Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rough and Tumble Innovation

There is a form of play that shows up in humans and a variety of other species. It is called rough and tumble play.

Some people mistake it for fighting. Yet most play scientists recognize this form of play as a—if not the—key contributor to the necessary fine-tuning of social empathy and confidence sufficient to face new and uncertain environments. This is essential for the survival and “thrival” characteristics of the species. “Roughhousing” is what my father called our rolling around on the floor together when I was a young boy. The restrained tackling and wrestling with my daughter when she was younger are also fond memories for me of rough and tumble play.

Vigorous rough and tumble play also directly contributes to an organization’s ability to innovate. Without this play, a launched innovation neither resonates with consumers nor lasts in the marketplace. This is especially true when competitive conditions in the marketplace change. Rough and tumble play is essential for the healthy development of each innovation. It is also essential for the healthy, robust and collaborative problem solving which innovators need to invent.

Many organizations have cultures that actually work against rough and tumble play. On one hand, some companies overvalue politeness. These tend to mistake rough and tumble play for fighting, and are quick to inhibit it, even to the point of avoiding conflicts altogether. Nothing could be more disastrous for an innovation’s development. Without experiencing the stresses that come from multiple iterations of trial and failure, our innovations will remain flabby or flimsy with little value traction.

On the other hand, some companies have become so rough and tumble themselves—even brutish—that internal competitors replace external ones. There simply is no play of any kind, much less rough and tumble. It is all about performance, all the time. There is no permissible time or safe place for thinking out loud with one another. Companies under significant public scrutiny are often play-deprived, especially of the rough and tumble type.

As many of you know, we have a close friendship and collaborative association with Dr. Stuart Brown, founder the National Institute for Play, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the science of play (www.nifplay.org). Dr. Brown has looked at how play—a state of consciousness and set of behaviors—is essential for growing the adaptive capability necessary for people to make healthy adjustments in order to thrive in a changing environment.

The more play experience one has, the greater the organism’s ability to adapt. The less play experience, the weaker the organism’s ability to adapt to changes in its environment. What hard science is teaching us about the vital contribution of play to an organisms’ adaptive capability, our experience confirms regarding how play impacts an organizations’ ability or inability to innovate.

While playing at the appropriate place and time is important, the form of play may be of equal consideration. How you play may be as important as the playing itself. Healthy innovation requires both.

Over the past 25 years, I have facilitated more idea generation sessions than I care to admit. Many of these ideations served to engage participation, and in that they were useful, but too few left any traceable contribution to a successful end result. One reason these brainstorming sessions don’t produce as much as they promise is because people often get caught up in Alex Osborne’s primary rule of brainstorming which is to withhold judgment.

My experience is to populate invention sessions with diverse but well-informed and experienced experts and ask them to go beyond their judgment, but by no means withhold it. It is their judgment that enables the rough and tumble playing with ideas, the result of which is a much higher quality of thinking.

“Fear that might keep you from voicing your real thoughts is poison. Almost nothing could be more detrimental to the well-being of the company,” says Andy Grove in his book, Only The Paranoid Survive, which chronicles his experience with Intel’s precarious navigation from memory chips to microprocessors.

We need to consider formally installing play periods right after gate reviews in the stage gate processes. Play is not only appropriate to the front end of innovation, a time and place for healthy, open dissent should be permitted and encouraged at various points in an innovation’s development. Learning applied to creating value can only be advanced when we replace conflict avoidance with safe and protected “housing” for rough and tumble play. ❑

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2009. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 460-1313.