Why the best ideas come from thinking like a child

A man reading a book with two young boys
Image from Daniel Senn
Alison Coleman
by Alison Coleman
14 March 2019

Remember those long summer days of your childhood? With your imagination in full flow, you’d magic whole worlds from boxes, populate cities with flying monsters, making the impossible real. Then school, exams, university, and work intervened, shutting all that natural creativity down.

Erica Wolfe Murray
Image from Erica Wolfe-Murray

It’s a sad reminder of just how fleeting those days of unfettered imagine are. And it’s a story that Erica Wolfe-Murray, one of the UK's leading business experts, hears repeatedly in her business innovation work with small companies.

She says: “Their sense of loss is palpable, their once-flourishing creativity now mourned, but to me, this amazing childhood creativity isn’t lost, merely overlaid with the mundanity of the everyday. I have no truck with the cry ‘I’m not creative’, because without exception, everyone is. Unlocking it to allow it to flower again is one of the most exciting journeys you can take a business on. Helping them understand its value and how it can contribute to their commercial life, however, can take time.”

Much of a child’s inventiveness comes through finding entertainment to fill their days. In the adult world people are busy, but they still need to allow themselves inventive space to dream and play, to explore.

Wolfe-Murray advocates businesses taking their team out regularly to new places, to spaces to look at the world in unexpected ways from a different viewpoint.

“Children solve problems in a non-linear fashion, their magpie imaginations collecting, sorting, rearranging all those glittering daydreams into a nonsensical world they treasure,” she says. “Encouraging your team to chat about all the new, interesting ideas, thoughts, innovations, images, websites, games or whatever’s caught their eye each week brings that sense of wonder back in the door.”

Elsewhere in the business world, companies have recognised the value of tapping into the imaginative prowess of youngsters.

Design agency Seymourpowell has been responsible for several world-first innovations, from the first cordless kettle, to the first hydrogen-cell powered motorbike. They have been heavily involved in creative education programmes and recently carried out a workshop for kids at the V&A, where they observed their approach to new challenges free of any fear of failure.

“Kids just go for it,” says senior creative strategist Emma Caselton. “With the restrictions of ‘the real world’ still undiscovered, even the physically impossible can be tabled as a logical solution. We find inspiration simply in observing the way they use things. As sounding-boards during co-development sessions, their opinions and outlook help us grow and validate our work.”

The beautiful thing about a young lifestyle is that play, which could also be classed as untamed invention, is actively encouraged. Play is a serious matter. It’s urgent and undiluted. It’s not infected with adult connotations of time-wasting. As a child, it’s easier to be amazed by the world around you.

“Some of the world’s biggest challenges, such as urbanisation, congestion and pollution need serious imagination and ingenuity to solve,” says Caselton. “This is when channelling our inner child is important. We need to maintain our ability to imagine a better future.”

Emma Castleton - school teacher
Image from Emma Caselton

Thinking like a child is an idea that resonates with serial entrepreneur, innovator, and a Chair of the UK Academy of Chief Executives Vince Tickel, who says that businesses don’t innovate, but copy what exists and change it slightly, and that business leaders don’t break the rules, or try to think of things in a radically different way.

“What got them into running a successful business is what’s stopping them from innovating, because to innovate takes risk,” he says. “This is where children are magic. They imagine without any of limitations that we put on our thinking as adults. By being childlike in the way you approach problems, you see them from a completely different place, and then the opportunities arise. Most will be useless, but some will be gold dust, and in that gold dust is the ability to differentiate yourself.”

The key to thinking like a child to maximise creativity could be to play like a child. For Natalie Sutton and her customers it’s a case of turning back the clock to those childhood years and getting out the LEGO bricks. Sutton is a certified LEGO SERIOUS PLAY facilitator, running sessions for businesses with LEGO to address business issues, surface new ideas, and unleash creativity.

She says: “The issue with traditional, boardroom-style meetings or brainstorming is the balance of power. Not everyone contributes equally. Some people will naturally fear being wrong and making mistakes. Others will naturally dominate. It’s not unusual to get 20% of participants leading and contributing and 80% not speaking up much at all. That is a huge volume of missed creativity, innovation and participation.”

Enter LEGO SERIOUS PLAY. Researchers from the University of Pittsburg and Carnegie Mellon have found that when people mentally prepare for a task and play with the available decision options, they activate the part of their brain that makes non-routine decisions.

“If you’ve played with ideas regarding what you will do in the event of a given situation arising, your decision making will be better and faster than if you have not played through the various scenarios and options in advance,” says Sutton.

Workshops start with a warm up skills building session, to prove to everyone that they are capable of building with bricks. The session then poses some very carefully crafted questions to which participants build their answer. Everyone then shares and reflects, with everyone actively involved in the decision process.

“I have experienced some truly amazing outcomes, because the bricks serve as a common language that everyone can use, regardless of their education, position or culture,” says Natalie. “As Plato once said, ‘You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation’.”

Natalie Sutton, looking at the camera
Image from Natalie Sutton

Sometimes a child’s ingenuity becomes the basis of a real business idea. Launched in 2016, Poio is an app that provides a gamified alternative to traditional reading methods and was devised by its co-founder and CEO, Daniel Senn, with his youngest son Leon.

Senn says: “Leon was born with a serious hearing impairment which meant that he would struggle with traditional learning methods, and we knew that he would need more time and assistance to master reading. Unfortunately, the school system is designed for the majority of students that develop at the same pace, and it does not make proper allowances for children who learn at different speeds.”

When Leon was three-years-old, he and his father began constructing paper-based games on the kitchen table to help with practice in combining letters into meaningful words. Leon loved this, and together with his older brother Aksel, they became central to the whole process. Their creativity and playfulness inspired the game that eventually became Poio. Soon they had devised a whole imaginary world, which aided literacy in an exciting and inclusive way. What’s more, they enlisted the help from other children in their neighbourhood as voices for all of the characters.

A man sits with two children, pointing at a book
Image from Daniel Senn

Daniel says: “It’s gratifying that through becoming an app, our learning method, and the friendly troll, Poio, at its heart, has provided a safe and engaging environment that has helped over 60,000 Norwegian and Swedish children master one of life’s most important skills.” Poio will launch in the UK and Denmark this year.

As Wolfe-Murray Erica points out, no-one has ownership over creativity, innovation or invention, yet as adults we lock ourselves into linear roles, denying ourselves that rich freedom of imagination, thinking someone else has ‘taken’ that space.

She says: “Understanding that we can all be part of it makes for a rounder, richer human experience, and who wouldn’t want that?”

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail illustration by Jade Brown.