Adult play as a facilitator of creativity in an organizational context

Here is my research plan. I will spend the next four years at Lund University researching how play impacts creativity in the workplace.

Adult play as a facilitator of creativity in an organizational context

Creativity plays an essential role in the overall success of many organizations, and these organizations also increasingly realize that they must actively promote creativity and engage in ongoing processes of experimentation to maintain an innovative advantage (Florida, 2005; Statler, Roos, & Victor, 2009; Thomke, 2003). Yet compared with the amount of research done on the cognitive aspects of creativity, individual differences or affect and creativity, research on the efficacy of creativity training methods is lacking (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). A meta-analysis of 70 studies on creativity training provides evidence that this type of training generally leads to promising results; the more successful programs tended to focus on the development of cognitive skills and the heuristics involved in skill applications (Scott, Leritz, & Mumford, 2004). Even online-based creative thinking programs have been shown to significantly improve creative abilities and creative self-efficacy in adult samples (Robbins & Kegley, 2010). According to Hennessy and Amabile’s recent review article (2010), creativity researchers have become increasingly interested in the creativity of groups rather than individuals; despite this much is still unknown about the creativity processes of groups. In an organizational context most creative work is done in team settings (Thompson & Choi, 2006), emphasizing the importance of understanding and developing interactive approaches to the creativity of groups, rather than identifying and managing creative individuals (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006).

Construct of adult play
The majority of research on human play is on the developmental benefits of children’s play, whereas studies of adult play focus on its use in therapeutic or education contexts (Van Leeuwen & Westwood, 2008). As a construct, adult play and playfulness is not easily defined (Kruger, 1995). Some researchers emphasize playfulness as a relatively stable personality trait (Barnett, 2007; Glynn & Webster, 1992) while others see play as an activity mediated by social psychological factors. In his recent book on the subject, Stuart Brown (2009) writes that “play is a state of mind rather than an activity” and continues to define play as an absorbing and intrinsically motivated activity that is apparently purposeless and provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness. Similarly and building on earlier definitions, play theorist Peter Gray (2009a) defines play as a structured and voluntary activity in which means are more valued than ends, it being of an imaginative nature and in someway non-serious, having rules, and involving an active yet non-stressed frame of mind.

The common conceptualization of adult play as the opposite of work is an assumption that has been seriously refuted, in fact many researchers argue that play is an essential aspect of a healthy creative work environment (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989; Gray, 2009b; Starbuck & Webster, 1991; Statler, et al., 2009). In an organizational context, playfulness can be seen as an important component of a creative organizational climate (Ekvall, 1996). One interesting finding on the construct of adult play is that unlike children’s play where creativity is seen as integral (eg.Russ, 1998), creativity was not found to be a defining feature of adult play (Barnett, 2007).

Play and creativity – why play might facilitate creativity
Play is suggested by evolutionary biologists as a source of behavioral variety (Spinka, Newberry, & Bekoff, 2001), and it is not too far of a stretch to suggest that play may also be a source of mental and creative fluency. Play might facilitate the flexible thinking that leads to novelty and variation (Russ, 1998). Many of the aspects of play and creativity seem interwoven, and this has lead researchers to ask if creativity and its related skills of flexibility, association and intrinsic task involvement may indeed be acquired by and developed though the process or state of play (Hoff, 2010). Play has been associated with the development of children’s cognitive and affective creative processes (Russ, 1998), and playfulness as a personality trait seems also to be connected to creativity in adolescence and adult populations (Craft, 2000; Fix & Schaefer, 2005; Glynn & Webster, 1992; Goldmintz & Schaefer, 2007). The idea that play might positively impact creativity has been more of a theoretical focus, and with few exceptions the experimental studies have been limited to child play. In a recent overview of the research on pretend play, Hoff cites Dansky’s early experimental studies that provide evidence that play facilitates children’s creativity and suggests that pretend play does have a positive impact on creativity in children (Hoff, 2010). Other researchers have also experimentally demonstrated that children who participated in flexible play experiences showed significantly greater creative thinking (Berretta & Privette, 1990). Two intervention studies were found that examined the impact of adult play interventions on creativity. In a study of the state-related nature of creative performance, adults who imagined themselves as seven-year-olds while writing a short text scored higher on creativity tests than a control group (Zabelina & Robinson, 2010), suggesting that a playful childlike mindset may promote creativity in adults. The other study tested the effects of an intervention of a Role Play Game on undergraduates with promising results using the Test for Creative Thinking – Drawing Production and a similar test of creative imagination. In this particular study, the effects of the play intervention was stronger if the creativity measure was done directly following the play intervention instead of spread out over four weeks (Karwowski & Soszynski, 2008). This supports earlier findings that the short-term “spilling over effects” of play interventions may be stronger than the long-term effects (Moore & Russ, 2008).

