Importance of Play to Innovation

Importance of Play to InnovationIt’s generally accepted that “playtime” is an important part of childhood development. When kids play, they learn how to form stories and use their imagination, how to make sense of the world around them and how to communicate with others. However, at some point on the road to becoming an adult, playing turns into a restricted activity. Instead of “go play” and “look at them playing, so cute,” teenagers often hear “stop playing around,” and adults are taught that playing is a privilege reserved for weekends – and certainly not something to be done at work.

As adults, what happens when we lose our sense of play? Are we more focused and “serious”? More efficient and productive? Or do we lose the ability to create scenarios and imagine “What if?” Are we stuck using only words, instead of pictures and building blocks, to communicate our vision? Do we forget how to “play nice” with others?

I believe there’s truth in the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” So much, in fact, that I recently became a Trained LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Facilitator – one of only a couple hundred worldwide. Lego Serious Play (LSP for short) is a unique methodology designed to enhance innovative thinking and creativity, and improve communication and teamwork. It’s the most powerful approach I have seen that combines both our physical abilities and brain power, and I am incorporating the method into a variety of training and consulting offerings.

Is Play Important for Adults?

There is growing evidence to support the idea that adults need to play, and not just at the golf course on weekends. Consider the work of just a few of these experts:

Behavior expert Dr. Stuart Brown considers play to be an evolved behavior that is important to the survival of humans and even highly intelligent animals. His research has linked play with enhanced creative ability, both on and off the job.

University of Pennsylvania professor and author Brian Sutton-Smith purports that playing, due to its improvised and illogical nature, makes us more adaptable, able to face a wider variety of situations, as well as more optimistic and confident.

Author Daniel H. Pink, in his bestseller “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future,” identifies “Play” as one of the six senses that people need to develop to be successful in the impending “Conceptual Age” where right-brained creativity and empathy (instead of left-brained logic and rationale) will determine personal and organizational prosperity.

So, do we start folding paper airplanes and playing cubicle football? While that might impart some levity at work, it will probably result in a few broken computer monitors, not to mention the boss’ displeasure. LSP is a safer and more results-oriented method of incorporating play at work. And you get to use Legos.

A Scientific Approach to Playing at Work

Organizations have used the hands-on techniques of LEGO SERIOUS PLAY to get better outcomes for everything from strategic planning to new product or service development, team building to change management efforts. The developers of the system–Dr. Johan Roos, President of Copenhagen Business School, and Dr. Bart Victor, Vanderbilt University Professor –have a solid foundation of science on which they have based the LSP approach. Playing a central role are the theories of constructivism and constructionism, both of which explain the link between abstract thinking and concrete objects – in other words, the idea that knowledge building is enhanced by building something tangible in the real world.


Build a common language of innovation on your team

So, when LSP participants use Legos to build the tallest tower they can, or to build a representation of “the team member from hell,” their physical interaction with the plastic building blocks awakens a part of their brains that would otherwise lie dormant. Such “thinking with one’s fingers” not only encourages the imagination and triggers insights, it also enables others to “see” what the person is thinking by providing a visual aid – and one that doesn’t require any special or artistic skills to assemble. The result is improved communication, and a level (pardon the pun) playing field that ensures everyone at the table has an equal opportunity for expression.

Roos and Victor also identified four aspects of adult play that contribute to making the LSP methodology so effective. These include constructive competition, cognitive development, social bonding and emotional expression. These four elements, encouraged through storytelling and metaphor, help LSP participants express themselves more openly, exchange ideas more effectively and develop better solutions.

Amazing Results from Lego Serious Play

Since the inception of LEGO SERIOUS PLAYin the 1990s, organizations have applied the methodology to a number of challenges. DaimlerChrysler SA used LSP to analyze and improve their customer service strategy. Teams at eBay have used it to resolve work-related issues and improve teamwork and agility. Other organizations have used LSP to facilitate mergers, manage organizational growth and obtain consensus between partners on building projects.

For me, the most exciting case studies are from organizations that have used LSP to stimulate innovation and new product/service development. For example, a large financial institution and a cellular service provider had been attempting to collaborate for two years, but with few results. After a two-day LSP session, the parties solidified their alliance and created seven new products that leveraged the strengths of the partnership.

In another case, a large bank used LSP to resolve issues that were threatening the launch of a new offering. After only one LSP session, the stakeholders had not only resolved their differences, but also had a clear understanding of how the new product fit into the company’s overall strategy.

By encouraging a connection between the physical and mental planes, LSP enables you to look at problems in a whole new way. When the problem is how to differentiate your offerings, or how to design new value-added products and services, LSP unleashes your imagination and prompts you to ask “What if?”

In addition to being a very effective tool for idea generation and business model innovation, I’m looking forward to helping teams apply LSP to strategic planning, change management and team building. It’s a fantastic tool that teaches us how to use both sides of our brains.

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Kamal HassanKamal Hassan is President and CEO of Innovation 360 Institute, an innovation management and operation advisory group based in Dubai. Mr. Hassan works with both public and private organizations on business model innovation, innovation strategy, innovation project execution and organizational change. In July and August, Mr. Hassan will be leading workshops on Business Model Innovation and Design in Istanbul, Turkey and Denver, CO (USA). For more information, visit www.i360institute.com.

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