Serious Play

Goofing off for profit

Much to the surprise of the organizational man, play is turning out to be the key to business. According to research by Michael Schrage, uncertainty is the only sure thing in business, and the way to confront uncertainty is by “serious play.” A business engages in serious play when it constructs electronic spreadsheets and fiddles with alternatives, or when it can produce rapid prototypes, or assemble large-scale virtual models – all in order to reduce uncertainty. Fast-and-dirty demos, pilot programs, beta releases and scenarios are yet other ways of managing mistakes and learning. The genius of this book is that it focuses on the cultural consequences of simulations, and pays equal attention to the many ways in which models fail, or mislead their makers. Schrage sums up by saying, “The central thesis of this book is that organizations manage themselves by managing their prototypes.”

-- KK 11/26/04


Even the simplest simulations can yield counterintuitive insights. The message is that model surprise may be even more important than model affirmations.


The value of prototypes resides less in the models themselves than in the interactions - the conversations, arguments, consultations, collaborations - they invite.


The conventional interpretation - in science, academia, and business alike - is that we build "virtual worlds" to better understand the problem to be solved or the opportunity to be exploited. This is accurate without being true. The real reason we need to build and seriously play with prototypes is to get a better understanding of ourselves and our priorities.


It is increasingly apparent how often people are lured into creative collaborations by "charismatic prototypes" - prototypes that invite participation and enhancement.


"I've learned that you learn far more about an organization from what they won't model than from what they do." Asserts political scientist Garry Brewer... "Organizations frequently leave out the very assumptions that are most important or most threatening to their sense of themselves."


Most organizations wouldn't hesitate to videotape a customer focus group interacting around a new product prototype. But how many design teams videotape themselves interacting around their proposed innovation?

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