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Lining up a row of brightly coloured smoothies on his kitchen table, Paul Lindley turned to a group of young children he had gathered round and asked: “Which is best?”

It was his own son, Paddy, who pointed to one of the fruity mixes and stated emphatically: “The red one. Red like my fire engine.” The four-year-old was so certain that Lindley decided to release it as the first product of his new baby food company under the name The Red One, complete with scarlet packaging.

Branding consultants dismissed his plans as “crazy”. They told him that pastels, greens and browns would convey the key “organic” message of his products. Bright colours, they insisted, would strike the wrong note. But Lindley stuck to the toddler’s view – and it was an approach he applied to more than just branding.

Kid-like confidence

With no previous business experience and only £25,000 ($32,339) capital, Lindley knew he wold need to embolden his pitching confidence in order to persuade manufacturers and supermarkets to work with him.

Paul Lindley tried to draw on his four-year-old son’s imagination and self-confidence when starting his baby food company Ella’s Kitchen (Credit: Ella’s Kitchen)

“I took inspiration from when a child will stand on a nativity stage and belt out a song or present their drawing in a very confident way,” says Lindley. “The adult world is about minimising risk, about conforming and convention.” In contrast, “toddlers excel at free thinking, self-confidence and imagination.”

For the 50-year-old entrepreneur, adopting the mindset of a toddler paid off. Ella’s Kitchen, the company he founded in Henley-on-Thames, UK in 2006, has expanded to more than 40 countries and now sells more than $100 million (£77 million) of baby and toddler food each year.

It is a lesson Lindley believes many businesses should pay attention to. Rather than seeing toddlers as “trainee adults”, he argues that we should recognise their creativity, curiosity, determination, ambition and sociability. A toddler’s attention-seeking behaviour, for instance, would eclipse anything dreamt up by a marketing expert.

Primal R&D

Not that Lindley recommends foot-stamping tantrums. “It’s about taking those positive things from your childhood and amplifying them and remembering them and rediscovering them in your adult life,” he says.

Toddlers are the R&D of the human species while adults are production and marketing

There’s merit to his approach. Research by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown pre-schoolers perform better than older children and adults at solving a variety of problems. Thanks to their “free flowing creativity and playfulness”, toddlers are the research and development department of the human species, she says, while “adults are production and marketing.”

University of California professor Alison Gopnik found pre-schoolers perform better than older children and adults at solving a variety of problems (Credit: Alison Gopnik)

As we get older, the prefrontal parts of the brain — used in planning, focusing and fast, efficient decision making — exert more control, she says. This has the drawback of making our thinking less divergent, in turn making it harder to dream up different possibilities and learn new things.

“The noisiness, unpredictability and variability that we see in young children, which we tend to think of as something we need to get under control, is actually one of the things that enables new generations of human beings to think differently,” she says.

Installing a toddler switch

The challenge for entrepreneurs hoping to tap into this creativity, innovation and disruption while also retaining effective planning and action, is to be able to “pulse back and forth” between the two modes of thinking, says Gopnik.

But is switching the way we think like this possible? According to Darya Zabelina, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, it is. She co-authored a study in which undergraduates who were told to imagine they were seven-years-old responded far more inventively to standard tests of creative thinking than those who remained in their adult mindset.

The brains of young children are more creative and better at solving new problems, but are also less efficient at doing so (Credit: Getty Images)

When asked to describe how they would spend a day off, the latter group listed chores like doing laundry or shopping, or said they’d catch up with sleep. The group given five minutes to think back to childhood came up with ideas like visiting Grandma, playing with friends or finding the biggest ice cream cone they could.

When asked to turn incomplete shapes into drawings, those thinking like they were seven-year-olds produced “bigger and looser” work, says Zabelina. “It was very simple and yet we got some pretty strong differences between the two groups,” she says.

When we’re having fun, our mind is not locked onto something specific, we’re allowing our brain to see different things and make new associations

Play and wonder

Our creativity is boosted by anything that allows time for play and wonder, Zabelina argues. “When we’re having fun, our mind is not locked onto something specific, we’re allowing our brain to see different things and make new associations,” she says.

This is why some workplaces that prize innovative thinking invest in seemingly frivolous equipment like giant slides, soft play spaces for adults and ping pong tables. At digital marketing agency Sleeping Giant Media in Folkestone, Kent, in the UK,  there is a wall built from Lego, a games room and a bar with a view across the English Channel to France. Instead of formal meetings across a boardroom table, staff and clients plunge into a rectangular pit filled neck-high with thousands of colourful plastic balls.

Staff at digital marketing agency Sleeping Giant Media hold meetings in a ballpit in an attempt to stimulate creativity (Credit: Jasmin Hayes/Sleeping Giant Media)

“Everyone has that inner child within them but sometimes it’s drilled out of us, particularly in traditional workplace environments,” says Luke Quilter, the company’s chief executive and co-founder. “We embrace that here and try to remember what it’s like to have fun. By having fun, everyone becomes more creative.”

In eight years Quilter and his business partner Anthony Klokkou have taken their search and social marketing agency from his parents’ dining room table to a company with 40 staff and an annual turnover of £1.6m (around $2m).

“Within a digital space things are changing so rapidly that within six months what you know can be out of date,” says 34-year-old Quilter. “You have to be constantly reinventing. You couldn’t have a really creative approach to digital and have a really boring office. It would just be incongruent.”

Working next to areas where colleagues come to play games is often an irksome distraction for some workers (Credit: Getty Images)

For many companies, however, “childish” distractions are seen as having no place in an office environment. Indeed, some say the trend for installing adult playgrounds in offices – an approach inspired by Google’s outlandish offices around the world – can be damaging. Jeremy Myerson, an office design expert at London’s Royal College of Art, has warned of the risks of “infantilising” employees, while those who sit close to playthings like the famous slide at Google’s headquarters in California can find the noise of others using them distracting.

Still, even in the most sombre of workplaces, executive toys and fidget widgets can still be found scattered across desks, suggesting our need to tap into our younger selves is stronger than many might admit.

Growing down

For Lindley, the toys, slides and scooters may all be unnecessary. Instead, he believes it’s about “growing down” and looking at the world through the questioning gaze of a small child. He suggests taking a different route to work, making a point of noticing new things and then returning again to the normal route.

“You’ll start to see things you’d normally pass by and never notice,” he says. The idea is to trigger fresh thoughts so when you arrive at work, you might question why you’re having a meeting or why this machine that you’re leasing hasn’t been used for six months.”

Google has led the way in introducing slides, games and scooters into its offices, but these well-meaning additions draw mixed opinions (Credit: Getty Images)

In his new book, Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking like a Toddler, Lindley gives the example of three-year-old Jennifer, in the 1940s, asking her father why she couldn’t look straight away at a photograph he had just taken. Within an hour her father – physicist Edwin Land – had done the basic thinking that led him to invent the Polaroid camera.

“From that initial spark of childlike inspiration came one of the defining consumer brands of the mid-20th Century, owned by as many as half of American households during the 1960s,” says Lindley. “The mechanics of the Polaroid Land camera, as it was initially known, may have been complex, but the insight that inspired it was beautifully simple and childlike.”

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