As a leader, taking time off for the holidays is understandably stressful. You want to completely disconnect and be present with family and friends, but you feel guilty that you aren't working. After all, there is always work to do.

If you're wishing for a way to push your company to a new level while simultaneously spending quality time with your family, your holiday wish has already come true.

Scientific findings and expert observations have shown that business people can learn a lot from children's creative process. A child's creativity doesn't just help her in a kiddie activity. Research has shown that when children and business people are faced with the same creative challenge, children are actually more successful in solving it.

So what is it about the way they think and act? Here are 4 things about creativity you can learn from a 5-year-old.

1. Try, fail, and try again

In the classic marshmallow challenge, a team was given twenty sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string, scotch tape, and a marshmallow and asked to build the tallest possible tower they could with the marshmallow sitting on top. The average team built a tower that was twenty inches tall, but importantly, business students significantly underperformed while kindergartners overperformed. This was because kindergartners would immediately start building, testing, and iterating. They put the marshmallow on top and prototyped different options. When the first idea didn't work, they tried something else, and when that didn't work, they would try again. When time was up, they had experimented with several options to continually improve the structure. On the flip side, the business students spent time planning and discussing their structure, without actually trying it out to see what would stick.

When faced with a new business challenge, whether it's innovating on pricing model, introducing a new product feature, or simplifying an operational process, how might you rapidly test different options in a quick, low-risk way?

2. Throw logic out the window

Divergent thinking is a way of thinking in broad, unstereotyped ways. It generates creativity by encouraging us to explore many possible solutions. In their book Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering The Future Today, George Land and Beth Jarman describe a longitudinal study in which people's divergent thinking skills were tracked over a period of time starting at childhood. While 98 percent of children scored at genius levels of divergent thinking, by age fifteen only 10 percent were able to reach the same level. Only 2 percent of adults who took the same test obtained a genius score. The implication here is that as we age, our experiences and biases begin to constrain our thinking. We are less able to truly think outside of the box as a child might.

At times when you want to go broad and come up with as many ideas as possible, encourage yourself and your team to throw out their filters and share anything that comes to mind--as random or disjointed as it may seem.

3. Ask, "but why?" incessantly

One holiday several years ago, my cousin and her family came to visit. She was five at the time, and was never at a loss of questions. At some point, she noticed stubble on my leg. "Ahhhhh!" She started screaming, "There's hair! Why is there hair!" "Because I've been lazy," I responded. "But why is it there?" "Because that's how it grows!" "But why don't I have any?" "Because it starts out growing slowly!" After many more rounds of questions and answers (including a quick Google on the layers of skin), I was only able to end the conversation by jokingly threatening to cut her hair and stick it on her leg. Kids not only ask questions, but they are also rarely satisfied with the first answer they receive. With each question they ask, they get one layer deeper, until they get to the meat of the answer.

When you're tackling any initiative, take the stance of a curious child who has none of the answers. Don't let yourself feel satisfied with a surface-level answer. Dig deep to understand all the hairy nuances and get to the heart of an issue.

4. Meet ambiguity with optimism

In her TED talk on what adults can learn from kids, Adora Svitak distinguishes an adult's reaction to big plans ("That costs too much," or "That won't benefit me") from that of a kid, who leads with unbridled optimism. A child's ability to imagine an ideal scenario helps her push the limits of what is "possible." As an example, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma has a program called Kids Design Glass in which kids 12 and under can come up with ideas for glass art. As per the resident artist, the museum gets some of its best ideas from the program because kids are not concerned about the challenges and constraints of blowing glass into specific shapes. Instead, they are thinking about the best idea -- like a broken-hearted snake.

When weighing possible solutions to a challenge at hand, think about why each one will work before rejecting it for why it won't. With this approach, you can piece together the positive aspects of your various options to land on the best one.

This holiday season, when you are surrounded by hyperactive, over-inquisitive kids, resist the urge to attempt to tame them. Instead, join them. They might be the best creativity coaches you'll ever find.

Published on: Nov 29, 2016
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