How to create a playful workplace

There’s more to creating a playful culture than installing ball pits and pool tables. We talk to Franz Blach, MD at IDEO in Munich, about the importance of ‘playing with purpose’

At design and innovation consultancy IDEO, play is considered a serious business. Through its work with clients – which include NGOs, governments and commercial brands – teams engage in playful exercises from role play to collaborative problem-solving and building physical prototypes.

There are dedicated areas for making and a stage where people can act out scenarios with the help of costumes and props. Each week, teams are invited to sit down together and develop creative ideas outside of client projects – coming up with prototypes or proposals for new products and services in response to a specific challenge. It could be designing a cleaning service for another planet or designing a product that doesn’t yet exist.

These rituals and exercises are all aimed at inspiring creative thinking and collaboration, and Franz Blach, MD at IDEO in Munich, believes they are a vital part of the consultancy’s work. While IDEO takes on a diverse range of projects, ranging from future modelling to the creation of new brands and services, most of its time is spent helping clients to innovate.

Play can instil courage to do things, to take bigger risks. It helps you to be more creative, and responsive

Recent projects include designing a new voting system for people in Los Angeles, creating an app to help people manage diabetes and working with Zalando to define a new retail strategy, which saw the consultancy set up an innovation lab in Zalando’s head office.

Blach sees play as an integral part of IDEO’s process. “There’s a few things that play is really beneficial for – play fuels culture, it nurtures collaboration, it inspires curiosity, and I also think play can instil courage to do things, to take bigger risks. It helps you to be more creative, and responsive, and I think all of those traits are the foundations [businesses need] to be successful and competitive for the future.”

While companies are becoming increasingly aware of the value of play, Blach says he still meets a lot of clients who see it as “the opposite of work” – an added extra, rather than something that is essential to future success.