Stop Acting Like an Adult

08/16/2012 02:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2012

Sometimes, it helps to behave like a child.

A famous experiment on innovation proves just that. It's been replicated many times: Small groups of MBA, engineering, and graduate students are given raw spaghetti, marshmallows, minimal string and some tape. Using only these "tools" the teams are instructed to conceive of and build the tallest structure they can within a specified time limit.

I was part of such a group and let's just say our final product was pretty laughable. Actually, most of the competing teams had pretty dismal outputs with many of the towers toppling over and barely standing by the final buzzer. Amidst our evident failure we were then told of a team of individuals elsewhere who had built the tallest upstanding structure.

We sat in wonder. Not fair. Obviously it was a group of people who knew more about the underlying physics principles of systems designs than us. Surely, a hot shot team of architectural experts.

It wasn't.

The group was certainly a hot shot bunch, but they didn't have PhDs. I don't even think many had their full set of adult teeth yet. It was a team of elementary school children.

So what were these children doing right that had baffled a room full of advanced degrees?

In a round robin debriefing of the experiment afterwards, many of the MBA teams confessed to having spent the brunt of their time thinking. Followed by thinking some more, re-thinking, analyzing, assessing, discussing, and arguing. Stuck in a constant loop of analysis paralysis we had postponed any actual building until the very end.

In comparison, the children had approached the challenge with a different perspective, a lens unencumbered by any perceived restrictions of what could or couldn't be done. They jumped in and spent minimal time debating and discussing and more time just doing because they didn't know any better. That was the recipe of their success -- not knowing any limitations.

Their limited life experiences made them succeed.

If a certain tactic or technique didn't work they would quickly move on to the next idea, learning quickly from their previous mistake. All the while doing and not planning for or preventing against any potential mistakes. They had mastered the art of failing faster to learn quicker. And without even knowing it.

These children had dared to be daring and it paid off. Adults are rarely like that. That's pretty evident in how we behave professionally and personally. Granted there's a reason why we act the way we do. We've learned the riskiness of certain behaviors and the associated rewards of others. So we behave accordingly.

On a company level, it's natural to become ingrained in the people, processes, and profit formulae to such a degree that the view becomes comfortable, yet it can turn toxically myopic if we're not careful. Although companies may have established and successful behaviors with their experimentation and innovative management, actively incorporating external and varied perspectives can still inject a fresh angle to business issues by disrupting stale thought patterns.

On an individual level, it's just as important to disrupt our own lives at times. It doesn't have to be monumental in scope. It can be incremental disruption -- small changes in how we view and consider certain people, ideas, pathways, behaviors, and beliefs.

So what were these children doing right that had baffled a room full of advanced degrees?

They were thinking spherically while the majority of us were thinking linearly. They attacked the marshmallow and spaghetti challenge from simultaneous viewpoints. Instead of adhering to a sequenced roadmap, they were following a dynamic one and were driven by their curiosity. A curiosity to explore, learn, play, develop, and just see what works!

Although the adults might have had the aptitude for implementation, these children had an appetite for experimentation that eclipsed us.

Curiosity propels children. What is that animal? Sound? Color? Object? Curiosity, however, seems to terrify adults.

We're hesitant to just build upward and out. Yet, I think we should strive to. We can start incrementally: poking holes in theories and assumed ways of behaving and acting in a manner discordant to our usual stride. It might be a spectacular failure and make us realize our older ways are better, but that in and of itself is a valuable insight.

Much can come from adopting the curiosity that once was our fuel as children.

After all, the Emperor with no clothes was considered clothed until it was actually pointed out (by a curious kid) that he was, in fact, not.