Playing into the Future: 
A New Perspective on Creative Work

Future needs more play than work: A retrospective on the ‘Innovative Leaders’ conference in Mainz and how to establish a culture of creative innovation in companies.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of being a panelist at the ‘Innovative Leaders’ conference organized by F.A.Z. Institut. It was an occasion where experts from diverse industries gathered to exchange ideas on how to embed a culture of creative innovation within corporations. The event yielded numerous insightful discussions, and even before the lunch break, two pivotal insights had already emerged. Firstly, there were the keynote addresses by Dr. Frank Heinricht (CEO of Schott AG) and Prof. Dr. Thomas Kropf (Head of Research at Robert Bosch GmbH), that both underscored that innovations are seldom the result of flashes of genius from enlightened inventors but rather a product of effective teamwork. Secondly, it was the welcoming gesture by Stefan Bauer (Director Transformation & Strategy, DACH, Lilly Pharma), urging participants to shed their jackets and last names, and instead, engage in open dialogue with their fellow attendees. Almost instantly, the rigid rows of chairs in the room transformed into a vibrant arena of interaction. 

Could we have replicated a similar experience in a video call? Likely not. This is because we, as human beings, are sensory creatures, and our perception of our surroundings and interactions with others forms the backdrop against which we feel secure. Such a sense of security, in turn, emboldens us to experiment and instills in us the confidence that even mistakes are not catastrophic. It is this very atmosphere that nurtures the birth of innovation. The complex ability to collaborate, deeply rooted in genuine social interaction, has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and, no matter how much certain tech giants might wish otherwise, it cannot be transformed overnight.


Maintaining the status quo with digital tools is insufficient

This truth applies, perhaps even more so, to those of us in the agency world, as well as to anyone offering creative services. Undoubtedly, in the era of remote work, digital tools and video conferences have enabled us to uphold our accustomed high standards. However, let us not deceive ourselves: innovation does not blossom from the preservation of the status quo; rather, it emerges from its elevation! Every day, we witness how creative outcomes improve significantly since our teams have resumed their collaborative work within the agency. 

It has been scientifically proven, in alignment with my personal experiences, that working collectively is highly stimulating. Within this framework, we experience a sense of security, assume mutual responsibility, and develop a keen sensitivity to the emotions of others. In a collaborative setting, we challenge one another, casually and instinctively learn from each other. We seek intimacy when providing critical feedback. All of these are integral elements of productive group dynamics. For young employees embarking on their career journeys, these experiences are instructive, motivating, and, therefore, essential. However: In video calls, they are – at best – a pale reflection.

“In essence, play achieves precisely what skeptics might contest: it enhances the efficiency of our work.” 
Ruediger Goetz

Embrace the challenge without fear

In addition to genuine interaction, a corporate culture that fosters creativity and innovation requires another essential component: the passion for play! Why? Because the communication challenges we face in our work have never been as intricate as they are today. With more touchpoints, increased competition, and the perceived omnipotence of AI, creative professionals run the risk of becoming overwhelmed, paralyzed by awe, or even consumed by fear. Some may attempt to carefully chip away at the mountain of challenges, delving so deeply into the subject matter that they lose sight of fresh perspectives. Others may succumb to procrastination. Conversely, a love for play encourages us to follow our intuition, embark on experiments, embrace failure, and learn from it. It compels us to approach problems from various angles: if a direct approach proves ineffective, we shift to a different vantage point on the second attempt. If that too fails, we try again. The love for play is closely entwined with a culture that welcomes mistakes. Through play, creativity transforms into a delightful learning process.

Moreover, play accomplishes something remarkable: it not only dispels fear but also reduces our susceptibility to the pervasive distractions of the unrestrained attention economy. In playful situations, we tackle challenges with enthusiasm and are less prone to being enticed by our overstimulating surroundings. In essence, play achieves precisely what skeptics might contest: it enhances the efficiency of our work.

The newfound norm of play

What‘s important to underscore: playful processes should not be exceptions; rather, they must become integral to our daily work routines. For instance, with our "Elephant Campus," we are establishing an open, collaborative workshop and inspiration format within our agency culture. And notably, it is not only our colleagues who appreciate this approach; it has also proven effective in our collaboration with clients. We initiate projects with interactive "Ambition Sessions," and the functionality of a corporate design may be ascertained through collaborative tinkering with the own hands. It is only fair to admit that we are in the middle of this journey and far from its culmination. And maybe we will never truly reach an end point.


From the perspective of educational psychology, the universal value of play is indisputable. Yet, within our German culture of performance, it still carries connotations of being childish, unserious, or unprofessional. The time has come to change this perception. We need a fresh outlook on what creativity has inherently entailed: confronting new challenges not with professional trepidation, but with a shared sense of joyful curiosity and unencumbered courage!

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Managing Director

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