CEP: Editorial - ChemEs Just Need to Have Fun

January
2014

Last month, I wrote about creativity and pointed out two ways to spark your creativity — relax, and look at things in a fresh way. As I was researching that editorial, I kept coming across another creativity booster: fun.

The notion of having fun, of playing, at work might seem dangerous to chemical engineers, given our need to ensure the constant safety and security of facilities that handle some pretty hazardous materials. Indeed, next month Pete Lodal explains how to implement process safety by taking the FUN out of it.

But creativity is essential in engineering. The American Engineers’ Council for Professional Development (the predecessor of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) defined engineering as: “the creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes …  as respects an intended function, economics of operation, or safety to life and property.” 

There are many ways to nurture our creativity, and play is an important one. The National Institute for Play is a nonprofit corporation that “unlocks the human potential through play in all stages of life using science to discover all that play has to teach us about transforming our world.” Its founder, Stuart Brown (who trained in general and internal medicine, psychiatry, and clinical research), points out that play can lower stress levels and boost optimism, and that animal studies have shown that engaging in play opens up new neural connections in the brain, leading to greater creativity. 

Lest the boss look down on you for wanting to have a little fun, remind him or her that play benefits the employer as well. In the report “Play as a Competitive Advantage,” published by JWTIntelligence, Brown says, “The advantage of a playful person or a playful company process is that they’re much more nimble. They’re really able to enter a competitive scene with lightness and with an ability to respond wisely to the challenges,” including unexpected economic or market changes. 

Tim Brown, CEO of innovation and design firm IDEO, emphasizes in a TED Talk that the timing of play is important. Designers, he says, go through two very distinctive modes of operation: divergence, “a sort of generative mode, where we’re exploring many ideas,” and convergence, where a solution is identified and developed. “It’s probably in the divergent mode that we most need playfulness. Perhaps in convergent mode we need to be more serious. … Being able to move between those modes is really quite important.”

As engineers, we spend much of our time on convergent thinking — logical reasoning and analysis that enable us to converge on an answer to a problem and then implement a solution. But this needs to be preceded by divergent thinking — where we allow our thoughts to diverge, to explore many possible solutions and generate the creative ideas that our convergent selves will analyze, refine, and implement. 

It seems obvious to me that to be better engineers, we need to make time to play and have fun at work. Join me in celebrating January 28 as National Fun at Work Day (in the U.S.). Dozens of websites offer suggestions on how to have fun at work, and a chapter in the JWTIntelligence report spotlights companies that have integrated play into their business models. With AIChE’s focus on being the global home of chemical engineers, I’ll also celebrate April 1 — International Fun at Work Day.

 

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