How Serious Play Leads To Breakthrough Innovation

In Creative Intelligence, Bruce Nussbaum argues that building a space away from normal activity, where people trust each other and agree to behave by a different set of rituals, is key to enhancing a team’s creative capability.

The following is an excerpt from Creative Intelligence by Bruce Nussbaum (HarperBusiness), out March 5th.

It took several hours, but Harry West and his team eventually reached a conclusion about their current challenge: Drinking was weird.

West, the CEO of the Boston-based consultancy Continuum, had brought together a diverse group of his top people—collectively, they had degrees in packaging, design, business, engineering, human factors, and technology policy—to help redesign one of the greatest innovations in Swedish commercial history: the tetrahedron-shaped Tetra Paks now so common in Europe, Asia, and much of the world. Dr. Ruben Rausing is usually credited with the idea for the coated flat cardboard package—picture a pourable pyramid—which haven’t changed much since the first Tetra Paks came out in the fifties. They were designed for the way people drank—sitting down. But at a certain point, it became clear to Tetra’s leadership that people weren’t drinking that way anymore. They were mobile, on the go, and wanted their liquid refreshment as they moved about.

After years of trying to fix the problem on their own, Tetra Pak’s executives contacted West for help. Continuum then launched a major ethnography research project and collected tons of information about cultural drinking habits in Shanghai and Hangzhou in China, Milan and Modena in Italy, and Boston, the consultancy’s home base. The data was rich, but data alone couldn’t tell them what kind of product to design.

So West gathered together a team that had worked together before and trusted one another to be, well, a little nutty. They met in the firm’s project room and started . . . drinking. "We were handing around bottles and packages, drinking from them, talking about how we felt about them, and we began to reflect on what we were doing, to think about it more carefully," West says. "It is a kind of an intimate experience handing a package back and forth with someone you work with, taking a sip and talking about how you feel. This is the sort of thing you normally only do with your spouse or lover."

As West and his team observed each other, they began to evolve a language for the differences in drinking habits—and the weirdness of it all. "We talked to each other about our preferred way to drink and expressed amazement and disdain for how other people on the team were doing it." And that’s when, West says, "It became fun."

The original Tetra Pak design from the 1950s.

Play That Doesn’t Work

For some time, American society has viewed play as kid stuff; it’s been dismissed as trivial or marginalized as the territory of those lucky enough to work in creative fields or the arts. And there’s some truth to the misconception. For centuries, musicians, painters, and dancers have utilized the strategies of play to create masterpieces. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the sculptor Richard Serra, known for his huge installations of sheet metal bent into spirals, ellipses, and arcs, explained his process: "In play you don’t foresee an end product. It allows you to suspend judgment. Often the solution to one problem sparks a possibility for another set of problems. . . . In the actual building of something you see connections you could not possibly have foreseen on that scale unless you were physically there." Though there are countless ways of playing, play can be defined as tossing aside the rules of "regular life" for a period of time in order to follow new rules or try new possibilities. Play can exist within the structure of a formal game, but it doesn’t have to. (In fact, the words "play" and "game" are interchangeable in a number of languages, including German, though we separate the two in English.)

We often aim to achieve a goal, but sometimes we play simply for the joy of it. Playing can involve strategies—some simple, some very complex. Some games teach you everything you need to know before you begin; in others, you learn to play as you play to win.

When we play, we try things on and try things out. We improvise, taking on new roles, imagining what would happen if we possessed new capabilities or behaved differently. We throw away what doesn’t work and build on what does. We can play alone or compete against someone else; we can collaborate with another person or a team against a larger enemy. We may lose a game or a battle, but there is always the chance to start again.

A clear theme emerged in many of the discussions I had with leaders of some of the most creative organizations out there: simple silly play on its own doesn’t lead to innovation. As the Continuum team discovered when seeking to come up with the new Tetra Paks, the best ideas emerged out of a process that involved a variety of players who trusted one another working together toward a specific goal.

The work of Richard Serra, who says that in play, you "don’t foresee an end product."

Not long ago, Craig Wynett called me from P&G’s Innovation Gym, which was supposed to generate hundreds if not thousands of new ideas for new products, sales, and profits. It hadn’t. Wynett said the technique of throwing out new ideas out of context had not led to the breakthroughs they’d hoped for. P&G’s Innovation Gym failed not because it wasn’t a great playground for creativity (it was a big, beautiful space), but because they weren’t playing the kind of games that helped them adapt to a changing environment and achieve new goals. P&G has had much more success with "Connect + Develop"—a strategy that opens up silos and connects people at P&G with scientists outside the company.

The play I’m talking about isn’t about picking the right color for your offices or shouting out hundreds of ideas about things you don’t know very much about. In serious play there are rules, there is competition, there are winners and losers. Above all, there is learning, the kind of learning that allows you to navigate unknown areas, make unusual connections, and achieve new goals in unforeseen ways.

