Nussbaum: 3 Reasons You Should Treat Creativity Like A Game

The key to creativity is replacing linear thinking with a more organic framework — the circle of the playground.

Nussbaum: 3 Reasons You Should Treat Creativity Like A Game


Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and a brilliant thinker about innovation, is famously known for saying that the key strategic question for CEOs is “Where to play, how to win?” I’d like to build on Roger’s insight and say that in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), the key strategy question is “What is the game, and how do we play?”

One of my goals in moving from Design Thinking to CQ, Creative Intelligence, is to change the frame of the conversation about how we “make” innovation. Right now, most managers in business, public, and nonprofit institutions think in terms of funnels, stages, or processes (even if most practitioners of design don’t). I’d like to replace this linear model with a more organic framework — the circle of the playground.

The playground is the place where we leave behind the usual hierarchies, procedures, statuses, and behaviors to act out “as if…” games of discovery. I even have a name for this playground of creativity — the Magic Circle.

Now before you hit the “comments” button to flame me on this, consider the words of Johan Huizinga, who coined the term ‘magic circle’ decades ago in “A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.” Here is what Huizinga said: “The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

Framing creativity as a game widens the conversation about innovation.

Those of us who have been lucky enough to be part of a fantastic, multi-disciplinary, project-based team developing a new product/service/experience know what it means to be inside a Magic Circle. Anyone who’s been in a great brainstorming session or off-site meeting can recognize a Magic Circle. Any scientist who’s run a lab understands the idea. And most any entrepreneur who has launched a startup knows the magic of a Magic Circle.


By framing the making of creativity as a game that takes place inside a playground of our own making, we widen the conversation about innovation and design dramatically.

Here are some of the benefits:

1. Strategy

We already use the term “game-changing” to describe disruptive innovation. By focusing directly on “what is the game, how can we win,” we move the entire discussion about innovation away from N+1 change to the big stuff. Larry Keeley, another giant conceptualist in the field, said that companies spend too much time on new products and not enough on new platforms. In today’s world, the platform is the game. Playing to create a new game, a new platform, inside a social context is what Edison did and Zuckerberg, Jobs, Hurley, Chase, and others do.

2. Social Science

Design is unique (unlike architecture) in having a human-use focus from its inception. Designers are the interface between science and society, technology and people. Because of this, design uses ethnographic tools and methods, but its use of sociology, anthropology, and sociolinguistics is shallow. Deliberately framing creativity within a social model pushes it to embrace the rich social-science literature on charisma, calling, sharing, risk, aura, ritual, and, of course, play to deepen our understanding of the making of innovation. If, for example, religious prophets are those who embody the dreams and needs of their following before they know it, then certainly Steve Jobs can be seen as a Prophet of Profits. In fact, entrepreneurs may be best framed as individuals who follow a “calling,” not as business people seeking to maximize profits. Hello Max Weber.


3. Connections

By using a social framework such as the Magic Circle to discuss innovation, design links to all the other spaces where important work on creativity is being done in education, games, science, sports, and, yes, warfare. Sir Ken Robinson talks eloquently about the nature of children’s creativity in play–and how schools beat it out of them.

In their book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals,” Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman have adapted the idea of the Magic Circle to gaming and education. Salen has become part of the conversation about teaching children how to be creative by starting her own game-based public school in New York.

Creativity is a social sport that everyone can play.

Scenario planning, of course, is where corporations already play “what if…” games. In ‘Every Living Institution is a Living Thing,’ Arie de Geu, head of strategic planning at Royal Dutch Shell Corporation in the ’80s and ’90s, says: “If you say that simulation and play is analogous, you can say that the definition of play is that you experiment with a representation of reality. And that is what we were looking for. We may not have framed it as that then. The Shell path was the simple use of scenarios. It was only much later that I realized that scenarios are also transitional objects. They are representations of future realities with which teams can experiment without having to feel the consequences.”

Games themselves, of course, such as Odyssey of the Mind, Little Big Planet, and World of Warcraft, are now giant forces in fostering the behaviors of creativity.

Creativity is a social sport that everyone can play. In a VUCA world, everyone needs to play this game. The democratization of design methods and tools, the rise of DIY and “Make” culture, make this possible. We need new models to expand and enrich our conversation about Design Thinking and creativity. The Magic Circle of the playground is one of them.


[Top image by D. Sharon Pruitt]


About the author

Bruce Nussbaum is the author of Creative Intelligence (HarperBusiness, March 2013). He is "Mentor-In-Residence" at NEW INC, the art/technology incubator of New Museum.