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From Ridiculous to Brilliant: Why We Play at Work

04/29/2011 11:00 AM
Brendan Boyle, Partner and Co"Chief Creative Officer, IDEO, Inc.; Duane Bray, Partner and Head of Global Digital Business, IDEO, Inc.

Description: The American workplace might be better off if it borrowed some concepts from a typical kindergarten classroom, including bins with toys, and unstructured time with friends. Two partners from IDEO, a global power in design and branding, discuss the importance of play in their creative process, and offer techniques that other organizations could profit from.

Brendan Boyle first asks audience members to sketch portraits of each other, noting how reluctant adults often are to share such crude sketches. He says that adults, unlike children, worry too much "about being judged and failing." Only by "taking ourselves outside of our comfort zone" can we come up with new ideas, adds Duane Bray. Child's play naturally involves "naivete and a willingness to engage," says Bray. In designing a new product or service, IDEO emulates this kind of fearless fun with its "principles of practice," which include role play, encouraging the ridiculous, and thinking with your hands.

Boyle suspects that "every brilliant idea at one point probably seemed ridiculous." Co"author of The Klutz Book of Inventions, he invites audience members to brainstorm a new product using the 'mash up' technique: list 5"10 unique things found in a typical drug store, and 5"10 things found in a junk drawer at home, and then come up with a product that combines one from each list. The MIT crowd manages to invent self"adhesive wrapping paper and a combination of Preparation H and stamps.

Bray lauds "thinking with your hands:" taking materials and putting them together quickly to see if any idea works. He describes a "classic failure project," where an airline hoped to find a way to use flat beds on planes, and wondered if passengers might accept bunk configurations. The IDEO team quickly pushed chairs together, and had some people lie beneath others stretched out on chairs. Says Bray, "We built this idea in 10 minutes and saw that it was absurd." Role"playing is also central: IDEO sent an anthropologist to an emergency room to document the patient experience with videorecorder. The medical staff learned how dehumanizing the hospital environment was, and how to make it a bit more welcoming.

Make sure to "give people permission to be creative," Bray concludes. Assign a playspace at work -- a safe environment to innovate in, for role"playing and for good"spirited humor. While some companies believe "play is recess, and kind of goofy," says Boyle, role"playing is actually inspiration, ridiculous the start of exploration and ideation, and hands"on play essential to implementation.

About the Speaker(s): Brendan Boyle is passionate about promoting entrepreneurial thinking and doing at all of our locations worldwide. Throughout his career, Boyle has invented and licensed more than 150 consumer products, specializing in the design of kid"centric goods, services, and experiences. His background and interests led him to start Skyline, a toy"development company that was acquired by IDEO and ultimately became our Toy Lab. He also co"authored The Klutz Book of Inventions. Beyond IDEO, Boyle works as a consulting associate professor at Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (a.k.a. the d.school), where he teaches "From Play to Innovation," a course he created, and was named the Knight Favorite Professor. He serves on the board of the National Institute for Play, a nonprofit committed to bringing the knowledge, practices, and benefits of play into public life. Brendan holds a master's degree from the Joint Program for Design at Stanford and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan State.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, The MIT Education Arcade

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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