Innovation: The Power of Play

As I’ve mentioned, the three values I hold dear are respect, teamwork and innovation. When we have respect for our colleagues, collaboration is far easier. But what about innovation?

Some of the best innovations can happen while “playing.” When I say play, I don’t mean being frivolous about the work at hand. Rather, I mean tapping into the mindset that a child might use to make believe or that a musician may enter to improvise a melody. My most creative ideas have come by freeing my mind from clutter or overthinking, which author Ray Bradbury said is the “enemy of creativity.”

Earlier in my career, when I was a nutritionist and the manager of ambulatory nutrition clinics, my team and I counseled patients whose goal was to lose weight. It was often a struggle for them to change the behaviors that were contributing to their condition.

I spent hours with the patients, sometimes overwhelming myself with my dedication to a solution. One day, while taking a moment for myself, I noticed some colored plastic game pieces that my nephew had left in my office.

The answer was right in front of me: Better engage patients with a game they’d see as “play.”

In this game, the colored plastic chips represented proper daily servings of food groups. For example, green chips represented vegetables and red represented meats.

Patients were given a daily allotment of chips in a box that had two main compartments: one with the game pieces and another that was entirely empty. We tailored the number and kinds of chips that were given based on the needs of the individual. Each time they’d eat a food item, they would place the appropriate chip in the side that started out as empty. At the end of the day, when the chips had all been moved, patients had consumed what they needed to maintain a healthy diet for that 24-hour period.

The game was an overwhelming success for the people that my team and I counseled. (For those of you who remember fitness and health celebrity Richard Simmons, I created my system just a few years before he took a similar concept to patent and market. I don’t believe there was any connection, of course.)

My mind was free to play, and I was able to solve a complex problem much more effectively. I suspect that a similar mindset leads to innovations at many levels, including some of the biomedical discoveries that happen here at Johns Hopkins. Telling this story brings to mind a recent series of Johns Hopkins videos explaining complicated medical research using childhood toys and simple household objects: Science Out of the Box. I hope you enjoy it!

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