A Playful Path to Innovation: Lessons from my Ball of Worldly Possessions
In the corporate world, where KPIs, deadlines, and ROI often dictate our actions, it’s easy to dismiss the power of unexpected and seemingly ridiculous ideas. Yet, these very ideas might hold the key to unlocking wildly inventive solutions and driving meaningful innovation.
When I met my wife Cathy she was a costume designer. We joked that she was 3D and I, an illustrator at the time, was 2D. To me, designing costumes for advertising, PR, and artists was an impressive enterprise — serious business played out in 30 second spots on TV. I watched Cathy negotiate her contracts with clients and hire multiple subcontractors to stitch, drape, airbrush, and integrate mechanics….subject to her careful scrutiny and perfection. Oversized objects and soft props emerged from her studio: giant Lea & Perrin’s steak sauce cows, 16 whimsical costumes for the New York State lottery, Lions of Venice for Claes Oldenburg and purses for Cindy Sherman, functional lamps and fixtures activated by Pilobolus dancers, and giant Oreo cookies.
One day, I remember walking into while she was working up a giant tomato costume. It required cutting a pattern out of thick foam rubber that came together the way orange slices join. She’d carefully applied glue and presto, the bulbous, rounded shape of an over-sized tomato was born.
We were newlyweds living in an apartment in NYC that had been a pocket book factory which gave our apartment very high ceilings. And we had more stuff than places to put it. I got to thinking — what if there was some kind of storage structure we could build that would allow us to use the large, airy space above us? Suddenly, I was struck by lightning: Cathy’s tomato costume was perfect for the task — when lowered the segments of the tomato would flatten, extraneous objects could be placed inside, and when raised the segments would close and a pulley system would draw everything up to the ceiling.
I shared my big idea with Cathy, calling it, a “Ball of Worldly Possessions” and described several appealing designs — from a world globe motif, to patchwork quilting, to 60’s psychedelia.
Cathy listened to my impassioned pitch and generously offered that it was the stupidest thing she had ever heard, the kind that puts a kink in newlywed bliss (Queue: Jaws-like “dumb-dumb, dumb-dumb…” soundtrack). Until that moment, I was convinced Cathy thought most of my ideas were golden. Now my foam rubber bubble had burst and my belongings and ego spilled out on the floor.
I’m as stubborn as the next person, and I still had a nagging appetite for thinking about impossible, perhaps stupid things. So when I was hired by Rockwell Group and asked to design floats for the Disney World parade, I’m pretty sure there was some evidence of my BoWP in the way I sketched out the little “A Bug’s Life” or “Monster’s Inc.” cars and the hydraulic garages that they were transported in.
And later when they asked me to conceptualize some kind of iconic intervention for a festival celebrating the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in Manhattan harbor, that submarine in one version of my sketches looked suspiciously BoWP.
It’s easy to forget that often we are often only limited by what we can imagine.
In Jeremy Utley’s excellent book “Ideaflow,” he focuses on the mantra, “In order to get great ideas, you have to have a lot of ideas.” I’ll add that, when innovation teams go low with risk tolerance, go high — and that often means having a high tolerance for stupid.
How might the story of the “Ball of Worldly Possessions” provide some insight for those of us navigating the corporate landscape.
- Embracing the Whimsical: Just like my “Ball of Worldly Possessions” (BoWP) seemed absurd at first glance, sometimes the most unconventional ideas can lead to breakthroughs. Allowing ourselves to explore the whimsical can open up new avenues of creativity.
- The Importance of Prototyping: Just as Cathy’s tomato modeled my “Ball of Worldly Possessions,” building a tangible representation of an idea, even if it initially seems outlandish, can help communicate its potential to others.
- Resilience in the Face of Rejection: When your brilliant idea is met with skepticism, it’s easy to feel deflated. However, the story of my BoWP! reminds us that rejection is not the end of the road. Resilience and determination can lead to unexpected triumphs down the line.
- Cultivating an Open Mindset: Cathy’s initial reaction to my BoWP! highlights the common tendency to dismiss ideas that deviate from the norm. To foster innovation, it’s crucial to create an environment where diverse perspectives are valued, and seemingly absurd ideas are given a chance to flourish.
- From Inspiration to Execution: The journey from an eccentric idea to a tangible innovation is often a winding one. Just as the concept of my BoWP resurfaced in a new context with Rockwell Group’s projects, we can all find inspiration from unexpected sources and adapt them to address complex challenges.
- Where Preparedness meets Opportunity: My playful musings about space-saving in our NYC apartment set the stage for “luck” in the design world. Similarly, in the corporate realm, nurturing a curious and open-minded approach can lead to serendipitous moments where innovative ideas align with the right circumstances.
The tale of the “Ball of Worldly Possessions” is as a reminder that embracing the unexpected, even in the face of initial ridicule, can pave the way for wildly inventive breakthroughs. For those of us immersed in corporate life, it’s an invitation to nurture our playful side, challenge conventional thinking, and create a culture where imaginative ideas are not only welcomed but celebrated.