Play has a PR problem. Some think of play as frivolous –- a distraction, or worse, a waste of time. In the office, play is often regarded as a break from “real work.” But what if the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s boredom? What if work could actually benefit from play?

As a partner at IDEO, I help instill a playful culture, not only in mindset, but also in our daily behaviors. Play allows us to experiment, empathize and take creative risks. Ask anyone who works at IDEO -- having play engrained in our culture makes it an incredibly satisfying place to work. It keeps us engaged in our projects and makes us better innovators.

I’m also lucky that my job allows me to spread play beyond IDEO. As the founder of our Toy Lab, I lead a group of inventors that has developed and licensed more than 200 toys.

In preparing to teach a new online course on IDEO U, I’ve been thinking about the behaviors of play that have allowed our team to be successful in developing and executing ideas to meet the needs of a particularly tough group of consumers: kids and their parents. These six behaviors not only manifest themselves in the products we create, but also in our interactions as designers, and I believe they can have a profound impact on every organization’s ability to innovate.

1. Cooperative Play

Games spark healthy competition while also inspiring teamwork, camaraderie and fun. The same is true for a well-run brainstorm. Sure, IDEO designers come to a brainstorm wanting to impress each other, but they also realize the ideas they generate belong to the group. And we all know that with better ideas, the entire team wins.

2. Risk-Taking Play

Kids are used to not winning the first time they try playing a game, so it doesn’t stop them from getting back on the field. Recovering after a loss allows you to learn faster and get closer to a win than if you never tried at all. At IDEO, our first ideas are rarely the winning ones – we know we’re just getting started. Playing games align right along with our philosophy that it’s okay to fail quickly in order to succeed sooner.

3. Constructive Play

We love building and designing as we go. Creating prototypes are the way we answer design questions. We call it “thinking with our hands.”  Whether physical or digital, it’s all about making something tangible. In fact, that’s the theme in our redesigned Palo Alto Studio, to promote and celebrate the art of making. 

4. Exploratory Play

One of the toughest but most rewarding parts of being a toy inventor is figuring out how to make an idea for a toy come to life -- and actually work! We might spend several weeks just exploring possible solutions, but it’s not until we start digging in and trying out options that we really start making progress. Ever hear someone say, “I was just playing around and then figured it out”? That’s why toys that promote exploratory play are the best ones -- it’s a crucial behavior in the way we solve design challenges.

5. Storytelling and Narrative Play

Kids love to learn through storytelling. It gives them context and purpose. A good toy usually has a great story. Think of the magic of Sesame Street and the way those iconic characters tell stories, tying valuable information to the characters involved in each sketch. At IDEO, when we tell stories that put people at the center of novel designs, our clients better understand and are more likely to embrace solutions that they’ve never experienced before. Being a good storyteller is critical to making innovation a reality.

6. Physical Play

Most children love rough-and-tumble play. Whether they’re taking turns on a slide or running around playing tag, moving around lets children test and practice physical and social skills within a safe environment. We design our IDEO workspaces to be like playgrounds, with flexible, open environments that encourage people to get up and bump into those they don’t sit next to. It’s those random encounters that fuel creativity. 

The word “toy” is derived from the word “tool.” Designers love to pile up ideas, methods and processes in their “toolbox.” Think of your toolbox as a toy box. Incorporate play behaviors into your “work” and see how innovation flourishes in your organization.

What thoughts or stories do you have about the role of play in work?

Published on: Jul 16, 2015