Conversation #10 — Samuel West, Innovation Researcher and Curator of the Museum of Innovation Failure

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema at Unsplash

The Museum of Innovation Failure enjoyed a lot of press coverage recently, which is how I first came across Samuel. But although I wanted to ask him about that, I was also interested to see that his academic work has been focused on creativity at work — a subject close to my heart. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation about play and playful approaches to work, as well as the technology of foolishness as an antidote to too much rationality.

Samuel is a psychologist who worked in clinical practice for a number of years before doing a PhD in Lund focusing on creating a climate of creativity in organisations.

What was it particularly that drew you to the subject of play and creativity?

My initial focus was on happiness or wellbeing at work, and then my pre-research showed a strong link between creativity and wellbeing at work.

If you increase wellbeing at work you can increase the employees’ opportunities to use their creativity, and vice versa. That’s how I got into creativity and then I stumbled on some articles about play. I thought this was exciting unexplored territory, so I spent seven years researching it.

One of my recent interviews was with someone who came to innovation through an interest in happiness, so it’s interesting to hear that there is a link between creativity and wellbeing. Can you tell me more?

Happiness at work and creativity are two different things, but if you look at which organisational factors promote or facilitate happiness at work, they’re strikingly similar to the ones that promote creativity. They’re not 100 per cent identical, but they overlap by about 70–80 per cent. So how do you get your employees to be more creative? Well, you make them happier. How do you make people more happy? You let them be creative.

So they’re interlinked. Where does play come into this — does play contribute to creativity or happiness or both?

It contributes to both but my research has been focused on creativity. A playful work environment promotes creativity by opening us up for exploration and experimentation. In play, we are temporarily relieved from the organisational objectives. You can do things during play that consume time and resources where the end focus or result is not of the utmost importance. You can do something without actually knowing where it’s going to lead you and that’s key to creativity as well.

It’s about increased openness to your own ideas and to the ideas of your colleagues. Of course it’s play so there are also elements of fun and engagement and intrinsic motivation, and all these are directly or indirectly related to increased creativity.

Another aspect that I found in my research with play is that play breaks down organisational barriers of hierarchy. In play we’re both alike. You’re my boss, I take orders from you, but during play we are equals and that’s very conductive to creativity.

That all makes sense: I can remember periods in my working life where the environment has been more playful, more fun, and those are the ones that I associate with the more creative and more fulfilling jobs I’ve had.

If you run an organisation and you want to create more opportunities for play in your office, how do you do this?

Firstly, it’s about leadership. The leadership team, both informal and formal, have to be role models. It never works if an organisation says, ‘let’s be more playful,’ but the higher management are ‘too busy to be doing that shit — you guys be playful and creative; we’ve got work to do.’

The leadership have to be the first ones to lean into play. It’s very important. The research on organisational play points that out, and my experiments show it very clearly. It can be a team leader, it can be the CEO, but they have to be willing to demonstrate their playfulness. People have different ways they express their playfulness.

Secondly, there must be an explicit acceptance and even encouragement of play. I was at an airport here a couple of months ago, just a regular airport lunch place, and I could see inside the staffroom door where they had posted the rules for the staff. It said, ‘Rule number 1: wash your hands. Rule number 2, something about good service. And then Rule number 3: Have fun and enjoy it because that shows to the customer’.

This makes it explicit that they want their staff to have fun and have an enjoyable work atmosphere. It’s sanctioned from above that you do things for your own enjoyment and the enjoyment of your customers. I thought that was a good example.

What happens if you’re a leader but you’re not particularly good at playing yourself? Is everyone capable of play? Obviously we all were when we were young.

I wish I could say yes, but no. The problem is that most people who make it far up in the corporate world are those who are very rational and results driven. That’s how you climb up the ladder. But you don’t have to be extremely playful, you just have to be willing to show little examples. You don’t have to be a clown as a CEO to demonstrate your playfulness. There’s a study that shows that organisational leaders that show unconventional behaviour have more creative employees, so stand on the desk next time you hold your meeting. It doesn’t have to be crazy, it just has to break away a little bit from the expected.

