How Wackiness Can Lead to Workplace Success

All work and no play make corporations dull. Here are five commandments on how hijinks can lead to success.

Photograph by Getty Images

It's a brainstorming session for a blue-chip client. A team of highly skilled professionals sits around a conference table, munching on chocolate-frosted Dunkin Donuts, writing ideas on sticky notes and pasting them, willy-nilly, around the conference room. Chairs, tables, shirts, faces, hair, half-eaten pastries–soon just about everything in the room is covered with a brightly colored Post-it. Joyful noises emerge from the room, first a loud giggle, then full-throated laughter. Where are the stony silences? Where is the corporate brinkmanship? This is work?

In fact, it's a typical scene at IDEO, the international design firm, and very much in keeping with the philosophy of its famous founder, David Kelley. Aiming to fashion an atmosphere of "creative confidence," Kelley—the guy who designed the first Apple mouse—has built a company with play in its very DNA. While fellow Silicon Valley titans Google and Facebook have generated tons of press by installing Lego play stations and Razor scooters in their offices, IDEO has gone several steps further, incorporating a sense of play in all aspects of its actual brainstorming process. By any reasonable standard, Kelley's ideas have worked: IDEO is one of the world's most influential design firms, with a golden client roster and a dazzling array of projects ranging from toys to medical devices to clean-water-delivery systems for underdeveloped countries.

We talked to Brendan Boyle, the IDEO partner entrusted with maintaining its work-as-play ethic, to find out the firm's five key directives to maintaining a playful, and successful, workplace.

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1. Let Your Freak Flag Fly. At IDEO, play doesn't constitute a break from work—instead, it's an essential part of the gig. The workspace itself encourages spontaneity and lightheartedness: the company's flagship office in Palo Alto, for instance, features a gutted Volkswagen bus indoors, set up as an intimate meeting place. When teams gather for brainstorming sessions—even with clients in tow—they're encouraged to be as freewheeling as possible. "If I pass a session and I don't hear laughter," Boyle says, "then I know the energy's down—and they aren't coming up with anything."

2. Learn Not to Play it Safe. As the honchos at IDEO see it, self-censorship is the enemy of creativity. "Most people are trained to think: 'If I throw out a ridiculous idea, everyone's gonna laugh at me, or say it's stupid,'" Boyle notes. "You learn in a hurry to play it safe." Company execs found that by instead constructing IDEO brainstorming sessions as play dates, inhibitions fall fast. Team members are encouraged to offer up lots of ideas, no matter how far-fetched. Quantity is the first goal, not quality. Good ideas become subjects for further exploration; the lousy or unworkable ones—well, no harm, no foul.

3. Throw Away Your Dignity. Creativity at IDEO often takes the form of distinctly unprofessional behavior. Take the development of the Sesame Street iPhone app, Elmo's Monster Maker. Before they had even done a bit of programming, the designers wanted to figure out how Elmo danced. So they cut a human-sized hole in a sheet and drew an iPhone frame around it. Behind this, one of the team members improvised goofball "Elmo" routines while the others recorded him, sending the results to the client. An undignified approach, perhaps, but one that cut right to the heart of the assignment. "Within an hour, we had something tangible," says Boyle.

4. Pretend to be Someone Else. When ConAgra's Orville Redenbacher group enlisted IDEO to update the 25-year-old design of its microwave popcorn bags, the creative team turned into a "family"—two "parents" and two "kids" on a movie night. They hung out on big comfy couches watchingTitanic and making popcorn—messily. The result of their observations: the Pop-Up Bowl, a package that turns into a bowl right in the microwave itself. IDEO teams have donned scrubs to develop medical devices; even worked in the high-pressure environment of a NASCAR pit to figure out how medical professionals can better deal with emergency-room crises. "The things all of us did as kids—wanting to be a doctor or a race-car driver—well, our team was going out and really feeling that again," says Boyle.

5. Flirt With the Ridiculous. Boyle likes to run "mashup" brainstorming sessions, where workers are encouraged to bring in disparate objects and find synergies between them. The results might seem a tad absurd: a combo orange juice squeezer/bike helmet, for instance, or a welcome mat/whoopee cushion. But some of IDEO's most seriously innovative ideas have been combination products—like the Contour USB, a blood-glucose measurer that looks like a flash drive. Says Boyle: "Play helps you get comfortable with ridiculous ideas—so you can back off and come up with something brilliant."

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