Disruption, strategic initiatives, and bleeding edge technology are just a few of the buzzwords business leaders spout to demonstrate their commitment to innovation. This sincere intention is not always matched by the ability to foster innovation.
A momentary return to childhood offers insights into why innovation is often lauded but rarely achieved.
How the New Child’s Play Inhibits Innovation
Playgrounds were not always the ultra-safe outdoor “padded rooms” we see today. 10-foot tall jungle gyms were filled with kids teetering over asphalt or concrete. Merry-go-rounds were the go-to thrill ride in local parks with kids running like mad to spin. And yes, many a child scraped arms and legs when falling before they could jump onto the merry-go-round.
The 1980s saw the advent of safer playgrounds with covered slides surrounded by plastic spaceships or palm trees. Gone were the merry-go-rounds and seesaws replaced instead by low climbing structures and ladders with sturdy and evenly spaced rungs. The slides w
ere plastic to prevent kids from descending too quickly. Too quickly? Where’s the fun in that?
Of course play should be fun. As it happens, play is also serious business not least because it has long-term implications for kids’ physical and emotional growth. Development psychologists have started to discuss the downsides of contemporary playgrounds. As it happens, some of these downsides are directly related to innovation:
- Imagination—By telling kids, “This is a beach,” we are constraining their imagination. If the structure looks like a box or no particular shape, kids will use their imagination to decide whether to play a beach game, a space game, or any number of games. Kids can handle abstraction. Their minds will fill in the blanks. Sounds like good practice for innovation.
- Risk Taking—Seesaws and merry-go-rounds are considered too risky for 21st century kids. Yet, eliminating risk from a child’s environment make it less likely that they will learn how to take risks later in life.
- Mastery—If children are always given a ladder to the slide and the same distance between the rungs, they don’t learn climbing skills. Kids need the opportunity to make decisions. What will be hard now but easier later with practice? Without the opportunity to make those decisions, kids will be less likely to develop a sense of mastery.
Just as playground designers tell kids, “This is a spaceship so don’t bother using your imagination,” so too do managers and product owners. Often, we don’t really design new products. Rather, someone in the organization decides that the next product “will harness the existing synergies with the company’s existing product lines.” What does that actually mean?
It’s corporate speak for “we’ll pretend to innovate, but what we’ll really do is more of the same because that’s our comfort zone.”
In other words, innovators, designers, analysts, and others are constrained from Day 1. Rather than start with a problem or challenge, designers are told what to design with the meaningless addendum “think outside the box.” What the bosses are really saying is “stay in the box and don’t you dare draw outside the lines.”
Too harsh? Consider the following true story and ask yourself if it sounds familiar.
A Fortune 500 company planned to overhaul all public-facing web and mobile sites to better meet customers’ evolving needs. Upper management urged employees to innovate with designs that reflected busy customers constantly on the move.
Sounds good, right? As it happens I was brought in to teach a course about UX Research and Design. When students mentioned the new design initiative, I asked how they were going to address users’ varying needs depending on context and the device literally at hand, a tablet in the kitchen versus a phone on the train, for example. The reply: “Our VP instructed us to address these issues by making everything responsive.” Responsive design refers to a single design that adjusts to laptops, tablets, and smartphones. “Well,” I replied, “Do you have any data to indicate whether customers will use their smartphones to sign up for service, pay bills, or modify their service plans?” “It doesn’t matter because everything will be responsive,” And round and round we went.
Responsive design is a powerful technique, but it should not be used as a one-site-fits all solution to every business challenge.
The point is that innovation was never in the cards. Whether consciously, or unconsciously, the VP was afraid to take a risk. Employees were not able to draw on customer research, identify possibly diverging needs based on context and other factors, and ultimately use their imagination to meet these intriguing challenges.
Yet, imagination and risk, coupled with mastery, are precisely what is needed if innovation is to take hold.
Harness the imagination
Unlike the ultra-safe playgrounds describe above, Slide Hill Park in New York City presents an environment where kids are encouraged to use their imagination. The slides are part of the landscape, and kids can get to the slides on rocks, from the woods, or on a path. More aspects of the experience are fun and playful rather than prescribed (The Design of Childhood by Alexandra Lange).
Businesses could benefit from a similar approach. Rather than prescribe a specific direction or product design, leaders should encourage virtual and literal exploration. It’s not about thinking outside the box; it’s about leaving the box behind and seeing where imagination leads.
Psychologists define mastery as a force that motivates individuals to attempt to solve a problem or tackle a skill in a focused and persistent manner. The idea behind mastery is challenge. Not surprisingly, rising to the challenge brings a sense of accomplishment.
Just like the kid who gradually works up to climbing an extremely tall jungle gym, professionals who gradually work up to solving a difficult problem achieve a sense of mastery. Mastery leads to confidence, which, in turn leads to a higher level of comfort with taking risks.
Encourage risk taking
Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom explains the physical and cognitive value for children who take risks: “Merry-go-rounds, teeter-totters, tall swings, and slides all help children establish strong balance systems. They give us our ‘center’ and allow us to move through space safely. By taking these away, we are limiting children’s exposure to sensory input that actually helps children become sturdy on their feet and prepares them for learning.” (Rethinking ‘ultra-safe’ playgrounds: Why it’s time to bring back ‘thrill-provoking’ equipment for kids).
Instead, writes Hanscom, “We need to start providing equipment that actually challenges, stimulates growth, and prepares the brain for learning.”
The same point applies to business innovation. The good news is that some organizations genuinely encourage and even reward risk taking. Lean design methodologies and the fail fast mentality are steps in the right direction as long as they do not result in wildly unrealistic timelines. The bad news is that despite lip service to innovation, leaders in many organizations fear risk or the wrath of the board or shareholders. These concerns are reasonable and understandable. Yet, just as failure to make a decision is itself a decision, unwillingness to take risk is risky.
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Eric Olive is a writer, speaker, teacher, and UX researcher and the founder of UI UX Training. He has taught and conducted research for many Fortune 500 companies in the finance, insurance, manufacturing, healthcare, education, and telecommunication sectors. Follow Eric on Twitter @_uiuxtraining.