Get in the Game

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  • by Kyle Koch

It’s easier for children to play than it is for adults.  Think of the way children play games like “don't step on a crack or you'll break your mother’s back."  There's no real reason to not step on a crack, but they have agreed there's a consequence if you don't follow the rules.  As we get older, our idea of play changes.  We relate play to activities such as baseball, poker, and video games while failing to account for the other aspects of our world that require the same playful mindset.  As adults, aspects of our work may be more like a game than we acknowledge.  For example, I “win” at email when I hit inbox zero, or if I achieve my sales goals, I'll earn a bonus.

The lusory attitude is the name of the psychological mindset people take on when accepting rules that facilitate play.  In The Grasshopper Bernard Suits says, "Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”  Life is full of obstacles that we must overcome, so establishing unnecessary obstacles feels like it could just make things more complicated or frustrating.  But accepting rules and entering a state of play can actually free us to be ourselves and think about solutions in contexts we may not otherwise consider.

There are people who love games - ready and willing to jump in and play at a moment's notice, with little to no understanding of the rules or how to win.  And then there are those who are reluctant to play a game unless they fully understand the rules, winning conditions and risks.  Ideation sessions can sometimes feel like one big game, requiring each ideating “player” to come into the process with a playful mindset.

During ideation sessions, we tell ourselves and participants that there is no such thing as a bad idea, as bad ideas can lead to good ones.  Yet even when we say it, few tend to actually believe it.  And rightfully so, because there are sometimes really bad ideas, that if executed could seriously harm a product, service, brand or experience.  The ability to identify and learn from bad ideas, specifically the aspects that make them bad, before incorporating those ideas into your new product or service is essential.


Picture a handful of your co-workers gathered around a blank wall or whiteboard.  You’re told to fill that wall with post-it notes full of brand new ideas of all stripes.  Things placed on the wall may come off later, or be replaced with a fresh post-it touting a clearer version of the intended idea or a new idea entirely.  Letting a few words on a piece of paper represent what you're thinking can be overwhelming for some, shutting down ideas and the creation process.  For some, this can be liberating and empowering, fostering a playful mindset that encourages the generation of new ideas.  We prefer that participants in ideation sessions participate as themselves, but it can be difficult to know what being yourself means in ideation.  If you’re having difficulty getting sharpie to post-it, being aware of some of the ways others get ideas out, and trying on their play style may help you generate ideas.


These players may feel a responsibility to share nearly every idea.  Their hope is that whether the idea is good or “bad,” it will inspire someone else.  Completing an idea and sharing it out loud may spark a potentially better idea in the newly freed up post-it sized space in their head.  Some people write one thing on a post it, and are comfortable speaking aloud about their intentions, and immediately moving on to the next concept.  They may not feel any connection or responsibility to the idea, but nonetheless, they introduce it to the ideation game to expand the possibilities.


At some point, someone will crinkle up an idea.  For whatever reason, they aren’t quite ready to share.  When I see someone crinkle up a post-it, I often wonder what was on it.  If they are crinkling up their post-its because they think their idea is too bad to be shared, this mindset can ultimately hinder ideation and limit the range of ideas drawn from the process.  If we see someone crinkling often, we may take a moment to figure out where they’re at mentally and encourage them to approach idea generation from a different perspective.  Occasional crinkling is ok, and the player may have abandoned an idea or is bouncing from one idea to another, in search of something ready to be shared.


If a player has been looking forward to the ideation session or has been in a role where they’ve frequently heard or received suggestions, they may arrive with a list full of ideas.  It doesn’t really matter if they have a physical list or a mental list of ideas, you’ll notice someone generating ideas more rapidly than others.  It’s also possible the ideas may not relate to the specific stimulus or goals of the ideation session.  The moderator may ask for the player to abandon the list, to share all the ideas out loud, or continue letting the player generate post-its from their list.  When they run out of ideas, the list-it & post-it player will need to take on a new ideation style.


Players may not get away with this style of idea generation for long, but sometimes it can be easier to speak a particularly complicated or fuzzy idea out loud to a neighbor, as opposed to writing it down. A slightly modified version of this player is the post-it yeller, who refuses to write down their own ideas. If for some reason a player can’t write on their own or has illegible handwriting, partnering is encouraged.


This player may refrain from suggesting their own new or original ideas in favor of piggybacking off the ideas of others.  Writing a slightly different idea and offering it up as new, or verbally trying to pile on top of an idea are two of the several ways piggybacking can show up.  Those who piggyback may say “I’d like to piggyback on what Jill said,” or may leave this introductory phrase out.  Piggybacking on occasion is acceptable, and can make an idea better.  It’s worth noting that once someone acknowledges outloud a desire to piggyback, it’s nearly guaranteed that another player within the group will also announce their desire to piggyback.


Others may craft their ideas as though it’s an acrylic painting.  With the sharpie as their brush, these people pile on layers of paint, creating ideas on top of ideas.  Perhaps at times they chip away a few layers and revert to an earlier idea, removing some of the piled-upon aspects and scratching away to reveal a select portion of the original artwork of their idea.  It’s not unusual for this player to rip a tiny canvas off the top of the stack, and set it aside while they start a new canvas, possibly incorporating elements from multiple canvases to generate one masterpiece.

Saying "there's no bad idea" in some ways means “there’s no bad way to play,” and is not only an encouragement for the idea maker but also guidance for those hearing the idea.  Let the idea breathe.  Let the individual share it out, regardless of the feasibility.  Look for the good, or take something and transform it in a way that honors some aspect of the original idea.  The ability to generate ideas is a skill that can be studied, practiced and honed over time.  There are many tools and methods we have at our disposal to assist in generating ideas, but almost all of them work best when the humans involved take on a lusory attitude and become players overcoming a few unnecessary obstacles.