At work in the IDEO Toy Lab.

IDEO: Big Innovation Lives Right on the Edge of Ridiculous Ideas

Imagine for a second if you could somehow wrap up the creative chaos of a kindergartner’s life and apply it at work. You’d go on field trips, make stuff, hatch crazy ideas, and be awed by the world on a daily basis. Sound ridiculous? At the renowned international design consultancy IDEO, it’s how work gets done every day.

Psychologists tell us that as we age, we become self-conscious in classroom and other public settings, and quietly begin to suppress our playful tendencies for fear of being childish or breaking with social norms. Creativity requires that we fight against this trajectory.At IDEO, being playful is almost an obsession. The company believes that great, innovative work cannot happen without trial-and-error, experimentation, and maybe even a little tomfoolery. Few know this better than Brendan Boyle and Joe Wilcox of IDEO’s Toy Lab.

Boyle, who teaches a course at Stanford’s d.school called “From Play to Innovation,” is a partner at IDEO and heads up the Toy Lab in addition to promoting entrepreneurial thinking throughout its locations worldwide.

Wilcox, a toy inventor at IDEO, is a former circus performer and kinetic sculptor turned industrial designer and founder of Sway Motorsports, an electric tilting trike project based in Palo Alto, California.

I spoke with Boyle and Wilcox by phone about how they integrate play into their work lives, and culture – and how you can, too.

First off, when I say the word “play” what does it mean to you?

Brendan Boyle: This is a quote from Stewart Brown, who is founder of the National Institute for Play, “Most people think that the opposite of play is work (especially in the corporate world) but the opposite is boredom or even depression.” To me, play is what you’re passionate about doing. You want to do it because it’s enjoyable and you want to keep doing it because it brings you joy. But play is a ton of effort.

Joe Wilcox: Play is a state of mind. I’ve heard it described as a visceral form of learning. It really doesn’t matter what the activity is, it’s the way you approach the activity that makes it play.

What common disconnects do organizations have around play?

Brendan: People tend to think a couple things. That work is work and play is frivolous and it’s only for kids. Or when they do try and incorporate it, they treat it separate from the work and schedule it in almost like it was recess. The core difference we’re trying to incorporate at IDEO is that play is part of the innovation process not just something you do when you roll out the ping pong tables at a specific time.

 

“From Ridiculous to Brilliant: Why We Play At Work,” a talk from Brendan Boyle

What mindset should a creative have when approaching play?

Joe: Try to encourage open-ended behavior. It’s not about goals, it’s about pushing the boundaries and discovering something.We model behaviors, experiment, and arrive at limitations and possibilities through direct contact with the world. At IDEO, we’re often trying to design around a narrative — it’s less about the object and more about the experience, the story of that object — so we’re looking for social and environmental cues as to what that experience is or could be. Through playing with different scenarios, through prototyping different possibilities, we get to that narrative.

Most people think that the opposite of play is work (especially in the corporate world) but the opposite is boredom or even depression.

For those that work with digital tools, how do you replicate playing and prototyping?

Brendan: We were recently working on an iPhone app for Sesame Street and were trying to think of how Elmo should dance. So, we cut out a giant iPhone from foam core and filmed different people dancing inside the window. It was a very playful way to prototype and, more importantly, we learned quickly which dance moves wouldn’t work. Our goal with prototyping is to build something quickly and learn and then make it better on the next round.

What are your daily schedules like?

Brendan: With email now it’s this kind of constant drip of interruption and trying to keep up. I’m trying to block late afternoon for brainstorming and prototyping. Our culture tries to account for this as well with building some flexibility for employees. We tried a no email rule from 10am-12pm and I think everyone was pretty good at it except me.Joe: Sometimes I’ll come in late at night and work stuff out or swing by on the weekends, to just noodle around. I’m definitely most likely to be inspired in late afternoon — but it’s hard for me to have a set moment where it’s like, “Okay, now I’m going to do play and creative things.” Fortunately, this is an environment where I can kinda flow through my day and if the mood strikes I can capitalize on it. It’s hard to be creative 9 to 5 so it’s nice when a workplace has some flexibility.

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Brendan Boyle and Joe Wilcox.

How has IDEO built that type of hands-off culture of play?

Joe: Our culture is really one of being comfortable thinking on your feet and not worrying too much about failing in front of others. That’s important. The only place you’ll see any rules at IDEO is in a brainstorming session, and they’re rules like “Defer Judgment” and “Go For Quantity”. It’s about making a space that’s safe for taking risks. We try to encourage flexing your creative muscles and interacting, rather than being the smartest designer in the room.

Brendan: We also look to hire what we call T-shaped people, in that they have a depth in some area but the T across means they’re excited about learning across all disciplines of design thinking. Put simply, can you play with others?We try and avoid the I-shaped people. Those are what we call gurus and they’re generally cranky and don’t get along well in teams.

I also think the IDEO culture goes all the way back to the founder David Kelley and his philosophy that he wanted to start a company with friends. To me, that is a culture of play — hanging out with your buddies.

Try to encourage open-ended behavior. It’s not about goals, it’s about pushing the boundaries and discovering something.

Any advice for small companies or start-ups looking to adopt this?

Brendan: Start-ups are like running a gauntlet. The advice I say is to step back and think a little about the culture at the outset because it’s at the beginning that it gets formed. Plan for success but also plan for what the culture can be as well. If play is important to you, and I hope it is if you’re planning on being an innovative company, it will start with the founders. You can look at Google certainly as an example.Joe: I guess I’d say, don’t hold on to any one idea too tightly. Be ready to adapt. When we design a product for the first time, we don’t know how people will really use it, and I think the same can be said of businesses.

Also, I think space is one of the fundamental tools that can encourage and sustain a playful and collaborative culture.

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The IDEO Toy Lab.

So you think the physical space plays a strong role in a culture?

Joe: Absolutely! We have a very collaborative space on purpose by having a small personal space and lots of shared space. Big tables in the room encourage people to stand around and co-create.

We also have a mini-shop off to the side so we can build stuff right as we’re talking about it. So, this circuit from ideas to objects, this feedback loop is a really tight loop.
Brendan: You really want to create an environment that allows for innovation. Big innovation is right on the edge of ridiculous ideas. You need an environment that isn’t quite so judgmental about a ridiculous idea. Sometimes those are the ones that are so close to being the brilliant ones. If a space that allows for play can help encourage those types of ideas than you’ll come up with some possibly ridiculous but potentially groundbreaking ideas.

How do you handle skeptics of play?

Brendan: I think you’re always going to get skeptics. Sometimes they’re just too much so the best thing is to avoid them or fire them.

In Tom Kelley’s book The 10 Faces of Innovation, he talks about the one guy in the meeting that anoints himself the role of playing devil’s advocate in a meeting. For some reason, he then gets to shoot-down everyone’s ideas. Tom makes a great point around, “What if this person had to play a different role? What if they had to play the ‘experimenter’ role?”

Joe: Those skeptics are in every walk of life. You can certainly combat it with the experimenter role. Show people it’s possible, don’t just tell them. It’s always been the seemingly improbable, boundary-pushing ideas that have created this world around us and none of that would have been possible if they’d listened to all the people who said it never would have worked. We’d still be living in caves if we relied on the skeptics.

Jake Cook

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Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.
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