Creativity is vital to the long-term health of your business, whether you're talking about fostering a culture of innovation or the product-specific work of designing and prototyping

In entrepreneurial settings, the tenets of Lego (playing, designing, building, wrecking it, and doing it again) are highly applicable. Look through headlines or histories, and you can find countless examples of founders or inventors like the Wright Brothers deploying Lego-like principles. And it's well known that the libraries in various Google offices are stocked with Lego for the engineers to toy with. 

But as it turns out, some Lego habits foster more creativity than others. Recent research by business professors Page Moreau and Marit Gundersen Engset strongly suggests that you'll reap more creative benefits if you "free-build"--doing what you will with a random collection of pieces--as opposed to building something from a well-defined LEGO kit by following the instructions to letter. 

The virtues of freestyling.

In their experiments, Moreau (John R. Nevin professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business) and Engeset (associate professor of marketing at Buskerud and Vestfold University College in Kongsberg, Norway) gave 136 undergraduates a variety of Lego-related building tasks. Some of the undergrads followed the instructions of a Lego kit. Others were given a random assortment of LEGO bricks and were simply told to build something. 

As you might imagine, the undergrads who free-built outperformed the undergrads who kit-built on subsequent creativity tests. Those tests included SAT-type analogies and several Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, such as sketch exercises judged by how abstract, elaborate, and original they were.

You might think that the takeaway here is the importance of using your imagination--of building something from scratch, as opposed to following a script. And that is, indeed, one thing to keep in mind. There's a time and a place for the convergent thinking fostered by kit-building (reaching a single answer, outcome, or solution as fast as possible to a well-defined problem); and there's a time and a place for the divergent thinking fostered by free-building (developing multiple answers, outcomes, or solutions to a loosely-defined problem). 

But the more actionable piece of advice for adults in business settings is the notion that your mindset or mode of thinking on one task (be it divergent or convergent) can spill over into whatever task you're doing next. "It's simply recognizing that the task that you're performing right now entails a certain set of cognitive processes that are going to transfer in many cases over to the next task--whether they should or shouldn't," is how Moreau explained the finding to Manoush Zomorodi, whose "Note to Self" program on WNYC-radio in New York City explored these Lego findings in great depth. 

It's all about the warm-up.

In practical terms, that means you should treat creativity like the exercise that it is--and warm up for it. "You need to prime your brain," notes Zomorodi. "Don't go straight from balancing the books to brainstorming." To warm up, Moreau suggests performing a free-association exercise. Ask yourself a question like, "How are these scissors like this chair?" Or you could play a game with open-ended possibilities, like Pictionary or Telephone or some combination thereof.

Exercises like this will help to put you in a divergent-thinking mindset, compelling you "to seek connections among things that you would rarely put together," Moreau told Zomorodi. This idea, in and of itself--the combining of seemingly disparate elements--is another key to unlocking great ideas. Steve Jobs' application of calligraphy's design and visual tenets to the clunky world of early 1980s computers--a pre-Macintosh world in dire need of aesthetic principles--was one key to Apple's rise. 

"Some of the most significant ideas come about when someone sees a problem in a new way--often by combining disparate elements that initially seemed unrelated," writes marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark in her 2015 book, "Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It."

Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that a few weeks ago, one of the world's most prestigious colleges--the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England--announced it planned to establish the Lego Professorship of Play in Education, Development, and Learning in the Faculty of Education. The academic research on the power of Lego is clearly growing. Moreau and Engeset's study shows that the connection between Lego and creativity is not only alive and well--it's nuanced. It's not just the Lego that matters. It's how you play with it.

Published on: Aug 20, 2015