I usually write about newly-published books and their relevance to Sri Lanka. This time it is about an ‘old’ book yet highly relevant to us. I enjoyed reading it and thought it is very relevant to Sri Lankan managers. This is particularly true in the era of imagination, innovation and implementation. Today’s column is a glimpse of what ‘Serious Play’ is all about.
Innovation is key to sustained success. It is not just planning. A high octane creativity surge should be around the organisations. ‘Serious Play’ tackles the goals and pitfalls of modelling. It focuses on the diverse roles of modelling, and on the interplay between simulation, communication, and innovation.
Author Michael Schrage is one of today’s most widely recognised experts on the relationship between technology and work. He is a Research Fellow at the Center for Digital Business at MIT Sloan School of Management. A consultant on business innovation, he is the author of ‘How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate’ and ‘What Do You Want Your Customers to Become?’ in addition to ‘Serious Play’. His forte is innovation and he inspires corporates to innovate.
Tom Peters wrote the foreword to Michael’s book. In it he says: “In short, I love this book! ...Schrage’s shtick, rapid prototyping, sounds like a third-order innovation tool. Not so, Schrage argues persuasively. Rapid prototyping is the cornerstone, the cultural fountainhead of the innovative enterprise... ‘Serious Play’ is simply the best book on innovation I’ve ever read.”
Why is play ‘serious’?
Playing involves fun. The book encourages rapid prototypes and simulations as tools to facilitate collaboration between groups. This is where ‘play’ fits in. Collaboration, ideation, enhancement, and the simple fun of trying new things each have a role in the process ‘Serious Play’ advocates.
Much of the ‘serious play’ that leads to breakthrough innovations is increasingly linked to experiments with models, prototypes, and simulations. As digital technology makes prototyping more cost-effective, serious play will soon lie at the heart of all innovation strategies, influencing how businesses define themselves and their markets.
In ‘Serious Play,’ Schrage argues that the real value in building models comes less from the help they offer with troubleshooting and problem solving than from the insights they reveal about the organisation itself.
Technological models can actually change us—improving the way we communicate, collaborate, learn, and innovate. With real-world examples and engaging anecdotes, Schrage shows how companies such as Disney, Microsoft, Boeing, IDEO, and DaimlerChrysler use serious play with modelling technologies to facilitate the collaborative interactions that lead to innovation.
Models for innovation
Models are efficient tools of collaboration. So says Michael Schrage. His book ‘Serious Play’ is about building many models, prototypes, simulations – and using these tools for all the learning, sharing, and forecasting they can provide.
Through anecdotes and case studies, Schrage explains modelling, simulating, and prototyping, and emphasises how the three tools of ‘Serious Play’ can promote collaboration between engineering, manufacturing, design and management. Numerous styles are mentioned, including spreadsheets, 2D and 3D electronic drawings, sculpted models, printed prototypes, and manufactured prototypes. Costs and benefits are associated with each.
According to Schrage, creating value is the essence of the prototype. With each cycle of prototyping comes the opportunity to improve the quality of the product. More than just quality, however, rapid prototyping can allow a variety of different focuses. Improvements, cost reductions, and product enhancements can all be explored through iterations of the prototyping process.
“Think of the extra cycles as currency: each additional cycle can ‘purchase’ a product improvement, cost reduction, or a speedup,” recommends Schrage. While collaboration and value creation are each big picture goals of prototyping, many pitfalls also exist. These pitfalls can hinder the value of a prototype.
‘Serious Play’ also suggests that avoiding models that have no inherent purpose, that fail to benefit a particular party, that are too elaborate to effectively use, and that fail to facilitate a discussion between different product teams. The book also argues that the value of each model should be considered and evaluated by realistic business metrics.
Innovation through real events
Schrage’s style is mostly storytelling. ‘Serious Play’ is full of insight stories of product designers, modellers, and innovators blend together as the book progresses, and behind each story lies a hidden gem of insight.
