4, Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers jersey. While her friends took a linear approach to street crossing, she took each step in a calculated manner.
With each step she reached with her little legs to the next reflective strip in the cross walk. Like Indiana Jones crossing a foot bridge, this little girl took a step, rebalanced, shuffled to get to the edge of the strip and then s t r e t c h e d her leg, pointing her toes, landing on the next reflective strip. Intensely concentrating on where she stepped and avoiding knocking into those around her, she wove her way across the street.
As I smiled at the beautiful play, I realized that this little girl, in this situation, embodies what’s necessary for there to be successful innovation.
1. Safe Space is Needed – She most likely couldn’t have done what she did if cars were whizzing through the crosswalk. The crossing guard stopped traffic and created a safe area. If you want people to be innovative, or for that matter, if you want to be innovative yourself, somehow the traffic has to be stopped. Someone, or something, has to run interference and create a space and time for innovation. Corporate politics and power plays are guaranteed innovation killers. There needs to be insulation from NOISE and distraction. If an innovator has to worry about getting hit by proverbial cars, she can’t create.
2. Give the Minimum Direction Necessary – The little girl was likely told: “Cross the street with your friends when the guard says it’s safe. Be sure to stay in the crosswalk!” She wasn’t told where to step, how many steps to take, or who she had to walk with. She knew she had to get from Point A to Point B. Too often there is a tendency to manage how people get from Point A to Point B. Don’t. There are infinite combinations of numbers that when added equal 4. It’s not simply 2+2. This goes for personal creativity as well. When in a creative endeavor, ask yourself if you’re simply taking the shortest distance between two points or if you’re exploring options. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re taking the ‘easy’ way, or following everyone else, until we stop and ask ourselves what we’re doing.
3. Space for Fun/Exploration – To me, fun and exploration are largely synonymous. I alluded to this earlier. The girl was playing while accomplishing what was asked of her: crossing the street and staying in the cross-walk. As safe space is needed, so is space for playing. People need to explore, to try things out, to play and have fun while they innovate. At least they should. If someone isn’t having fun going from Point A to Point B, you should ask yourself if that person is the right person in the right place in the project. But, it’s not always the person! If someone isn’t having fun, this could also be an indication that above points 1 and 2 haven’t been implemented. If they haven’t, fun is much less likely to occur. Use this check for yourself as well. Are you passionate about what you’re doing? Are you having fun? If not, find out what it is that’s blocking the fun.
When you’re trying to create the best environment for innovation for yourself or others, picture the little girl in the Brett Favre jersey stepping from reflective strip to reflective strip while crossing the street. Remember the three guidelines and you might just find yourself coming up with more creative work and having fun doing it!