Play in the workplace
Lawrence Murphy wants “work” to include another word, and it’s a four-letter one at some companies: play.

Murphy, chief of the global design and user experience team at GE Healthcare, says workplaces should incorporate play into their cultures as a way of discovering innovation that can be applied to products and processes.

“Think of it as creative problem-solving,” Murphy said at the keynote presentation last week at the “USTAR Confluence: Where Innovative Ideas Seed, Grow and Thrive” symposium. The two-day event, organized by the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative, was designed to stimulate innovation, collaboration and commercialization and build entrepreneurial excitement.

Companies can have employees play, observe and then innovate based on inspirations that play provides, he said. Too often, companies focus on innovating first and then struggle to find a way to market the innovation.

“You all had something you loved doing when you were 7 years old, right? Between the ages of 7 and 10, that’s my favorite age range, because you’re fearless, and you play with everything, you play with anything, you play with everybody. It’s an amazing thing.”

Companies should be filled with people who like to play — with ideas, with others and with tools. “The interesting thing about playing with stuff is, play allows you to reframe a problem. And it doesn’t matter if that problem is a physical one, a mechanical [or] software process. If you play with it, eventually you figure something out, and that’s the intriguing part.”

At its heart, play teaches teamwork and consensus-building, according to Murphy, known as “Murf” and whose motto is “If you’re not having fun, it’s at least half your fault.”

Murphy symbolized the approach by having audience members meet certain challenges that required play but incorporated collaboration and problem-solving. He demonstrated, for example, that a person can fit through a hole in his business card — if the hole is cut the right way.

He cited as an example of play leading to business success the story of the Frisbee. Walter “Fred” Morrison invented the toy, whose origins dated back to college students throwing empty metal pie tins used by Frisbie’s Pies in Connecticut.

“Fred figured out for everything — for everything, it doesn’t matter if it’s mechanical, software or process, a social situation, whatever — for everything, there are lead users out there, and the lead users are just playing with what they’ve got,” Murphy said.

“They’re playing with their process, they’re playing with their tools, they’re playing with their techniques. And they figure stuff out first, and the reason they started playing with them is they perhaps understood a need before other people understood where that need was going to be.”

Others will notice those early adopters and want to be part of the process, he said.

“The fact is, if you observe first and then innovate, what you innovate automatically becomes accepted because people are already doing it,” he said.

Murphy said that creativity is understanding your skills, imagination is understanding your skills and those of others, and innovation is leveraging all the skills to solve someone else’s problem. “I’m 35 years with GE and it’s a cultural change we’re after, and that culture is ‘being willing to show up differently at work,’” he said.

Another example of play leading to innovation involves taking medical scanning machines — usually large, cold, aesthetically antiseptic devices that are intimidating to children — and dressing them up with colors and designs that turn them playful. Converting the device and its room into a colorful coral reef setting helped convert children’s anxiety into adventure. Other versions produced space ship and streetcar settings. And those changes were made without redesigning the machine’s technologies or the procedures used during its operation.

Murphy suggested that employees play with their tools to find innovation they had never before imagined. He added that having multidisciplinary teams — such as designers, chemists, psychologists and business development experts — also augments play.

“It turns out the more different people you play with, the better the ideas are and the more things that come about,” he said.

He stressed that employees also should try to be genuinely excited about someone else’s ideas. “When you are, they go, ‘Oh, wow, you like that one? I’ve got a couple of more. Really? You like that?’ And once they have that, they want to pass that feeling along,” he said.

Play also incorporates competition, he said, noting that one designer saw colleagues playing and he then fiddled with a model on his desk, ultimately leading to an improved scanning device.

When people play, they are willing to try new things, are willing to fail and willing to try again. “Play is the best way of learning stuff,” Murphy said.

“Play with the tools you have before you go looking for new ones. Observe other people playing, maybe with the tools you’ve provided, maybe with the tools they already have. Appreciate the fact that in play, so much of what needs to be solved has been solved — we just haven’t had enough people paying attention to the people who are playing yet to get it all on paper.”

Read more: The Enterprise - GE exec encourages more play in workplace 

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