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Play is good for you (and it's good for business)

Tim_brown We talk about play around here a lot. Remember that play was one of the six aptitudes needed to be successful in today's world featured in Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind. I often associate at least one aspect of play and playfulness with the old Buddhist idea of the beginner's mind (or child's mind). That is, in the child's mind there are infinite possibilities, but in our adult mind (one filled with habits and routines) there often seems to be few. One of TED's newest talks online is by Tim Brown the CEO of Ideo. In this wonderful short presentation Tim makes many salient points about the role of play, playfulness, and creativity and why they matter in our professional or academic lives. You may be a designer of consumer goods, or a medical doctor, or a researcher, or a teacher — every situation is different. But listen to what Tim Brown says and ask yourself how the idea of play might be introduced into your organization in a way that would benefit workers, patients, and students, not only in terms of productivity but also in terms of simply having people feel better (and isn't there a correlation?). Watch the video below (or here in high-rez). Following the video I summarized some of Tim's points as I heard them.

Summary (in my own words)
Below is a quick summary of Tim Brown's points from the presentation. (The three slides are from Tim's presentation.)

Fear — such as fearing judgement from our peers — inhibits us and often prevents us from taking chances or sharing our ideas with others. Fear, says Tim Brown, leads us to be overly conservative and to keep our "wild ideas" inside. As adults we become overly sensitive to the opinion of others, we lose a bit of our freedom.

Timbrown_slide1 Children who feel the most secure in their environment are the ones who feel the most freedom to play. Should not corporations, then, create the most secure environments that encourage freedom, creativity, and risk-taking...and even play? Why not?

Playfulness can be pragmatic as well. It helps us find better solutions, more creative answers to complex problems.

As adults, are we too quick to categorize? Do we too quickly come up with reasons why it can't be done rather than exploring the possibilities?

Shocking people out of their normal way of thinking and getting them to forget their "adult behaviors" for a while (at least) can lead to better ideas.

Timbrown_slide2 Old habits are hard to break, which is why (ironically) we need some rules (e.g., suspend judgement in brainstorming, etc.) in order to break free from the habits which get us down, which dampen the creative process.

Experimentation is crucial. With constant experimentation, exploration you just never know what you'll find.

Construction play is a powerful way to learn (classic "learning by doing") for kids. Adults can do this too (called "thinking with your hands"). This behavior is about prototyping and quickly getting something in the real world "...and having your thinking advanced as a result."

The stuff that facilitates playful, building modes or hands-on learning, prototyping, etc. is abundant for young children, but is nearly non-existent as children move through the education system in later years. The typical office is even worse (except for Post-it Notes and the rare, coveted red stapler). We need to be able to work our ideas out more with our hands.

Timbrown_slide3 Role play can be used to experiment with non-physical designs such as health-care services, educational settings, etc. We should take role-playing more seriously (as children do). Role play is important for putting ourselves in the shoes of the endusers, looking at the world and experiences from their point of view. Role play is an empathizing tool. (My question: Did the designers of economy seats on passenger jets actually sit in them for 12 hours while staring at a wall during the design process?)

Playful exploration, playful building, and role play: three ways that designers (and perhaps you) can use play in their work.

But play is not anarchy. There are rules, especially for group play. Play also involves negotiation. There are rules about how and when to play. One does not play all the time — we need to learn to transition in and out of play. The design process requires both divergent and convergent modes. Playfulness is particularly important in the divergent mode. You can be a serious professional (or student) and be playful.

We need trust to play and be creative. The playing skills we learned as kids are not superfluous, they are a necessity.

Play like children play
Our societies condemn the adults who dare play. People say play is simply entertainment, passive, and undemanding. But there is nothing passive about a brain that is engaged, exploring, and discovering. Discovery happens, after all, through a kind of play. Learning happens through a kind of play. And a playful spirit is opened to the possibilities. This is just as true for medical doctors and scientists as it is for designers, business people, and teachers. (Below is a slide I use often that touches on this theme; excuse me if you have seen it before.)

Sample slide.

(Note: As for the delivery of the presentation itself, I loved the idea of doing activities that got the audience involved with the speaker, with the ideas, and with each other. However, the computer onstage was a bit of a distraction. It's far better to place the monitors in front down low out of sight of the audience. It was not a deal breaker — it was still an inspiring talk — but getting the computer and lectern off the stage would have been nice.)

You can learn a lot from a child




Watched and love the presentation. Thanks Garr, I love being part of your tribe. BTW, did you do the slides above or were they are part of Brown's presentation? They look very good.

Jan Schultink

Great summary of the video.

My former employer has interviewed Tim for the McKinsey Quarterly (published last week):

Garr Reynolds

The slides are from Tim's prezo. You can see them near the end.

Mike Fladlien

On so many levels, this video made me a better teacher. This one blog will motivate my law students for a week when we begin contract law. I can see several applications where my students can be free to analyze case law. Seth Godin talks about the Peter Principle in his book as the fear that makes on incompetent. This is the first point made in this video. From this video, I have learned how to let go on some of my fear when attacking a new project. Thanks so much!


I won't have the time to watch this before next wednesday but I'm looking forward to it. I notice that in times like these (where people fear the results of the financial crisis) they are fearless, i.e. more willing to run the lesser "risk" -- to be creative.

Andy @ Retire at 40

At one of my previous jobs, I had to program a multi-million pound satellite. When we got the first prototype board, the first program I made it do was one which made some red LED lights on the side of the board flash … but instead of doing it randomly or one by one, I made it go in pairs from the outside-in and out again. It was exactly like 'Kit' in the Night Rider programmes.

I told my brother I did this so I could learn about the prototype model and that playing was the best way to learn something. He had started laughing at my way before my explanation and way afterwards too :-)

Daniel Beck

The content was good. However, I was more distracted by the computer than Garr was. It wasn't quite a deal-breaker, but it kept me from sharing it with others. It wasn't just the location, but it was clear that he was depending on it too much.

Again, the content was good. I would like to see Dan Pink do a presentation at TED. Has he done one there before?

Mark Valmont

While I agree with the kernel of the presentation and the idea, it must be said that this level of
“play” can only exist in a perfect world. The VAST majority of companies, weather they consider themselves innovators or not, are not in the business to foster this behavior. It is idealistic to imagine that a for profit company will support this in more than word alone.
Sorry to say profit is motive. The correct spin would be a “long term profit realized through this level of creativity.” This being said, a company may talk long term, but they ALL think short term.

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