The Power of Play: How to Solve Problems Like a Toy Designer


When facing complex business problems, the traditional method of shear force and determination often falls short. To be successful, you need an approach that helps you imagine future scenarios, explore creative solutions, and consider things from new and different perspectives. How do you do this? The key is play. Play gives us permission to dream and diverge, think outside the box, and discover solutions to unprecedented problems.

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, IDEO Partner & Managing Director and instructor of our new course Creative Thinking for Complex Problem Solving, Michelle Lee, discusses the crucial role of play in addressing complex problems of all shapes and sizes—from healthcare to product design. Michelle shares lessons learned from her experience as a toy designer as well as activities for you to integrate play into your work and bring play-skeptics on board. 



Here are our top takeaways from our conversation with Michelle:


1. Toy design can teach us how to be better problem solvers

When we design toys, there are no right or wrong answers. We are prompted to go wide, explore new ideas, and think outside the box. We aren’t afraid to try new things and there are very few constraints on what we can create.

According to Michelle, who began her career in aerospace before pivoting to toy design and then pivoting again to design more broadly, we can bring this same mentality to tackling complex business problems. Today, Michelle works on complex problems across various industries including healthcare, government, education, and consumer goods—but her approach to solving problems is still informed by her experience as a toy designer.

Toy design teaches us the value of play in solving problems. It teaches us that there are rarely single answers to business problems and that often to make progress on problems, we need to first go wide and consider things from new perspectives. Many of the challenges businesses are facing today are incredibly complex, interconnected, and everchanging—to be successful we have to be creative in thinking about how we solve those challenges.



“To make progress on problems, we need to first go wide and consider things from new perspectives.”
Michelle Lee, IDEO Partner & Managing Director



2. Play is a mindset and behavior that helps us think outside of the box

For Michelle, play is a mindset and a behavior. It’s an approach to problem solving that helps us go wide, explore new ideas, and think outside of the box.

Michelle shared the example of how we see the power of imagination when watching kids play. A box is not just a container for carrying things from one part of the room to another, a box can be a house, a rocketship, or a storefront to sell baked goods.

When we become adults, it’s easy to get in the habit of looking at something and only seeing one use case that people have been applying for years. We often fall into these single-minded habits when it comes to problem solving too.

However, when we approach things from the standpoint of play, it helps us open up many possibilities rather than focusing on one answer. It enables us to ask more expansive questions like, “What are different ways to approach this problem? What have we taken for granted in the past?”

Try this creative warmup:

Next time you are in a brainstorming session or a moment when you need your team to think wide, begin by asking a creative question. Ask: What are the most outrageous uses for a glass of water?

Spend a few minutes coming up with the most outrageous use cases you can think of—the sky's the limit. Try looking at the glass (or whatever item you choose) through the eyes of a child who has never seen it before. Or pretend you’re a being from outer space encountering a glass for the first time. Then ask, what are the possibilities?


3. Play encourages action and helps de-risk our problem-solving process

One critical aspect of play is that it’s very active. When a child tries something new, they don’t sit around and talk about it or create PowerPoint presentations with a plan. They jump right to exploration, physically moving things around and seeing how things fit together.

Bringing this same attitude to working with complexity can be a great antidote to the paralysis we often feel when we don’t know where to start or are stuck in over-analysis. Play helps us get started by taking the pressure off of “needing to get it right” and creating room for learning through experimentation.

In this way, play can also be a great tool for de-risking. By not shutting down ideas too early, generating lots of possibilities, and then testing ideas in small ways, you’re able to gain confidence in your ideas as you move forward. This means you don’t have to invest all your resources in a half-tested idea but can make progress toward unearthing better, more effective solutions.



“Play helps us get started by taking the pressure off of 'needing to get it right' and creating room for learning through experimentation. ”
Michelle Lee, IDEO Partner & Managing Director



4. There are tools and exercises for intentionally bringing play to work—and gaining buy-in from play-skeptics

Play at work can be designed for. This is especially important when working with teams or stakeholders who are skeptical about the value of play. The number one question Michelle gets asked is how to bring play to teams or work environments that are skeptical about “playing at work” because of industry regulations, time and budget constraints, or even misconceptions.

There are a variety of ways to bring play to work, ranging from simple creative warmups to more thorough methodologies and processes for problem-solving. One of Michelle’s favorite tools is the Magic Circle.

Put simply, the magic circle is a space you can enter that plays by different rules. (Think: a game of chess, a theatre, a court of law, a place of worship.) For Michelle and her team, it’s a space (sometimes a physical room, other times an imagined space) where they can let loose and temporarily put aside the constraints and rules that normally govern their work. The goal of creating a magic circle is to help put people in a mindset where they can be as generative and creative as possible.

Check out our step-by-step guide to creating a magic circle.


Ready to take your learning further? Tap into the power of imagination to tackle complex problems with Michelle’s newest course, Creative Thinking for Complex Problem Solving.

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