Breaking the rules occasionally, a little bit.

Yes, and don’t be afraid. If you’re an attorney with a dry sense of humour that nobody appreciates, maybe that’s just your sense of humour. Show that as long as it doesn’t hurt or inconvenience or bother other people. In doing that, you’re showing that you’re OK with showing your playful side and then other people will then demonstrate their playfulness.

The worst thing the leadership can do is start penalising work groups or people for demonstrating their playfulness. All it takes is one senior manager to say something negative — ‘We’re here to make money and be effective. We’re not here to screw around.’ That just kills anything that’s called joy or playfulness, and it also kills creativity. The other thing though is that forced play doesn’t work.

Go out there and play!

Now you’re going to have fun, god damn it! It doesn’t work, so you have to allow it to happen organically. This is very difficult for organisations that like to control everything, organise everything.

Do you think all industries and businesses can adopt a playful approach? Can you bring play into manufacturing or highly regulated industries, or is it really about office-based workers or creative industries?

There are good examples from the Industrial Revolution where even in horrible factories in the most wretched conditions people played. They used energy and time to play on the job. In fact, some people would argue that the whole role of management in those factories was to get people to stop playing at work.

But there are certain jobs that might be less flexible when it comes to play. It’s not about playing all the time. The bus driver shouldn’t be swerving around playing in traffic, or testing the brakes out. But there are other elements of their job that can be playful — the interaction with the customers, or how they call out the bus stops. There are always small possibilities within any job where play is possible.

Absolutely. Tube drivers occasionally make announcements that have an element of playfulness about them. Everyone loves it and they have more fun on the job.

It makes the whole day more enjoyable for the passengers and for them in an otherwise boring job.

Does play have to be built into work for it to be effective? I worked in the digital industry in the boom of the late Nineties and all the digital agencies had pool tables and video games. You didn’t play pool in order to brainstorm ideas, but the games provided opportunities for play and relaxation alongside work. Is that just as good or does play have to be part of the work itself?

Excellent question — when I initially started this research project I thought I was going to research exactly those types of play activities. You play foosball or video games or you have silly office games that are separate from the work.

I realised from the literature and from my interviews with people that work with play that that’s missing the whole point. When play is seen as something separate from work, that’s when we start to err because when you see play as an activity, then it is not aligned with your tasks. Whereas if you see play as a mental attitude, then you can do your work in a playful manner.

You can write an article, do an interview, build a wall, and approach it with a playful orientation. That’s what changed my focus. You don’t need to go and play ping-pong in the break room. You can do that as well, and there’s definite advantages to taking those breaks, but you can also tweak your work tasks. That way play can be aligned with the organisational tasks or objectives.

You said it’s about freeing you from the immediate dominance of those objectives, so it’s taking the long way round to get to something, is that right? It’s no longer being so focused on getting to the end; it’s more about enjoying the journey.

Yes, exactly. Being present and enjoying what’s going on right now without being obsessed with ‘How effective am I?’ and ‘What’s this going to lead to?’

Yes, I was thinking on the way into work this morning about how the obsession with productivity is not particularly helpful because it implies that everything must be done as fast and as efficiently as possible.

That’s what also blocks creativity in most organisations, this relentless focus on end results.

Yes, it’s interesting that the UK, we have very low productivity when it’s measured in terms of output per hour, but we also have a thriving creative sector and I wonder if those two are connected.

There’s other examples of that as well. China has a great output of production of things. Whereas Britain and Sweden don’t but people are obviously working at something, they’re just not producing what might be measured in the traditional sense.

Before we move on to talking about the Museum, you recently wrote an article about the technology of foolishness, which I thought was a fantastic phrase. Can you tell me a bit more about what the technology of foolishness is?

It’s from James March, who’s a giant in organisational psychology. He presents the technology of foolishness as an alternative and as an opposite to what he calls the technology of rationality. Organisations are built around the premise that you perform activities that give you a certain result. We’re going to do this and we’re going to make money. Any activities are always evaluated in terms of how they help us reach our desired outcome.

