“When your team is having fun, they’ll have greater access to the resources inside their heads to creatively solve problems.” — Misti Burmeister

Fifteen years ago, I strolled into the pool area at my university, prepared to walk out with my lifeguard certification. Thinking I was tough and could muscle my way through it, I never bothered to practice.

Ten minutes into my swim, the woman in charge of certifications blew her whistle at me.

“You look like you need to be saved,” she said, and kicked me out.

She was right, but still… Having swallowed half the pool, I was irritated, discouraged and, honestly, I thought I was going to die.

So, when my friend, Janice, encouraged me five weeks ago to do Swim Across America as a way to get some inexpensive coaching, give to a worthy cause, and maybe help my chronically ailing hip, I nearly burst out laughing.

Then I realized swimming might actually help my hip.

Fast-forward to just a few days ago. I was in the lap area of my community pool doing my best impression of practicing. I’d swallowed more pool water than I care to admit, so I decided to stop and play.

Knowing that play enhances creativity, relaxes muscles, and makes most experiences more fun, I shot to the bottom of the three-foot end of the pool and did my best handstand ever! It was awesome, and I was already starting to loosen up and have more fun.

That is, until the lifeguard appeared beside me and instructed me not to do handstands.

“What? When did that rule start?” I demanded to know.

“About a week ago,” he said.

I needed to understand why. Handstands were, after all, my freedom from continually ingesting chlorinated water!

“Some kid smashed his face against the floor of the pool while trying a handstand,” he said.

“And several thousand people drown in pools every year, for a variety of reasons. Why don’t we just close down pools, altogether?” I screamed inside my head, as I went back to doing laps.

“Rules are stupid” I chanted to myself repeatedly while inadvertently inhaling more water.

Then I stopped swimming, stood up, and thought, “This is exactly the mistake many corporate leaders make when enforcing rules.  They unintentionally stifle creativity.”

To keep everyone “safe,” leaders begin instituting rules, like you have to attend every meeting, or you can’t wear flip flops (but sandals are OK), or your haircut must look a certain way[insert stupid rule here]. (Disclaimer: some professionals will do better in their career if they avoid certain shoe and hair styles– address them separately and focus on their greater goals.)

Rule makers often don’t realize the value inherent in the freedom of expression and play – the freedom to have fun! Innovative ideas don’t come from staying safe; they come from having the courage and confidence to test boundaries and to imagine “what if?”

Such courage needs fertile ground. Here are three simple ideas to increase innovation, creativity and collaboration on your team:

  1. Eliminate all unnecessary rules. To know whether the rule is unnecessary, ask yourself: will removing this rule put the greater community in danger? For example, one person doing a handstand doesn’t necessarily put others in harms way. If it’s important to cover your company legally, simply have them sign a wavier.
  2. Encourage fun. Having fun relaxes us. When I’m relaxed in the pool, I drink less of it! When your team is having fun, they’ll have greater access to the resources inside their heads to creatively solve problems, imagine new challenges, etc.
  3. Discover and highlight the end zone. You can’t score if you know where you’re headed. Do you? Does your team? 

Seriously, whenever possible, avoid stifling rules. People get hurt chewing gum, much less doing a pool handstand. Trust your team members to be the adults they are, and let them choose their own risks.

The reward?

Go try these ideas, and come back to tell me how many more of your team members are taking personal responsibility, sharing more, and creating brilliant ideas.

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Join the conversation: What’s the most ridiculous rule you’ve ever encountered?

Misti Burmeister, best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations and Hidden Heroes