Why Serious Play is Good for Business

Harness your inner child and it could change the way you work forever.
Inner child

Think back to your childhood. Chances are, you played with Lego, crayons, toy cars, dolls, action figures, and so on.

Remember how it felt? Remember how anything seemed possible? You just had to build it.

If your action figure needed a lookout tower to guard against invading ants, you just had to build it.

If your doll needed a new outfit, you just drew a shop for her to go shopping.

If your Lego house needed a flag, you made one from a piece of paper and a matchstick.

Today, we tap away on our phones looking for fast solutions or shortcuts. Whatever happened to that childhood innocence and imagination? The ability to think of new ways of doing things without turning to Google for answers?

Technology has transformed our lives, there is no doubt about that. But it's also stifled our creativity.

The good news is, that childhood imagination is still there, buried deep within every one of us. It just needs to be brought out into the open. That's the whole concept behind this week's Trondheim Playground, to celebrate innovation and creativity in Trondheim, but also to let people "have a go" at the Trondheim Maker Faire, FIX Makerspace @ DIGS, and so on.

The bosses at international design consultancy IDEO believe that truly innovative work isn't possible without experimentation and fun. IDEO's Brendan Boyle spoke to 99U:

"People tend to think a couple things. That work is work and play is frivolous and it’s only for kids. Or when they do try and incorporate it, they treat it separate from the work and schedule it in almost like it was recess. The core difference we’re trying to incorporate at IDEO is that play is part of the innovation process not just something you do when you roll out the ping pong tables at a specific time."

"We were recently working on an iPhone app for Sesame Street and were trying to think of how Elmo should dance. So, we cut out a giant iPhone from foam core and filmed different people dancing inside the window. It was a very playful way to prototype and, more importantly, we learned quickly which dance moves wouldn’t work. Our goal with prototyping is to build something quickly and learn and then make it better on the next round."

Serious play can solve problems

When Tetra Pak realised they needed a new design to adapt to changing drinking habits, they turned to an innovation consultancy who ran an intriguing experiment:

"We were handing around bottles and packages, drinking from them, talking about how we felt about them, and we began to reflect on what we were doing, to think about it more carefully. It is a kind of an intimate experience handing a package back and forth with someone you work with, taking a sip and talking about how you feel. This is the sort of thing you normally only do with your spouse or lover."

"We talked to each other about our preferred way to drink and expressed amazement and disdain for how other people on the team were doing it." And that’s when it became fun."

"It was through this kind of hands-on play that they concluded there are three main styles of drinking: sucking, pulling and pouring. In everyday life, we don't typically look closely at people’s mouths as they eat and drink. We tend to avert our gaze. But in that room, the team moved beyond the normal rules and restraints of society. They stared. They didn’t hold back their own "weird" habits. They imitated each other, again and again, laughing and choking, until there was clarity."

The result, after several years of engineering, was a brand new cap that suited all three drinking styles.

Little changes can get you started

You don't need to hire an expensive innovation consultancy to get you started with serious play.

If your business makes products, do you have them around the office for staff to pick up and use on their lunch break? What about your competitors' products?

If you're a publishing house, do you have an office library? Does every staff member own a Kindle?

If you're none of these things, challenge your staff to respond with "Why?" every single time a manager asks them to do something.

Throw in a little creativity and a little fun to your workplace problems, and see what happens.

Join us this week for Trondheim Playground.

Photo: Davidlohr Bueso

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