March says that when it comes to creativity, that doesn’t work, because with creativity you don’t know what the results are going to be. His argument is that you can’t be rational about creativity and predict that it’s going to happen in a certain number of steps and what the outcome is going to be. Sometimes organisations need to just do something for no good reason and see what happens: whether it’s an activity, an idea, a social activity, it doesn’t actually matter but it provides a break from this tyranny of rationality. I love his theory and it’s had far too little attention.

I love the sound of that. It takes us on neatly to the idea of failure, because if you don’t know what the outcome is going to be, then there is a chance that the outcome will not be particularly useful. Was that how you came to set up the Museum?

I can’t say that there’s one point where the Museum idea happened. It’s more that I am fascinated with failures, as opposed to success, and the idea that we need to be better at talking about failures. I like the concept of psychological safety, which is the perception within a team that you can share unrefined ideas. You can talk about failures and your humanness, your imperfection, without being judged negatively.

That sparked my interest in product and service failures. I started buying some items and then last year I went to a museum called the Museum of Broken Relationships and that inspired me to set up a museum of failure.

What kind of things are in the Museum?

Everything from silly things like the Bic Pen For Her (That product made me want to kill someone — Ed.) to an electric face mask which is horrible.

There’s the silly ones that shouldn’t exist at all, and then there’s the ones that have a more complex story, such as why Kodak as a company went bankrupt. Or why Google, this big company with all its skills and resources still messed up launching Google Glass. There’s everything in-between — some tech stuff, some non-tech stuff. I’ve got about 80 items so far and it’s growing.

Where do you get them from? eBay?

A lot of it comes from eBay but a lot also comes from donations. Today I picked up two old pre-internet phones that Swedish Telecom launched in the early ’90s that were a catastrophic failure. People donate as well, I get emails every day offering me things. I love it.

The Museum features some high-profile failures from very big companies. What do you think happens with those? Is there insufficient rigour in the process of bringing something to market? Did they just get it wrong?

On the one hand it’s easy with hindsight to say, ‘This is what went wrong.’ It’s more difficult when you’re in the middle of it. But the large companies who should be good at innovation, for example, Apple or Google, or Amazon or Microsoft, all these companies, they still get it wrong because there is always a huge risk of failure.

Even if you are the big guys you can still fail because there’s so many points in the process that are risky. The other aspect is that there is no general theme for the failures. Each failure is unique. Some fail because of bad management, some fail because of bad design, some fail because of bad marketing, some fail because they were ahead of their time.

The clear message here is that if you’re not willing to embrace failure on a smaller scale, then you risk a catastrophic, very expensive failure further down the line. Organisations that lean more towards a playful culture are more likely to embrace experimentation, where the outcomes more often than not are a failure. They either enjoy the process or learn something during the process. A playful work environment is one where you’re encouraged to try novel behaviours, thoughts, and methods without huge consequences, because in play the results don’t matter. By embracing playfulness, or playful culture, the experimentation and the tolerance of failure is there, it’s built in.

Do you think that’s why there’s a perception that start-ups are very innovative because if you’re operating in a situation that’s not been done before, then you’re experimenting the whole time? You’re making it up as you go along.

The other aspect is that you have much less to lose. As an organisation gets older, it becomes more focused on maintaining the status quo. Start-ups don’t have that problem. They can experiment and they can also take risks because they don’t have anything to protect.

What’s next for the Museum and for you? Are you coming back to the UK anytime soon?

Yes, I’ve had two enquiries from London. They’re still shaky but they could happen. Most of the interest for the pop-up is at different innovation events and conferences. I recently got an enquiry from Glasgow, so that would be fun.

Thanks Samuel! A fascinating chat and a reminder of the importance of acknowledging and recognising failure, as well as learning from it. Why not read my tale of failure involving 18th century mailcoaches, horses and rush hour traffic — what could possibly go wrong?

This article was supported by idea management platform Solverboard. Do check out Solverboard Work, their suite of idea management tools that help organisations inspire, capture, measure and reward the collective intelligence of their people.

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