Each insight is as valuable as the last; creatively achieved, and relevant to the real world. Schrage argues effectively for the value prototypes bring to communication and collaboration, and for the value that cheap modelling has brought to the economics of business.
The book is a model built for communicating opportunities in modelling. The book seems determined to offer ideas for a multitude of scenarios, model types, and businesses. However, the variety of business practices, prototyping styles, and methodologies help provide examples, or if you will, a ‘model’ for a large section of reader needs. The variety allows the savvy reader to re-read particular sections that may apply specifically to their business strategy, and to pick up general practice techniques as they go along.
Schrage recognises that ‘Serious Play’ is not easy for everyone to quickly read and apply. He recommends that some of us instead read ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective Innovators’ or ‘The One Minute Modeller’. For the generalist, looking for tools to apply, I agree. However, to give us some quick tips, Schrage concludes his book with a ‘User Guide,’ where he outlines specific steps that even the time-pressed can take to seriously play.
The book starts out with some background in the Preface. Michael was researching the psychology of collaboration at the MIT Media Lab when he realised that “...the notion that more or better communication was the essential ingredient in collaboration was false; what was needed was a fundamentally different kind of communication.”
This kind of communication was around a ‘shared space,’ and the shared space was the prototype. Describing the nature of this ‘shared space,’ and showing how necessary it is to innovation, is the task of the book.
The author says that “...prototyping is probably the single most pragmatic behaviour the innovative firm can practice...Serious play turns out to be not an ideal but a core competence.” It is about “...improvising with the unanticipated in ways that create new value...The ability to align those improvements cost-effectively with the needs of customers, clients, and markets dramatically boosts the odds for competitive success. That is the essential message of this book.”
Michael observes how, after traditional demonstrations, done after months of careful preparation, “...more often than not, the client responds, ‘Well, you’ve given us almost exactly what we discussed. But now that we’ve seen it, we realise it’s not what we really want. We really need you to do something different. How about...?’”
More rapid prototyping with less detailed advanced specification could be the answer to the frustration this brings. “It’s far easier for clients to articulate what they want by playing with prototypes than by enumerating requirements. People don’t order ingredients from a menu; they order meals.”
Innovative teams vs. innovative prototypes
Contrary to conventional wisdom that “innovative teams create innovative prototypes”, he claims that “innovative prototypes generate innovative teams. The prototype plays a more influential role in creating a team than teams do in creating prototypes...If you look past the narrative conventions in The Soul of a New Machine, a more persuasive – and more accurate – story emerges: the prototype becomes as much of a protagonist as West.”
He devotes a whole chapter to ‘A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge’ as an example of the power of rapid prototyping. (It was being interviewed for this chapter that brought the book to my attention.) Michael claims that “...low-cost spreadsheet software effectively launched the largest and most significant experiment in rapid prototyping and simulation in the history of business.”
Delving into the details of prototyping in later chapters, he states “...the most experienced and sophisticated students of organisational modelling look first for what is not being modelled.”
Michael quotes George Gilder about “wasting transistors”. Thanks to integrated circuits, “...if you do not use transistors in your cars, your offices, your telephone systems, your design centres, your farm gear, or your missiles, you go out of business. If you don’t waste transistors, your cost structure will kill you. Your product will be either too expensive, too slow, too late, or too low in quality.”
Michael then goes on to make his own statement: “If you don’t waste simulations and prototypes, your cost structure will kill you...Ingeniously ‘wasting’ prototypes is therefore essential to risk management. Throwing simulations at design problems becomes vital both to detecting errors and discovering opportunities.”
Finally, he says: “A prototype should be an invitation to play. You know you have a successful prototype when people who see it make useful suggestions about how it can be improved.”
Sri Lankan professionals need to innovate on multiple fronts in order to ensure economic growth and social upliftment. It is encouraging to see how innovation is taken seriously in some sectors such as ICT and apparel. The time has come to spread the emphasis on innovation to all sectors so that ‘serious play’ will be a regular phenomenon in Sri Lankan workplaces.
(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is the Acting Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Division of Management and Entrepreneurship, Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA.)