Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Father of Invention

Necessity is the mother of invention. Few of us would deny the truth in this age-old adage. Many of us have even taken what was a descriptive truth and made it into a prescriptive suggestion for our innovation efforts. If you want to innovate, put yourself in necessity’s way so that you will be required to invent your way out.

Think of the heroic efforts at improvisation by the Apollo crew who with duct tape and their wits were able to create a makeshift solution that saved them. Extreme circumstances (i.e., necessity) call on us to be resourceful.  But where does this resourcefulness come from? If necessity is the mother of invention, then who is the father?

We recently heard Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play, talk on the subject of “play” at a conference sponsored by Stanford University’s School of Engineering and the design firm IDEO, where the focus was on “the intersection of play and innovation.” Both the conference and my subsequent conversations with Dr. Brown leave me with the suspicion that too many of our corporate innovation efforts are single parent efforts.  They are based upon necessity alone, real or perceived. Has an almost single-minded obsession with corporate performance unwittingly eroded that resourcefulness so essential to meet necessity with inventiveness?

Stuart Brown’s interdisciplinary studies of play suggest that while necessity may be the mother of invention, the father may be play.  Brown, who produced the PBS-series “The Promise of Play,” a National Geographic cover story on play, and consults with companies like Mattel, brings a fresh perspective on what is necessary for innovation. Is playfulness essential to innovation?  Does the notion of play have a PR problem in the world of work?  Is the absence of play what is ailing a lot of companies when it comes to their relative inability to innovate? We offer these questions and the following four-point hypothesis to initiate a dialog with you:

1.   Elongating the life span of a company (e.g., sustaining its ability to produce profits) requires the ability to respond to the unexpected – surprises that will sooner or later arise from its competitive environment.  Arie de Gues (The Living Company) and Peter Schwartz (The Art of the Long View) have written convincingly about this. 

2.   The ability to respond to the unexpected comes from experience gained in what can actually be called “play.”  Using the word play is appropriate because it names activities and efforts that have no direct bearing on immediate performance, as measured in the traditional ways.  Peter Senge, John Seeley Brown and others refer to this as the “learning organization” or “communities of practice.”  An example of successful ‘play’ that prepared a corporation with notable results was Royal Dutch Shell’s scenario planning that prepared them better than all competitors for the unexpected oil crisis in the early 1970s.
3.   As they mature, corporations become increasingly driven by performance, losing their ability to “play.”  This makes the “play” engaged in during its entrepreneurial and pre-entrepreneurial stages increasingly rare, and disables the company, at least in the sense to be entrepreneurial.  As a result, more mature companies slowly lose their ability to attend, act and adapt to the unexpected (whether the unexpected comes from market conditions or changes in technology or both), thus threatening their ability to sustain profitability in the long term.
4.   In order to correct this “play entropy,” some percentage of the corporation’s resources (time, money, experts) should be regularly devoted to what the company would perceive to be “play” (e.g., R&D, Invention and Design, Futures, Exploratory investigations, “free range” activities, etc.).
We would love to hear what you think of this hypothesis and encourage you to read what Stuart Brown, M.D., has to say about the value of play at work.

All in a Day’s Play
By Stuart L. Brown, M.D.

Many think of inventiveness as essentially a human capacity granted by our huge brains and special linguistic and imaginative capacities.  But let us also factor authentic play into this scenario.  Imagine feeling really safe, well rested, well fed and free from anti-play cultural restraints like chronic guilt or permanent preoccupation with responsibilities.  (When is the last time you could say you were in such a situation?)  What spontaneously happens when we are free is we seek out play and get ourselves into our own personal play states.

It is in a state of play that unexpected novel connections get established.  Somehow, nature has specially designed us as the premier lifelong and best of players in the whole animal kingdom.  We have a persistent need to play freely.  So playing is part of our strategy to survive in challenging and changing ecological circumstances.

Some futurists have said that we will need to be more inventive, creative and flexible to handle the tasks, flow and rhythm of life in this century and beyond.  A sure (and fun) way to develop those abilities is to play.  Play by yourself, play with children, play with your officemates and friends.  Encourage your children to go out and play.  If they play, their problem solving and adaptive abilities will be in better shape to handle their world and they will be more likely to choose healthy answers to situations they encounter.

Play teaches us how to manage and transform our negative emotions and experiences; it supercharges learning, and is the foundation for good mental and physical health.  The components of play – curiosity, discovery, novelty, risk-taking, trial and error, pretense, games, social bantering – are also the essential components of learning.

Yet somewhere between childhood and adulthood, most of us exchange play for work and forget to play with the abandon and joy of childhood.  Work is where we spend much of our time so that is why it is especially important for us to play during work.  Without some light moments our work suffers.  Play arouses curiosity, which leads to discovery and creativity.  It develops adaptability and flexibility, which are fundamental to positive, proactive behavior.  The ability to take on responsibility, find meaning in life, and perhaps discover our personal bliss requires a full measure of play.  Play makes work pleasurable instead of drudgery, and there is simply the sheer fun of it.

For a good and inventive life, prioritize getting yourself some safe haven times for play.  Better yet, learn to include it in all of your life tasks.  If beyond the byproduct of inventiveness, you would like to experience more openness to change, a renewed spirit of optimism, non-dogged perseverance, the capacity to enjoy and sustain intimacy, keeping your workplace fun, I urge you to find your own personal play partners and niches – and honor them.

Editor’s Note: Stuart Brown’s commitment to the subject of play stems from his background in psychiatry, long-term research into human and animal play, as well as his clinical research into the causes and prevention of violence. Brown believes play is hardwired into our genetic code and is a state of being which can be accessed and used by everyone.  Humans want to play because it is instinctive and fundamental to human existence.  It is one of the evolutionary mechanisms that has developed us to our current state; play is part of how we adapt and survive anywhere on earth. His book Play: How it shapes the brain, Opens the imagination and Invigorates the soul was published in 2009. 

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2005. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.    

Dr. Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it shapes the brain, Opens the imagination and Invigorates the soul was published in 2009.


You can contact the National Institute for Play at http://www.nifplay.org.