There is no way round play


How does it look when you are innovating? Yes, the very moment you are in fact doing innovation? We all have our occupational hazards, ours when we bring our colourful post-its and bag of LEGO-bricks to the table. But it is in fact play, serious play if I may, and here is a shot at examining the thoughts behind the innovation practice. The practice of Design Thinking to be more precise.

Work then and now – solving complex problems

They sure did something clever back then in the industrial age when someone came up with the scientific and waterproof separation between work and play. It might have been appropriate at the time when colonial powers and industry managers needed people to have approximately the the same knowledge, and the skill to replicate work procedures over and over like Sugata Mitra describes in an excellent TED video from 2013. But today, now what? In this modern age we are facing real wicked and complex global challenges, and the call for the innovators and creative problem solvers has never been bigger. There is not much need for the linear-thinking functionaries or workers, at least not in the field of innovation. But how do we create emergent practices to solve complex problems?

The doing that supports the thinking

Why do we ask our clients to play out the story of how their new idea will look from a customer point of view in LEGO? Or make them build a cardboard helpdesk to test it on a user group? It’s a vehicle to get to know the motivations and nuances in a customer scenario, it helps promote narrative and visual thinking. Through prototypinguser testing and working in interdisciplinary teams we create a practice that brings forward Design Thinking and thereby more holisticuser centric and thus sustainable solutions.

Prototyping allows for early testing and communication of – the meaning of – a certain idea. Just as the child builds something that falls over, just to build something stronger the next time, the process of going back and fourth between prototype and user testing is iterative and probing and which more than often makes the result a little better every time it is repeated. This not only allows for small and early failing which reduces risks at the end of an innovation process it also brings the customer and user closer to the innovation process ensuring that their needs, values and expectations become a crucial part of the innovation equation.

Design Thinking is human centric at its core, so the big suggestion is to go out and meet and talk with people. We can know a lot about people by looking at statistics, analysing focus groups and interviews and general trends and demography in populations and society, but it´s rarely going to provide insight that we didn’t know we where looking for. To know what problems you are solving, it´s important to understand the context and micro- systems where the solution is emerging. Innovative solutions can emerge in co-creation with the people that are going to use them and who need them. On top of this we already know that people are experts at making bad and dysfunctional systems work. That´s one reason why talking to users and target groups are still good, but why actually observing how people solve situations with current conditions is sometimes even much better.

Serious play for innovation

A childs learning process is innately playful and creative. There is no failing in a childs play. Children prototype their way towards understanding of the world.

When we work based on design thinking principles it might look messy, overly creative, unstructured, excessively playful and even chaotic at times. The question is: are we in deed not just fooling around with our colourful post-it notes, LEGO-bricks and cardboard iPads? Not at all! We are in the process of probing, sensing and responding, and letting new innovative solutions emerge

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. Design thinking is a well thought out and proven process of practice intended to set optimal frames to create solid, creative, user centric and sustainable output.

So what do you see when you see yourself innovating? Chances are that if you find yourself working on a cardboard box first version prototype machine on your way out the door to do some serious people user testing, you are on the right track.

This blogpost was first published at the Service Innovation and Design Blog at Laurea University of Applied Sciences. Photo by Jaakko Porokuokka