Planning For Play

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs has fascinating detail about Jobs’s interactions with people, but it’s only in chapter 26, deep into the book, that Isaacson opens the door of Apple’s center of creativity—the design studio—a crack. "This great room is the one place in the company where you can look around and see everything we have in the works," said Jonathan Ive. "When Steve comes in, he will sit at one of these tables. If we’re working on a new iPhone, for example, he might grab a stool and start playing with different models and feeling them in his hands, remarking on which ones he likes best. Then he will graze by the other tables, just him and me, to see where all the other products are heading. . . . He gets to see things in relationship to each other, which is pretty hard to do in a big company. Looking at the models on these tables, he can see the future for the next three years."

Ive goes on to describe the studio as calm and gentle, "paradise if you’re a visual person…There are no formal design reviews, so there are no huge decision points. Instead, we can make the decisions fluid. Since we iterate every day and never have dumb-ass presentations, we don’t run into major disagreements."

What Ive is describing sounds a lot like what Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga referred to as a "magic circle." In his 1938 book Homo Ludens, Huizinga analyzes the role of play in cultures around the world. "The stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc. are all in form and function play-grounds," wrote Huizinga. Magic circles are "temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart." Building a special space away from normal activity, where people trust each other and agree to behave by a different set of rituals, is key to enhancing your team’s creative capability.

Creating magic circles enables a group to solve puzzles, connect dots, prototype, make mistakes, and learn from them. In other words, the magic circle is where the competencies of creativity get "played" out. Knowing how to build one is itself a creative skill. Magic circles are ideal environments for innovating products like the new Tetra Pak or, as happens in the Apple studio, for tweaking designs without the need for a more formalized, bureaucratic review process. No two playgrounds should work exactly the same, and there’s no one-size-fits-all formula: Individual team members will naturally bring different work styles and talents to the table.

The typical modern Tetra Pak, from a marketing campaign.

What’s important is that you set some parameters. Just as games like soccer and football need rules, so too does this kind of work. But you can’t be so rigid that you limit the free flow of ideas: A magic circle requires a balance of structure and looseness. Setting up these parameters allows you to get into the zone together, interact smoothly, and quickly move toward a goal.

Choose people who trust each other enough to suspend judgment for a time. Trust is hugely important; people need to be willing to fall on their faces, make asses out of themselves, and learn from it. Remember, you’re not solving a problem; there’s no such thing as the "right answer." Very often the only team you need is just one partner, perhaps two. Don’t confuse quantity for quality. It’s less important to come up with a lot of ideas than it is to get the right people in the room and build upon your shared experiences to create something new.

And finally, don’t be afraid to use your hands. Or—as the Continuum team discovered with their work on the Tetra Paks—your mouths. It was through this kind of hands-on play that they concluded there are three main styles of drinking: "Sucking," "Pulling," and "Pouring."

In everyday life, we don’t typically look closely at people’s mouths as they eat and drink. We tend to avert our gaze. But in that room, the Continuum team moved beyond the normal rules and restraints of society. They stared. They didn’t hold back their own "weird" habits. They imitated each other, again and again, laughing and choking, until there was clarity.

The Dream Cap

The team’s insights—that the way we drink is not only personal and cultural but also depends on the drink itself—came from the free interplay of West and his team’s "fooling around," and their willingness to embarrass themselves in front of each other in their project room. With their new vocabulary, Continuum went back to the field to test out designs that enabled the three kinds of drinking patterns. They even put cameras inside different packages to see exactly what people were doing with their mouths and lips when they drank. "We could now be very directed and purposeful in our creativity," West says. The solution? "Hole over the edge"—a design with a larger hole for drinking than any previous Tetra Paks, with a laminated lip located right over the front folded edge of the package and a reclosable cap. That enabled all the Suckers, Pourers, and Pullers to drink easily and with pleasure, even while walking. It would take Tetra three years to work out the engineering to develop the Dreamcap Tetra Paks. They were introduced in 2011 for distribution in the Middle East and came to the United States in the summer of 2012 as packaging for Gatorade, Pepsi’s sports drink.

If you still think you don’t have the capacity for Creative Intelligence, try reframing aspects of your work or your life in a more playful way: Approach obstacles at work or in your life not as problems to be solved, but as challenges to be met. When a new task comes your way, put together a team of people you trust, encourage each other to be honest (that’s another area where serious play diverges from brainstorming, with its emphasis on positive encouragement at the expense of open dialogue), and let everyone know it’s okay to look a little silly.

Buy Creative Intelligence for $17 here.

[Image: Doodle via Shutterstock]

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2 Comments

  • Christopher Caldwell

    Fantastic! I think creative intelligence is the next paradigm and love seeing people embrace it in the workplace - it's a great release from the drab and negativity that can be too common in bloated organizations. I would go so far to say that play raises consciousness as I have seen perceptual and behavior changes in people after doing improv class.

  • Doug Rollins

    Great article.  I think you've put your finger on something important...coffee bars, bright colors and chat areas do not make up for a culture where people don't trust each other. 

    I do think the term "serious play" is unfortunate because it is too executive-friendly, as if to say, "Don't worry we're not being childish, we're actually working!"  Which is ironically just another way of saying that real play isn't valuable.

    Still, it looks like an interesting book and I'm excited to read it.