Goal and Aims
The overall goal of this project is to investigate the impact of adult play on organizational creativity. The first aim is to develop a theoretically sound model of adult play suitable for organizational contexts. The second aim is to test this model in a variety of real-life organizational settings. The third aim is to test its impact on creativity in a controlled intervention study. This will to my knowledge be the first project examining the impact of an adult play activity on creativity in organizations. The focus of this proposed research is in line with the current ambitions of the European Union Seventh Framework Program to reinforce the links between creativity and organizational learning (FP7, 2009).

Study 1) Promoting creativity with play: Creativity consultants’ notions of the use of play as a facilitator of creativity in the workplace.
Aim: To investigate the notions that creativity consultants have of adult play as a facilitator of creativity in the workplace. The results, together with theories of play, will lay the foundation for the development of a model of adult play that will be used in the following two studies.
Participants, procedure and data analysis: Participants will be 15 experienced creativity developers who utilize play in their work; they will be selected to maximize variation in terms of their approach and the types of organizations they work with. The semi-structured, in-depth interviews, which will last approximately 45 minutes, will use an interview guide that includes questions such as: “Describe how play might facilitate creativity in the workplace?”; “In which ways do you use play to promote creativity?”; “From your experience, what are some concrete examples of play activities that promote creativity, and which play activities do not seem to affect creativity?”; and “What difficulties do you experience in getting adults to play in the workplace setting?” The recorded interviews will be transcribed, and each participant will receive the transcription of their interview and asked to check its accuracy. Common themes will be extracted from the answers using inductive content analysis (Hayes, 2000).
Expected results: To develop a preliminary model of adult play that may be useful for enhancing creativity in an organizational context. The model is expected to be grounded in the experience of what creativity developers utilize in their work as well as in existing theories of play.
Study 2) Practical evaluation of an model of adult play activity in an organizational context.
Aim: This study aims to test and evaluate the previously developed model of adult play in a variety of organizational settings. The evaluation will focus on the participant’s experience of the play activity as well as to what degree the activity measures up to the theoretical criteria for play. The findings from this study will help refine the practical play intervention for use in future studies.
Participants will consist of three groups of approximately ten persons in each group (N=30). The participants will be recruited from the diverse fields of engineering, marketing and education with each group coming from a different organization. The teams will be recruited on a voluntary basis and in collaboration with employers.
Procedure and data analysis: Initially the practical development of the play activity will involve a small pilot study to test its design and feasibility; this pilot aims to allow for improvement of the play activity before launching the larger study. For the main study, groups will receive identical information and instructions and each group will get the same 45-60 minutes of play activity. The exact content and procedure of the play activity will be based upon the findings from the first study. After the play activity, the participants will be asked to fill out a questionnaire on how they experienced the play activity and about their ideas of its appropriateness in their organization. Participants will also rate the play activity on the theoretical criteria for play such as a) how absorbing, b) how enjoyable, and to what degree they c) experienced a suspension of self-consciousness. Background information on the participants such as age, gender, profession, as well as position in organization will also be collected via the questionnaire and this data will be analyzed  in relation to the questions about the play activity. The questionnaire will be constructed for the study and will be tested in the initial pilot study.
Expected results: The empirical knowledge drawn from this testing of the model in the workplace environment will enable improvement of the play intervention model for future intervention studies, additionally it will contribute to a better understanding of the experience of adult playful activities in the workplace and their relation to the various background factors.

Study 3) The impact of an adult play activity intervention on creativity in work teams.

Aim: To study the impact of an intervention with an adult play model on the creative output of teams. The intervention group will be compared with matched controls in a between-groups design.
Participants will consist of six teams of approximately 8-10 persons each (N = 48-60). The teams will be recruited on a voluntary basis and in collaboration with the employer; if possible all teams will be from the same organization. The teams will be existing teams that have experience working together. The intervention group will be composed at random by three of the teams, leaving the other three as a control group.
Procedure and data analysis: The teams in the intervention group will participate in the play intervention during a period of at least eight weeks, while the control group will receive a series of non-playful group activities. The exact procedure, contents, and duration of the play activity, as well as details on the number and length of the play sessions will be based on the results of studies 1 and 2. Creativity measurements will be taken before the period of play begins, and after one week, as well as three months after the last play activity session. Eventual effects will be measured in both the difference between pre- and post-intervention scores as well as between the intervention and control groups. Creativity will be measured by the Consensual Assessment Technique (Amabile, 1982; Hennessey & Amabile, 1999) since it has been argued that this is best suited to measure direct experimental manipulations of social and environmental factors (Hennessey, 2003). For this measure participants are asked to complete a figural and verbal task, which can involve creating a collage, writing a short poem or another creative task, relevant to the participants’ field of work. Scores of creativity are obtained by a panel of expert judges who examine and score the products or ideas according to a standardized method.
Expected Results: 1) At follow up, the intervention group, in contrast to the control group, is expected to show improvements in creativity compared to baseline. 2) In addition, the intervention group is expected to score higher than the control group at the follow up.

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