There is no way round play

How does it look when you are innovating? Yes, the very moment you are in fact doing innovation? We all have our occupational hazards, mine when I bring my colourful post-its and bag of LEGO-bricks to the table. But it is in fact play, serious play if I may, and here is a shot at examining the thoughts behind the innovation practice. The practice of Design Thinking to be more precise.

Work then and now – solving complex problems

They thought they did something clever back then in the industrial age when someone came up with the scientific and waterproof separation between work and play. It might have been appropriate at the time when they needed people to have approximately the same kind of knowledge, and be functionaries or manual workers that could replicate the same work over and over again. But today, now what? In this modern age we are facing real wicked and complex global challenges, and the call for the innovators and creative problem solvers has never been bigger. There is not much need for the linear-thinking functionaries or workers, at least not in the field of innovation. But how do we create emergent practices as Dave Snowden suggests is the way to solving complex problems? How does probing, sensing and responding look?


The doing that supports the thinking

Why do I ask my clients to play out the story of how their new idea will look from a customer point of view in LEGO? Or make them build a cardboard helpdesk to test it on a user group? It’s a vehicle to get to know the motivations and nuances in a customer scenario, it helps promote narrative and visual thinking. Through prototyping, user testing and working in interdisciplinary teams we create a practice that brings forward Design Thinking and thereby more holistic, user centric and thus sustainable solutions.

Prototyping allows for early testing and communication of – the meaning of – a certain idea. Just as the child builds something that falls over, just to build something stronger the next time, the process of going back and fourth between prototype and user testing is iterative and probing and which more than often makes the result a little better every time it is repeated. This not only allows for small and early failing which reduces risks at the end of an innovation process it also brings the customer and user closer to the innovation process ensuring that their needs, values and expectations become a crucial part of the innovation equation.

Design Thinking is human centric at its core, so the big suggestion is to go out and meet and talk with people. We can know a lot about people by looking at statistics, analysing focus groups and interviews and general trends and demography in populations and society, but it´s rarely going to provide insight that we didn’t know we where looking for. To know what problems you are solving, it´s important to understand the context and micro- systems where the solution is emerging. Innovative solutions can emerge in co-creation with the people that are going to use them and who need them. On top of this we already know that people are experts at making bad and dysfunctional systems work. That´s one reason why talking to users and target groups are still good, but why actually observing how people solve situations with current conditions is sometimes even much better.

Serious play for innovation

A childs learning process is innately playful and creative. There is no failing in a childs play. Children prototype their way towards understanding of the world.

When we work based on design thinking principles it might look messy, overly creative, unstructured, excessively playful and even chaotic at times. The question is: are we in deed not just fooling around with our colourful post-it notes, LEGO-bricks and cardboard iPads? Not at all! We are in the process of probing, sensing and responding, and letting new innovative solutions emerge. Design thinking is a well thought out and proven process of practice intended to set optimal frames to create solid, creative, user centric and sustainable output.

So I don´t know what you see when you see yourself innovating? But chances are that when you find yourself working on a cardboard box first version prototype machine on your way out the door to do some serious people user testing, you are on the right track.

Written by Marte Sootholtet (First year SID student)


Brown, Tim 2009. Change by design: how design thinking can transform organizations and inspire innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

David Snowden Cynefin Model:

TED2013: Sugata Mitra- Build a School in the cloud

Tschimmel, K. 2012. Design Thinking as an Effective Toolkit for Innovation. In: Proceedings of the XXIII ISPIM Conference: Action for Innovation: Innovating from Experience. Barcelona. ISBN 978-952-265-243-0.

3 thoughts on “There is no way round play

  1. Thank you Marte. You raised a very good issue: do we have the courage to play and have an innovative “mess”? Lately I’ve been wondering whether the leaders sometimes are the bottlenecks for innovation culture. They might feel “playing” to be outside of their comfort zone and find many reasons for not joining the workshops. I think we should encourage the leaders to participate in innovation work, perhaps some training would be needed, too.

  2. Thank you Marte for a great blog post. I agree that innovation and co-creation through play is extremely important. The great part of playing is that it puts all the participants on the same level as they all are (seriously) playing. The organizational hierarchy, for instance, seems to disappear like a magic trick. This enables participants express their views and feelings freely as they are not concerned about what their boss is thinking about :). And as participants present and discuss about their Lego (or other) creations they simultaneously reveal insights that most likely would never come up, if they were just discussing the topic without visualizing it. We also noticed in our group in the Design Thinking course that the ideas really started to flow once we started playing and prototyping our service with Legos.

  3. You raised very good and relevant posts. This blogpost can be used as a pre-reading for the stiff upper lips (management) before partaking in an innovation process. But it also provides information for anyone who hasn’t been a part of the innovation process before.

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