I have always been fascinated by insights that can be drawn by connecting seemingly random fields. In a previous post, I mentioned how Dan Cobley made marketing insights from physics. This time, it’s martial arts and innovation systems.

There are two factors that all martial arts have in common. The first is that they are immensely physical activities. The second is that practitioners experience them as play. Serious play but play nonetheless.

An interesting observation that martial art teachers make is that while it is not the intended goal, the more someone trains in martial arts, the greater their creative expression becomes, even outside of training.

Now turn to innovation systems, where the goal is to increase creative expression.

All great innovation systems recognise and stress the importance of play during the generative stage of innovation. This is because there are advantages that come about when the brain is in the state that we experience as the feeling of play: increased creativity, reduced inhibition, greater collaboration, and more empathy.

However, very few systems incorporate physicality. And why would they? It is a generally accepted viewpoint that the mind and body are separate entities, therefore it makes sense to focus on mental tasks in order to generate mental creativity. Sounds logical; looks great on paper.

The truth is that they are not separate in the way that matters, because both are extensions of the will exercised by the brain. Not utilising one inhibits the potential of the other.

What brings about the unexpected creative expression in martial arts is not solely the state of play that trainees experience, but play combined with physicality. Why? Because physical activity increases neural activity in the brain.

This is what professors Johan Roos and Bart Victor realised when they developed what would become known as Lego Serious Play in the mid 90s. They recognised that the key to generating repeatable creativity was the combination of physicality (building with Lego) and play (fun, humorous activities).

As said by Joseph Chilton Pearce, “Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” It is what makes us all amazing learners at birth and what unlocks our creativity throughout our lives. When we play we leave judgement at the door, and when we leave judgement at the door we feel safe to truly express ourselves. Combine this with the increased brain activation brought about by physical activity, and you have a truly powerful recipe for innovation.