It’s late spring, the time of year when school administrators arrive at work to find toilet paper festooning their offices, chickens let loose in the hallways and used tires slung around the flagpole. Senior pranks are a headache for principals and janitors alike, but before punishing the perpetrators too harshly, those in charge might pause to acknowledge that many highly creative organizations have long valued traditions of such hijinks. All of us, in fact, could benefit from a bit of the gleefully enterprising spirit that animates such pranks, even if we have no intention of parking a car in the middle of the company cafeteria.
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At IDEO, the storied design firm that brought the world the Apple mouse, a culture of subversively entertaining stunts reigns. A boss goes away on vacation and returns to find a sheetrock wall where his office door had been. An executive returns from lunch and discovers that everything on his desk — pens, papers, a soda can — has been glued down with windshield cement. Such pranks challenge the hidebound rules that can stifle creativity, explains IDEO general manager Tom Kelley in a book about the company’s practices, The Art of Innovation. They also encourage the camaraderie that’s so essential to fruitful collaboration. One group of IDEO designers, sailing around San Francisco Bay on a work retreat, realized the boat would pass right by their office — and together created a giant slingshot made of bungee cords to lob water balloons at the firm’s windows.
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Tony Wagner, the co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, sees pranks as an expression of a vital need. “Research shows that human beings are born with an innate desire to explore, experiment and imagine new possibilities — to innovate. How do children learn such skills? In a word — through play. And it’s not just infants and children who learn through play,” writes Wagner in a new book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. He quotes Joost Bonsen, an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lecturer at the MIT Media Lab, a hotbed of invention. “Being innovative is central to being human,” Bonsen tells Wagner. “We’re curious and playful animals, until it’s pounded out of us. Look at the tradition of pranks here at MIT. What did it take to put a police car on a dome that was 15 stories high, with a locked trap door being the only access? It was an incredible engineering feat. To pull that off was a systems problem, and it took tremendous leadership and teamwork.”
Indeed, the elaborate pranks regularly executed by MIT students (coaxing a cow onto a dormitory roof, inflating an enormous balloon reading “MIT” on the 46-yd. line of the Yale-Harvard football game) require close collaboration, calculated risk taking and a determination to bring into existence something completely new — all key elements of the kind of creativity that drives the 21st century economy. Pranks are themselves a statement about what matters, claims André DeHon, an MIT graduate who is now an associate professor of electrical and system engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. “At MIT, intellect and its applications are valued and not, for example, athletic prowess,” DeHon writes in a collection of essays about MIT pranks, titled Nightwork. “It’s not that we can run faster than you can. It’s that we can manipulate the physical world to do things you hadn’t imagined possible.” MIT’s Bonsen seconds the point: “Pranks reinforce the cultural ethos of creative joy. Getting something done in a short period of time with no budget and challenging circumstances. It’s glorious and epic.” Pranksters, Bonsen adds, “don’t ask for permission. Not even forgiveness.”
That was certainly true of the 18-year-old high school senior who unfurled a giant banner during his graduation ceremony, picturing a hand with its middle finger raised. The year was 1972, and the mischievous mastermind behind the stunt was named Steve Jobs.