Play . . . Seriously?

Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO – a Palo Alto based, internationally renowned design and innovation firm.  IDEO is a partnership between Stanford professor David Kelly, furniture maker Steelcase, and the British firm Matrix Product Design.  IDEO employs over 500 people today and is known for accepting interesting design innovation challenges.

I have written before on the lost art of brainstorming, the amazing innovation culture at Google, about how schools kill creativity (in the words of Sir Ken Robinson), and the Center for Innovation at Mayo Clinic.   IDEO is equally worth studying.

Watch how IDEO took on the assignment (for ABC Nightline) of developing an entirely new approach to designing a shopping cart.

You can see from this video, how this place is different.  Different in its structure, ways of working, ways of interacting, ways of hiring people, ways of managing, etc.  Notice in particular the diverse backgrounds of people who are drawn together to work on problems – an engineer, and MBA, a psychologist, and a linguist – in just this case alone.

Again we are plagued by the question, how do they create the culture and what is their “secret sauce”.

Diverse Teams – Methodical Process – Research Driven – Safe Environment

This brings me back to Tim Brown, and a talk he gave at TED on the question of adult play.  (Well. . . about why adults are reluctant to play and why it is so important.) He argues that unlike children, most adults – driven out of fear and insecurity – heavily filter their actions AND their thinking based on social situation.  This impedes creative thought and problem solving.

In IDEO’s case, one way they try to overcome this is by trying to hire friends. They work hard at developing friendship relationships over time, working with the idea that, among employees, friends are likely to be more comfortable with each other and thus, put up fewer filters.

They also use (as you can see in his TED video below) play techniques to help stimulate free thinking.  There is growing evidence that play, and fun – do produce physiological effects that stimulate creative energy.

I must say that I was skeptical at first until an XLC colleague of mine planned to introduce a play sequence as a part of the brainstorming phase of a particular client problem solving activity.

Their program was about creating a new means of achieving customer intimacy as a market differentiator.  As we got further into the work we uncovered that there were some internal barriers between the operations, sales, and customer service departments that stood in the way of delivering WOW service.    This was a challenging issue because an array of internal politics and prior history made the topic a sensitive one which aggravated many raw emotions. In a previous workshop session, the group came to an almost complete halt – feeling overwhelmed by all the challenges faced by them in dealing with the other departments over whom they did not have any control.  The challenge seemed insurmountable.  Emotions stood in the way of addressing this issue in a constructive manner.

Our friends, Laurie Brown and Elizabeth Rueve-Miller, turned to play as a means to overcome the challenge.  The participants were organized into two teams and challenged to “build a bridge” – both physically and metaphorically between two sets of tables using Tinker Toys®.  They were each given a list of several problems or issues they had identified between them and the sales and operations departments.   They were asked to put each of these problem statements up on the wall near their team tables.   The way they obtained Tinker Toy® pieces was by writing on a post-it note one constructive idea for how each problem could be mitigated or ameliorated.

To make it more engaging, the teams were set in competition with each other and the builder of the “best”, most-elaborate and most-engaging bridge would win a prize.   Within moments, the groups were energized, laughing, and working hard.  In about 35 minutes, they developed 85 separate ideas for overcoming the inter-departmental obstacles including a mixture of processes, skills development, and tools.  Almost all of them were deemed to be within the control of the customer service department.  It was amazing to see just how much creative energy could be created using a simple thing as a childish game to make it acceptable for them to drop out of their own adult roles and stereotypes, and think in fresh ways about this vexing set of problems.  This made a believer out of me.   Play . . . Seriously?  Why yes!

Here is a 27 min video of Tim Brown discussing play and creativity at TED.  I know it is long – but well worth it if you have the time.



Filed under Innovation

2 responses to “Play . . . Seriously?

  1. Hi lenbrzozowski,
    Great post, it gives me good info. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Think Better (through biochemistry) | lenbrzozowski

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