Play at Work: 7 Ways to Shift Your Mindset and Unlock Innovation

IDEO’s Michelle Lee and Brendan Boyle

Let’s try a quick game. When you hear the word “play,” what words come to mind?

Now, which of those words apply to your work as well? 

Play means different things to different people. And often it seems very separate from our professional lives. Bringing elements of fun into work may not feel comfortable in certain organizations or cultures, but IDEO’s Brendan Boyle and Michelle Lee say the benefits are worth the effort. Words like curiosity, engagement, creativity, and discovery embody the spirit of play that they strive to bring into their work. 

Michelle, a managing director leading IDEO’s Design for Play team, and Brendan, an IDEO partner and founder of the IDEO Play Lab, have spent years helping organizations embrace a playful mindset in order to solve complex challenges. They’ve worked on everything from designing toys and games to helping people quit smoking and making financial planning more approachable. 

In this conversation, they share small ways you can experiment with bringing a playful mindset into your work and examples of using play to surface innovative approaches to serious challenges. Get more inspiration and tips in their interview on the IDEO U Creative Confidence Podcast

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

7 ways to feel more playful at work

1. Practice role playing.

We’re all so good at role playing as kids. We use our imaginations to take on all kinds of personas. As adults, we often get stuck playing one role at work: our own. In your next meeting, see how your contributions might differ if you actively take on the role of “most creative person in the world” or “caring friend.” Try to go beyond the devil’s advocate role we’re all so familiar with.  

2. Make something with your hands.

Whether it’s physical or digital, the act of making allows you to think through doing. Called constructive play, this is a common behavior in kids. Children learn how to build with blocks by stacking them and knocking them down on repeat. 

3. Create a magic circle.

A magic circle is a place where different rules apply. Coined in 1938 by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, the concept was later resurfaced by Eric Zimmerman in 2003 with application to game design. A magic circle is a temporary, safe space to think creatively. You’re not ignoring the realities, but you’re setting them aside and allowing yourself to dream for a little bit longer. “It’s so much easier to take crazy ideas and rein them into something practical and doable than take ideas everyone has done and turn them into something more creative,” Michelle says.

Try creating a magic circle by writing down the constraints that come to mind for a particular project and setting the list aside while you brainstorm possible solutions. Get more specifics on this activity in the podcast episode. 

4. Design your space for play.

To enable play, you need a safe environment for experimentation. “Space is such an underutilized resource for companies,” Brendan says because most of the time it’s optimized for efficiency instead of designing for how you hope people will act in it. At IDEO’s Play Lab, the floors are concrete instead of carpet so people will feel comfortable spilling things and getting messy. Bins with odds and ends line the walls to invite people to get hands on and experiment. Open space encourages collaboration and interaction.

5. Diverge a little bit longer.

“Creative people allow themselves to diverge a little bit longer,” Brendan says of one thing you can do to come up with better ideas. Spending time coming up with ideas is tricky because your urge is to narrow in on an answer. But if you don’t go wide, you’ll come up with the same answers every time. “Make time to dream before you start bringing in the constraints to make it real,” Michelle says.

6. Make time for creative warm ups.

If you hope to shift into a playful mindset, try starting your meeting with an exercise that gets people drawing or dreaming. Something that signals they’re stepping into a more playful moment. An IDEO team recently created a virtual lobby in Figma where participants were asked to load up their digital plates with snacks from a buffet table before kicking off a workshop. It helped set the tone that fun, silly, and wild ideas would be welcome.

A person draws two stick figures with a sharpie on a yellow sticky note.

7. Acknowledge a range of play personalities

For some people, playfulness may be expressed as being loud and gregarious. For others it could be quiet and more individual. If you acknowledge that there are different ways to be playful, you’ll have a better chance of designing moments that include everyone. Consider having group conversation and quiet heads-down time in brainstorms. 

Using play to address complex challenges

Michelle and Brendan shared a few examples where a playful approach is helping to uncover new approaches in complex areas including mental health, career exploration, and safety. 

IDEO is working with Riot Games to launch an OpenIDEO innovation challenge around young adults and mental health. As a video game developer, they reach a large community of young adults. While they recognize video games have been seen as part of the mental health problem, they’ve also seen the positive impact video games can have as a means of social connection while social distancing. Riot Games has used their platform to provide mental health support within their online communities and they’re interested in exploring how play can help destigmatize mental health and bring people together in an effort to generate new solutions in this space. 

“There's a lack of joy as we focus on things that are very medical,” Michelle says of what’s been missing in solutions for the mental health space. “If we want to create systemic change and we want to bring together people from policy and academia and people who have lived experiences, we need some way to break down the barriers to get them in the same room and talking. Play is great at knocking down preconceptions and helping you come in with an open mind.”


“It’s so much easier to take crazy ideas and rein them into something practical and doable than take ideas everyone has done and turn them into something more creative.”
Michelle Lee


An IDEO team also used a playful approach in a project to encourage kids to pursue STEM careers, particularly children who might not have a lot of exposure to those careers. Partnering with IDEO’s learning studio, the Play Lab created a “magic school bus,” a full-scale bus with windows that turned into screens showing outer space and displays where kids could play puzzles and games and pretend to pilot the Mars Curiosity Rover. Michelle says the purpose was to show kids what careers in STEM fields felt like instead of teaching them STEM principles. To give them a safe space to role play, fail and try again, and feel the thrill of solving challenging problems. “Agency is so important to play,” Michelle says. “It gives them the feeling that they could actually drive their own destiny.” 

Another example is work with Anheuser-Busch to make the designated driver the cool role. Brendan says design research showed that a lot of people want to be in that role because they don’t want to imbibe, but they don’t want to seem uncool either. The team brainstormed ways to make the DD role more fun. “I love bringing in play and delightful solutions to companies that think they're serious because of course they're serious,” Brendan says. “Everyone's got to get the work done, but you can do it in a way that's different and innovative and come up with new solutions that your competitors aren't seeing.” 

A play provocation

You don’t have to change everything about your work process to add in a little bit more fun. Whether it’s a creative warm up, role playing, or moving your desks and chairs into a more collaborative arrangement, there are small ways you can practice taking on a playful mindset as a step toward generating more creative ideas. 

How might you bring an element of play into your work today? 

Resources mentioned in this podcast episode:

Humor, Seriously, by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas

Play, by Dr. Stuart Brown 

The 10 Faces of Innovation, by Tom Kelley

Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, by Johan Huizinga

Creating an Out-of-This-World STEM Learning Experience, an IDEO case study of the Verizon Explorer Lab

Ready to take your learning further? Learn to prototype, experiment, and iterate to move your ideas forward in our course From Ideas to Action. 

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