The serious business of innovation and play

June 22, 2017














Today, every business is either ‘being innovative’, ‘trying to be innovative’ or ‘failing to be innovative’ - even the word failure has taken on a new meaning; ‘failing fast’, ‘fail often’, ‘fail to succeed’.


Whether large corporations or start-ups, being innovative has become the key to survival and failing along the way has become a right of passage. As Elon Musk said “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough”. Hard to argue with the man who wants to colonise Mars.


But innovation is difficult. A high proportion of businesses struggle to develop ideas into profitable products. Well established organisations struggle the most, many of whom, having realised they are too inward focused and process stricken, are looking to their more agile and entrepreneurial competitors for innovative ideas. 


Many of these businesses have set-up Innovation Outposts, through which they incubate, invest in, partner with, and acquire said startups. Ranging from Unilever Foundry to Tesco Labs and Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, these organisations and many more are striving for the next big idea for profitable (and in some instances, societal) gain.


On the whole, we find it difficult to innovate. Yet there is a whole generation of young entrepreneurs proving otherwise. I’m not saying its only within the remit of Millennials or Gen Z to have great ideas, but they have grown up through a period of unprecedented change. Technology has been one of those agents of change, enabling those growing up alongside it to imagine and create new products and services that just didn’t previously exist. 


The world’s largest taxi firm, Uber, owns no cars. The world’s most popular media company, Facebook, creates no content. The world’s most valuable retailer, Alibaba, carries no stock. And the world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns no property…so something big is going on in innovation, right?


So technology definitely has something to do with it, but so does the ability to identify an unmet opportunity (or indeed define a new one), as well as the ability to ‘imagine’ what if? 


That ‘Imagine’ word is a big one. It’s something children do everyday, yet as adults we struggle to find time to imagine, or in many instances completely sideline the activity as a childish pursuit, nothing more than just play.


There’s a great TED talk by Tom Wujec, called ‘build a tower, build a team’, which features the ‘Marshmallow challenge’. In a nutshell, the objective is for teams to build the tallest and most stable structure they can from sticks of spaghetti, string, masking tape and of course a marshmallow.


Amongst, CEO’s, business students and a whole host of other professions, children consistently come out on top in this challenge. Why?


Well, as adults we are trained to find the single best solution to a challenge, we often spend a lot of time planning, using our knowledge and experience before we get to creating, therefore limiting the potential many solutions that exist.


Children, on the other hand, approach this task in the same way they would most challenges, through play. They quickly prototype and iterate until they reach a solution to best fit the task. While they will fail numerous times along the way, they end up producing better results due to this faster and more iterative process of building.


And like us, children are faced with new and complex challenges everyday. Simple acts that we take for granted provide completely new challenges and learning experiences for them. Children have the innate ability through to tackle these unknowns, they have little or no experience to draw upon, yet by harnessing their unlimited imagination and automatic desire to build and play, they create their own innovative solutions.


So perhaps the secret to being more creative, to being more innovative, is through playing more!


A hard thing to sell in if you’re in the perceived ‘traditional’ professions, such as law and finance, but big industry is waking up to the idea. 


In the last few months the Lego Foundation, an independent body that owns 25% of the Lego Group and studies early childhood development through play, has partnered with Unicef and funded the world’s first ‘professor of play’, at Cambridge University.


Organisations such as Google, NASA, Coca-Cola, Toyota, and Unilever are all experimenting with play and in particular LEGO® Serious Play® (LSP). A methodology created in conjunction with LEGO to help businesses and their people think more creatively and build solutions that can be quickly prototyped using the humble brick. 


Having seen it in action and as a practitioner of LSP I believe play is powerful stuff! 

Like doodling a brilliant idea on your notepad when you’re brain is seemingly engaged in something else, LEGO® Serious Play® enables us to dip into our imaginations and visually articulate ideas we never knew we had in us.


So I believe the idea of ‘play’, indeed ’serious play’ can help help us to think differently, open up the possibilities and perhaps be a little more innovative. And if making a duck out of LEGO is what it takes to come up with the next Air BnB, well count me in!


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The serious business of innovation and play

June 22, 2017

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