Playing the innovation game


Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it….. Well, I’m not sure about the last one but someone somewhere has probably done some research on the topic. We humans certainly do it, especially when we’re young. I’m not talking about falling in love but about extending Cole Porter’s observations to a different world, something up there in terms of importance — playing.


Play is a basic animal behaviour and it’s worth asking the evolutionary psychology question of why? Wasting time and energy isn’t a good idea for the survival of any species. So why do human beings play?


Turns out that play is a pretty valuable device. As psychologist Peter Gray suggests play enables us to:

  • practice skills that are essential to our survival and reproduction;

  • learn to cope physically and emotionally with unexpected, potentially harmful events;

  • reduce hostility and enable cooperation;

  • generate new, sometimes useful creations.

And it’s that last element which makes it particularly relevant for innovation. Play may be fun — but it has a serious purpose. Our ability to imagine and create lies at the heart of our emergence as a successful species, whose main gift is not in size or strength but in our ability to adapt to hostile and uncertain environments. We innovate, find solutions and alternatives if our first options are blocked off.


Think about it. In situations where we’re trying to create new products or services or bring about process changes wouldn’t it be handy to have off-line ways of simulating problem situations, learning teamwork, sharing knowledge co-operatively or experimenting safely?


The answer is, of course, yes and we’ve been doing it for some time. These days there are shelves full of books with titles like ‘Serious play’, ‘Experimentation matters’, ‘The playful entrepreneur’, etc. and they speak to the growing understanding of the important role which play can take in innovation. It’s become embedded in the core agile methodologies around prototyping — essentially creating boundary objects and then interacting with them — playing around with them — to get the best fit. It’s part of the hackathon culture of competing against the clock to come up with novel ideas; it’s the same sort of buzz as you get in escape room games. Making things playful is a powerful way of engaging interest so if you’re looking to capture user experience it makes sense to explore turning the focus group or questionnaire into a gamified approach, And if we want to break down organizational barriers and entice people out of their silos to share knowledge games can be a powerful tool.


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