Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Sense of Play

I was on the MIT Campus for a CIO Summit and One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) conference. It was if the two were held on different planets.

The OLPC event began at the MIT Media Labs. During the reception, I managed to join a small tour of the "Lifelong Kindergarten" room in the lab. Along one wall are bins of Lego blocks and sundry parts for making small robots. There are couches and tables casually arranged for ad hoc discussions, with posters and paraphernalia hanging out throughout the space. A mock-up of a car chassis is in one corner. Blocks and crayons are on a table in another corner. The place exudes a sense of play.

The “Lifelong Kindergarten” project is the brainchild of Mitch Resnick, an MIT Professor. When he talks, you can hear the child’s sense of play at work in a scientist’s mind. You want to take off your shoes, roll up your sleeves and join him in the sandbox. Just look at their web site, here:

I first saw what I called the “Lego room” five years ago. I remember looking into the room and seeing a bunch of Lego-bots running around the floor and desktops, controlled by what looked like AI (artificial intelligence) programs transmitting wirelessly from PCs. It was heaven! My overwhelming sense was that this was where I wanted to come play when I “retired.” I had that same feeling standing in the room this week.

The OLPC offices were a similar hotbed of creativity. XO laptops were everywhere, literally hanging from the ceiling, crowded on desktops, on credenzas in various states of disassembly. My favorite line from a volunteer demonstrating the mesh networking was that the warranty was only activated when you took the laptop apart! Everyone was encouraged to play with the components and wield a Phillips-head screwdriver. The place was humming with activity.

Contrast all this creative energy with the CIO Summit on balancing innovation and cost leadership. It was also held on the MIT Campus. Here in the center of one of the hotbeds of technology inventiveness, was the most stale, one-dimensional conference I’ve ever attended. There were no videos, no demonstrations of cool technology, no engaging slides, no play, period. There were only speeches and panels of very qualified people talking, one after the other. If ever there was an example of Marshall McLuhan’s maxim that "the medium is the message" this was it.

This is not to say that the content was not interesting, or that I didn’t have a number of valuable take-aways from the session. The speakers, panelists and moderators were among the brightest, most accomplished academic and business leaders in our field of IT. But their creativeness was overcast by the dull context of an outdated venue. How can you talk about web 2.0 and not be
immersed in the technology instead of the commentary?

There is a message here for those of us who seek increasing innovation in our organizations. Context matters. A story may help. When I worked in NY I collected wind-up toys. My favorite store uptown was a little shop called The Last Wound Up. I had dozens of two-inch figures and animals in assorted colors that I kept on a round meeting table in my office. This was my interview space. I was a consultant manager for a Wall Street data and applications company. I remember a consultant candidate sitting at the table with me ignoring the toys. At one point I bumped the table by accident, and one of the pink mice did a back-flip. The candidate ignored it and droned on about his qualifications. He didn't get the job.

A few weeks later, I was introduced to Anna, the latest applicant. She had an equally impressive resume. Before she shook my hand she immediately went to the round table, exclaimed "look at these" and began winding a few up to see what they did. I was so impressed with her sense of wonder and play, willingness to step outside the typical interview box, and confidence that what she was doing was OK. It was an authentic moment. She got the job and went on to replace me as manager a few years later. The office with the toys created the context for something new and different to happen.

I’ll leave you with a related reference from a gem of a book by Gordon MacKenzie, the former head of creative at Hallmark: “To enhance the illusion of my emerging, indefinable (nonexistent) power [as the shaman of creative ideas], I set about to transform my little office into a corporate version of Merlin’s Den.” (p. 148). Pick up a copy of Orbiting the Giant Hairball (, read his chapter on "The Power of Paradox" and let the games begin.

1 comment:

David Isaak said...

This I like! A playground nuturing creativity. Hmmm, how can I incorporate this into my training modules....?