5 Behaviors to Fuel More Play and Better Ideas

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, IDEO’s Brendan Boyle shares how to bring more playfulness into your work. This is the second in a series of articles about our conversation with Brendan. Read our first post on idea generation activities.

“The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s boredom.” IDEO Partner and Play Lab Founder Brendan Boyle says this quote, from Dr. Stewart Brown of the National Institute for Play, sums up the biggest misconception we have about work today. Work doesn’t have to be serious to be impactful. In fact, we tend to get our best ideas when we break out of the usual routine and have a little fun.

“If you're not excited about what you're doing, you’re going to be bored, and then you're going to be looking around to do something else,” Brendan explains about the connection between play and engagement.

But play doesn’t mean goofing around or taking breaks. It’s a mindset and a certain set of behaviors we bring into the workplace. In an episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast Brendan breaks down five play behaviors that are essential to any organization to increase employee satisfaction and performance.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Exploratory Play

This type of play is all about generating new ideas and embracing a divergent mindset. Use it early on in your process when you’re open to exploring different directions. Exploratory play can look like a brainstorm, but there are lots of other activities you can do to generate new ideas. Try one of these 10 activities for exploratory play.

Or consider Google’s approach of giving employees 20 percent of their time to work on personal projects. Those explorations inevitably bring new ideas back to the core business and keep people motivated in the process. “Let people do what they're interested in or find work that's a better fit for them in your organization, and they'll be more engaged,” Brendan suggests.

Constructive Play

When you’re ready to implement your top ideas, turn to constructive play, also known in the design thinking world as prototyping. This type of play is not about saving your work. Brendan says “it’s about building, knocking down, and quick learnings.” The average four-year-old spends 50 percent of their time on constructive play. Try to get into that childhood mindset of learning through doing, and focus on having fun with materials and methods that are fast, cheap, and easy to work with.

IDEO U Managing Director Coe Leta Stafford demonstrates constructive play with a prototype for Elmo’s Monster Maker app.

Role Play

Brendan reminds us how good we are at role play as kids—it comes so naturally. But in the working world, it’s hard for adults to break out of the perspective of the role they were hired to do. Taking on the perspective of someone else, like a user persona, can help open our minds up to new possibilities. IDEO Partner Tom Kelley outlines several roles you can play to put off naysayers and foster innovation in his book The Ten Faces of Innovation.

Social Play

Team dynamics are just as important as individual capabilities. Social play is all about sharing, getting along with others, and creative problem solving as a group. Body language—especially for leaders—is an important factor here. Think of a puppy. You can tell by their body positioning that they’re ready to play. Try sitting on the floor instead of chairs or asking your team to sketch ideas instead of taking notes on a laptop to signal a more playful tone.


Your organization’s physical space has a body language all its own. It should signal the type of behaviors you want employees to take. If you have perfectly vacuumed carpets, people might not want to make messy prototypes on the floor. If you don’t have casual spaces for groups to gather, people might stick to socializing with their own teams and miss out on the benefits of diverse perspectives from other teams.

“If there's not laughter and there's not people letting their guard down, the playground isn't safe,” Brendan says about the physical space’s impact on our mental state.

These five behaviors apply across industries, from toy design to healthcare. Brendan recently worked with a company called Carrot on a program to help smokers quit for good. Inspired by video game design, they used play to create an experience that would build resilience through intrinsic motivation, opportunities for agency, creating a sense of achievement, and feedback loops that tailor the program to each user’s needs. In development now, the Carrot program is a reminder that play can help us come up with better solutions to even the most serious problems.

Brendan urges everyone to bring a little more play into their every day: “For any type of organization or problem or industry, if it's a little bit more delightful, people are going to be more engaged, customers are going to be happier, and they're going to come back.”

Learn more from IDEO Partner and Play Lab Founder Brendan Boyle in our course From Ideas to Action, where he teaches the design thinking skills of ideation, prototyping, and iteration.

Want to learn more about brainstorming? Check out our Brainstorming Overview page and Brainstorming Resources page. 


Courses Starting Soon

Foundations In Design Thinking - IDEO U Certificate
Designing Strategy Course from IDEO U