The Power of Play: Robert Mark Morgan on His Upcoming COCAbiz Workshop

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“Let’s face it,” says award-winning stage and set designer Robert Mark Morgan, “in business, the words ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’ are catchphrases. But how do you set up an environment that actually fosters these things?” According to Morgan, the answer is play: unstructured time when workers are encouraged to set routines aside and see their work with fresh eyes.

For Morgan, creativity is no catchphrase—it’s a mandate. As an assistant professor of scenic design at Washington University in St. Louis and director of the university’s Beyond Boundaries program, Morgan fosters creative collaboration across disciplines university wide. In between teaching and designing sets at The Muny and other theaters across the nation, Morgan teaches workshops on the power of creativity, artful public speaking and visual communication to St. Louis business leaders.

Now, Morgan is bringing his philosophy to COCAbiz in a new one-day bizSESSION, “The Power of Play” (June 18, 7:30-10 a.m.). Intended for business and nonprofit leaders, as well as educators, the session will show participants how channeling your inner child can lead to big ideas in the workplace.

Below, in advance of “The Power of Play,” Morgan shares insights on creativity and the value of play at work.

What is “play,” as you define it?
Robert Mark Morgan: One myth I try to dispel is that play is a dalliance or a luxury, some frivolous thing that you do when you’re not working. Today we place too much importance on work and not enough on play. But playing, as we did when we were kids, leads to so many cognitive combinations.

Think back to kindergarten when we had all those wonderful objects to play with, such as crayons and blocks. We had great tools at our disposal that we slowly but surely removed from our lives as we grew up. But if you look at a place such as IDEO, which is a pioneer in inventing new products for companies, its creative space is like a kindergarten. It has carts of pipe cleaners, foil, you name it.

There’s something to be said for going back to the playful, creative process in any type of environment, and especially in a business environment. At work, we may think we need to be super smart and buttoned up; we tend to think that only the guy at the end of the long conference table has ideas. That’s not the case, though, and play is something we should rethink and bring back into work environments.

Why should business leaders bring play into the workplace?
If I were to take the concept of “play” to an average person, he or she would say, “Oh, that’s something you do when you’re not working.” But play should be considered important to the work you do, as well.

What I bring to the table is a collaborative mirror, in which I show participants things they can bring back to their own work environment. One thing I sometimes do is to have students work in groups to design a cardboard chair that can support a 10-pound weight. They have a limited timeframe and set of materials. They have to iterate on the fly, they have to innovate, and they end up using materials in ways they didn’t think they would. It may seem silly to build a chair, but participants learn a lot through that collaboration. What they see is that there’s no hierarchy to ideas. Rather, everyone is involved in the collaboration. Suddenly, it’s not just the guy at the head of the table who has the ideas.

The Power of Play: Robert Mark Morgan on His Upcoming COCAbiz Workshop

How do you apply your background in theater and set design to the concept of play in the workplace?
In a way, collaborative play is acting at its core. Improvisation is founded on the idea of “yes, and…” You say “yes” to what’s asked of you and then build on that idea. I see actors do that, I see students do that, and I see a place for that in business. Hopefully we’re coming around to the notion that ideas are the commodity and technical skills naturally follow.

What can attendees of “The Power of Play” bizSESSION expect?
I don’t want to spoil too many surprises, but there’s one activity I’ll share called an “Alternative Uses Exercise,” where I ask people to come up with as many uses for an everyday object as they can in an extremely short amount of time. Say, 30 uses for a wooden stool. We often self-edit our own ideas, but with a time constraint, we’re pushed to come up with a lot of ideas and share them all. People are always surprised by the ways they can be creative.

The T-shaped thinker is someone who can look across other disciplines for solutions to a problem they’re trying to solve. An example I like to use is of Israeli optical engineer Gavriel Iddan. For years he watched doctors try to perform endoscopies with little tubes, and then he came up with a thing called the pill camera—a camera inside a pill that you swallow. It took somebody from a very different discipline to come up with a solution to a problem that doctors themselves weren’t able to see. Something like an “Alternative Uses Exercise” can reframe your thinking and allow you to see new solutions to problems.

The bizSESSION on June 18 starts at 7:30 a.m. with a light breakfast, followed by Morgan’s interactive presentation from 8 to 10 a.m. in the Staenberg Performance Lab at COCA. Tickets are $45 (discounted to $35 for participants from nonprofits) and can be purchased through the event homepage.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Images courtesy of COCA.

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