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The future of innovation is serious …. play!


Serious play is no oxymoron—it’s an emphasis on how serious innovation can be, and how play allows us to innovate more effectively, more quickly and more impactfully.

There’s no better way to start than with this wonderful quote from Michael Schrage, research fellow at MIT’s Center for Digital Business:

“You can’t be a serious innovator unless and until you are ready, willing and able to seriously play. ‘Serious Play’ is not an oxymoron; it is the essence of innovation.”

Brilliant! There is no clearer way to explain serious play. While this phrase might seem contradictory, it expresses a much deeper and complex concept than it lets on at first. Play isn’t just a way to amuse ourselves, but a serious way to solve problems and innovate. Serious play, then, is a methodology that harnesses the power of imagination and creativity to break down complex business challenges and produce innovation. It’s no exaggeration to say that serious play could be the key to your explosive new strategy, or the next blockbuster product that takes the market by storm.

Why so serious?

The serious part of ‘serious play’ means keeping a well-defined focus and goal in mind. Approaching and solving a problem always entails breaking it down into specific necessary sub-goals—necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. This means taking seriously how you define your focus and end-goals, which could be anything from a new strategy, a product or a service to wider cultural changes or your own personal and professional development.

Why play?

This is the fun part, naturally. If playing was just for children, you wouldn’t enjoy a game of Monopoly, making a spaceship out of LEGO® or even a game of Dungeons & Dragons on the weekends (if you’re a nerdier type like myself!). Whenever we play, we naturally leverage the mechanics of the game to stimulate our imagination and creativity. Approaching our clearly-defined goals with the focus and the concentration we apply to play makes it far easier to get totally engaged and focused on the task at hand.

As an activity, serious play also has strong benefits for team development. It:

– creates new social interactions amongst individuals and teams;

– forges new logical problem-solving patterns born out of creativity

– negates the time factor—don’t they say that time flies when you’re having fun?

It’s clear that embedding these qualities in a business context leads to highly-effective team exercises for nurturing innovation and problem-solving in any challenging industry.

How can serious play help me?

There are two answers to this question. The first is that play naturally entails learning in a rewarding, fulfilling way. By getting hands-on with a problem, we create new mental maps for idea generation and solution-finding that super-stimulate our creativity, often leading to massively improved productivity rates.

The second reason is that because serious play still relies on a well-structured process, you don’t risk losing sight of your goals. It’s far too easy for traditional brainstorming sessions to never move past ‘blue sky thinking’ that idly throws out ideas without really getting to the problem at hand. Serious play resolves this by providing a great way to stay focused on the crux of the problem. This is the real added value: spending even just one or two days in serious play activities will on average be far more productive than endless rounds of root cause analysis or other similar training.

Last but not least, consider this recent case study. An Italian food company is currently re-thinking their market expansion strategy. They are using serious play to rework their overall sales strategy, helping them identify their target customers and the channels they reach them with. Only half way through the programme, tangible positive results have been evidenced both by client feedback and concrete changes to their operating procedures that they first conceptualised in earlier stages of serious play training.

I hope I’ve convinced you to use serious play for your next innovation! Don’t be shy — get onboard and have fun using serious play to tackle your business’ most vexing problems.

To learn more about how serious play can enhance your creativity contact Strategic Allies Ltd. or the author of this article, Adriano La Vopa, through his website.