How to use structured play for business to unblock creativity

If you have wicked problems to solve and you want another way to generate ideas or solve problems — brainstorming gets you part of the way. But have you considered gamestorming (structured play for business) as a way of unblocking your creativity and getting the ball rolling?

Getting a bunch of smart people in the room is often the first challenge, but it’s not enough. The normal suspects start talking, take over, drone on and on. Half the room switches off, falls asleep or starts using their laptop or smartphone. What are the energy levels like? What can we do? This is business as usual and dead boring!

Instead of that, we could kick a session off that deliberately places no-one in control, that we advertise as an opportunity to be creative, to think outside the square, to push the envelope. This feels much more high-energy, right? You spend 2-3 hours talking about all kinds of wonderful ideas and when you part company after half a day, you still feel really full of energy, like you’re still ready to do a full day’s work. But were there any clear actions? Who is going to do what? By when? Were any of those wonderful ideas even captured anywhere? This is chaos!

So how do we achieve something between business as usual and chaos? How do we move forwards, but in a way that gives us something useful?

Our problem-solving approaches should be based on the outcomes we need and our familiarity in getting there. If we want to get straight from A to B reliably, we need the predictability of a repeatable process.

However, if we know we’ve got a problem that we need to solve or an opportunity we want to realise, but we’re not sure of the solution or how to achieve it, then we have a sense that we have to somehow navigate an uncertain path from a fuzzy goal to a tangible outcome.

Creative approaches–like play–are great at creating ideas, but how do we do that in a structured way? We uncover possibilities  by using games. Games are structured ways of playing, of being creative within a box.

What is play?

For a moment, close your eyes and imagine you are a child again. You are walking to the park with a ball, bouncing it up and down and off walls as you go. You meet a friend and you throw or kick it back and forth between each other.

This is a fun way to pass the time. This is play. It is a healthy way to expend energy and definitely good for the soul.

What is the difference between play and a game?

Continue with the guided visualization for a moment. Imagine you have now reached the park and met another friend who was already there. Suddenly you have the idea to throw down your jumpers to act as goalposts, and you take turns to be in goal, with whoever scores three goals swapping over.

As soon as you did this, you suspended normal time and space and entered an alternate reality, a different world, the world of game, where the normal rules of behaviour and interaction are agreed to be set aside.

For those who like Star Trek, I think of this like the holodeck, where you program it with a specific objective, it creates a space for you, then you enter that world for a period of time, until you reach your objective or run out of time.

The world of game

At the park, we created a different space, with some boundaries, and agreed a way of knowing the time when we’re going to finish (perhaps when it’s time to go home for tea).

We know who the players are (the three friends) and we have some artefacts (the ball and the jumpers). We also agreed an objective or goal, both literally in terms of somewhere to kick the ball, and figuratively in terms of something we’re going to compete to achieve, i.e. the first to three goals.

We also established some rules around: that we swap places when we score a goal, we score a goal when the ball crosses the imaginary line between the jumpers, and that the ball has to be kicked from the front of the goal.

In the fuller game of soccer football, of course, there are different spaces, more players, two goals, someone to officiate, and other rules about breaking the flow of the game.

These are the same basic ingredients for most games.

For example, consider a board game. When we play Monopoly, we have: a board with an established territory; a set of players (represented by pieces, such as top hat, racing car, and flat iron); a set of artefacts (the property cards, the money, and the houses and hotels); a set of rules that tell us how to use these to establish and maintain flow (collect $200 every time you pass ‘Go’), and break flow (the Community Chest and Chance cards, that could send you elsewhere).

Games in business

Now let’s look at this in terms of a business usage. Take a typical brainstorming activity. We have a room and a whiteboard; a group of stakeholders are the players; maybe we’re using post-it notes or 3×5 cards and marker pens; we also have rules for how we start the exercise and keep it going until we reach an agreed conclusion, and we have an agreement that at key points we might re-arrange the cards into groups around theme, priority, or effort.

Structured games for business

Gamestorming takes this gaming theory, and creates a structured approach around how we determine what types of games we might play, and in what order.

Broadly speaking, there are three general types of thinking and activity:

  • We often start wanting to open out the possibilities and understand the problem or opportunity more fully; for which we use games that allow divergent thinking.
  • As we move on to explore the potential of what we’ve discovered, try to separate and combine them in different ways to identify some possibilities that would actually work, we use games that support emergent thinking.
  • At some point, it is always important to close down the possibilities, break down what could work to a short-list, and ultimately agree decisions and actions; for this we games that encourage convergent thinking.

Examples

  1. Walking in the customer’s shoes

    Some years ago, I created a game called ‘Walking in the customer’s shoes’. This is a good exercise when you want people deep in an organisation to feel and think like the customer. It’s no substitute for involving real customers, but an easy alternative if that isn’t possible.

    Firstly, identify the cycle of customer touch-points with your organisation … a separate exercise … but we could consider a generic model of: a customer searching/enquiring about a product; choosing to buy; trying to set it up; going on to use it; paying for it; resolving a problem; and finally discarding it or ending their contract for use of it.

    In this exercise, we mark out a series of squares on the floor with gaffer tape (silver duct tape) and label each one accordingly. We have participants get into the mind-set of when they last made a significant purchase, then get them to physically step into the first box and imagine what it feels like to enquire about your own company’s product or service. Then they should step into the next box, and imagine what the experience is like to buy or sign up for the product or service. Repeat until the end of your agreed life-cycle.

    To make this work, as they step into each square, participants should fully experience the sensations: sight, sound, smell, touch, emotion, etc. Each square transports them to a space that allows them to act and feel differently.

    Capture these insights, and get a range of people to do this (ideally, not seeing what other people have already done); then you can use the outcomes from that to inform a whole range of activities.

  2. Imagineering

    Another example comes from the world of Walt Disney. This new product development process is known today as the Disney Method, although it was originally called ‘imagineering’.

    He believed that the creative process in film production was best supported by three roles: the dreamer, the realist, and the critic. The dreamer comes up with the fantastic ideas, the realist thinks about how to realise the dream, and the critic tries to see everything that could go wrong with it.

    Disney reinforced this approach by taking his staff into different rooms to encourage a different mind-set, and most famously the critic room was known as the sweatbox, as it was an uncomfortably small room that grew over-warm quickly with lots of people in it.

    At the critic stage they could choose to discard an idea, send it back for some more dreaming, or decided that it was good to go.

  3. Gamestorming, the book

    The thinking behind this blog and much of the work I have done in this space, has been informed by the fantastic book Gamestorming, by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo.

    The first few chapters deal with the theory and design of games, but the bulk of it is an excellent resource for games indexed for the types of problems or opportunities you might have.

    They also provide a Gamestorming quick reference guide, organised into thinking styles and types of challenges, and for each game provides the title, page number, and a brief description. For those without the book, the quick reference also includes hyperlinks to the game descriptions on their website.

  4. More ideas on the web

    There are also a whole host of websites and blogs, and other books of course, that have a wealth of suggestions for all purposes and age ranges — whether for work, community, or whatever.

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