Imagine this scenario: the person in charge of product management at a large industrial company calls a meeting to analyse market trends. Most would visualise a group of very serious men and women solemnly consulting documents and images around a large table. “That the centre of the table is covered in Lego pieces would have come last to your mind as it is very unconventonal…”

Playing is very serious

Last March in Speyer (Germany) eight of us from MANN+HUMMEL met at a workshop about innovation in the field of product management in order to identify and analyse current market trends, to understand their possible impact on our business, and to define actions and projects to develop. The impression we would have given a neutral observer is a far cry from the typical appearance of a team meeting. In this case, we opted to use the time in a way that was at the same time more playful and constructive: with games.

Our goal was to find new answers that addressed the challenges of a changing economic environment. To that end, we needed to step away from the limitations and conditions of the current market and to broaden the horizon of future possibilities on topics such as the digitalisation of our business model or Donald Trump’s controversial arrival in the White House. We used three different games in our session to boost creativity. The results exceeded our expectations: we wrote down more than 100 ideas that could potentially be translated into projects.

Fun at the office

The first game was the classic game of building blocks, Lego. For years, the famous toy company has had a series called Serious Play® geared toward professionals. The kits include a multitude of pieces with various shapes, sizes and colours with which the players create structures that help to better communicate the details of their ideas. The unique thing about this game is that it doesn’t just serve to represent physical objects such as technical components or equipment, but also abstract concepts like emotions and situations we encounter in our work environment.

Its ability to enhance communication between members of the team is fascinating; it encourages spontaneous participation from everyone involved and without bias, it allows for the visualisation of ideas and interrelations with more fluidity and richness in nuance, and is particularly useful when dealing with a multicultural group like ours—of the eight workshop participants, three were from India, four were from Germany, and I am from Spain. In our case, we made individual models, worked in pairs, and finally the entire team was involved in the creation of a structure that represented a market scenario. All of the structures, explanations and conclusions were documented in photos and videos, which we can consult at any time we need to.

The second activity was the Disney Method, a pleasant game in which we adopted the roles of the “dreamer”, the “realist” and the “critic”. In the first role, we went through a speculative process to generate ideas. The second role was our chance to review the ideas created in the previous process and to choose the ones with the greatest potential. Finally, the third role served to critically analyse the proposed ideas and measures and to identify the risks and obstacles we might face in their execution.

The last game was the Flip-Flop Method, which requires you to imagine the best possible way to do some activity to ensure its absolute failure. Once we realised all the things that shouldn’t be done, it was easier for us to identify the best practice.

A good philosophy for innovation

As you can see, games can be very serious, but in the best sense of the word: they are a way of expanding our imagination, broadening our channels of communication and working as a team in a more fluid and enriching manner, key factors in terms of innovation. What’s more, almost a century and a half ago a famous philosopher said, “A man’s maturity: that is to have rediscovered the seriousness he possessed as a child at play.”