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A culture of innovation is a culture of play

By May 22, 2010blog, featured

Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if you tried to convince your company to embed a game in its flagship product. Would you be dismissed with arguments of scarce resources, higher priorities, opportunity costs, and low return on investment? Or would the response be giddy: “That’s so fun! We have to do it.”

At the corporate level, the concept of play discomfits bean counters. “Play” sounds like a proxy for wasted time. These same companies hunger for emotionally charged brands and innovative products—but fail to realize that play is a means to these ends.

Psychologists use the term “affect” or “valence” to describe the experience of emotion. Interestingly enough, affect has a measurable effect on rational cognition, as established in Norman’s Emotional Design:

  • positive affect induces creativity: broad, divergent problem-solving
  • negative affect induces tunnel vision: narrow, depth-first problem-solving
[pullquote_right]Adding play to corporate culture is like safe, legal doping! Wouldn’t you invest a few bucks in a scientifically proven formula to increase the IQ of your employees?[/pullquote_right]Easy question: which of these two mindsets is more likely to foster innovation? Divergence and exploration are the parents of innovation. So adding play to corporate culture is like safe, legal doping! Wouldn’t you invest a few bucks in a scientifically proven formula to increase the IQ of your employees? Or in magic glasses that give your product managers broader vision?

The emotional chain reaction

The key insight is that there’s a cascade of emotional states that culminates in your product experience:

employees > culture > product > consumer > society
If there’s a weak link anywhere in that chain, your product experience suffers. If your employees aren’t having fun, your products will often emerge dry and uninspired. After all, the product is the image of the collective cognition of your employees. And here’s the kicker: Fun, beautiful products work better in the hands of your customers. The cooler your product, the more forgiving consumers will be of its shortcomings, and the more likely they will be to find solutions on their own. Which product wouldn’t benefit from fewer support calls and fewer negative reviews?

[pullquote_right]Team, what’s the most hilarious thing that we could do with this product?[/pullquote_right]How do you get fun, cool products? With a fun, cool culture. How do you get such a culture? Let your employees play—within fruitful constraints of time and space, of course. Next time you’re in a dull product meeting that isn’t going anywhere, pause the conversation, get everyone’s attention, and ask them: “Team, what’s the most hilarious thing that we could do with this product?”

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