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Serious Play March 31, 2011

Posted by joaquincabreracanabal in Design-related Books, [Books] Ways of Thinking.

Serious Play – How the world best companies simulate to Innovate. (by Michael Schrage)

Review by Joaquin Cabrera, MBA candidate 2011 at Haas School of Business.

Serious play is about how leading companies prototype and simulate to innovate. The main argument the author conveys in this book is how different companies’ prototyping processes drive innovation. Across the book and with several examples, Schrage illustrates how simulation and prototyping serve as building blocks of companies’ innovation culture.

One of the central arguments Schrage makes in the book is that value creation steams from not only the prototypes but also from the interactions that flourish in the process of prototyping and simulation. By means of interactions and people’s behavior around different versions of prototypes, companies can “seriously play” with prototypes, create value and innovate.

The book is structured in three different sections, each exploring different perspectives of what makes prototyping one of the most important media for innovation.  Starting by addressing how prototyping redefines the rules of innovation, the book also explores the cultural and technological issues associated with prototyping as well as how to stimulate innovation through simulation.

There are several arguments made by Schrage with which I deeply agree. First, I totally agree with the concept that is easier to articulate ideas by “playing” with prototypes rather than by simply enumerating prototype requirements. I can recall episodes of my professional experience in which I heard from clients “You have given us what we asked for but it is not what we want”. As stated by Schrage, “People do not order ingredients from a menu, they order meals”. It is much easier to deliver the right solution to clients by continually interacting with them over prototypes (“serious playing”) rather than following a list of specifications. By means of playing with “Quick-and-dirty prototypes”, clients can see ideas evolve and better solutions are achieved.

Second, the idea that is behavior rather than technology what really drives innovation is very compelling. Value creation resides not only in the prototype but also in the interactions around prototypes. While reading the book, I remembered a personal experience in which interactions around a complex finite-element engineering analysis fostered innovation in the ways the team exchanged information. It was not the prototype but the interaction that had the most impact in our team.

Third, I like the concept that the unexpected may prove more valuable than the reason the model was built in the first place. Encouraging surprises (instead of mitigating them) can bring new perspectives or can challenge assumptions, adding value.

Fourth, I agree with the idea that the rougher the prototype the more questions it encourages. Several times I have confronted a beautifully designed model in which it was almost a crime to suggest modifications. As prototypes start to accomplish perfection, “playing” with them becomes harder, hampering new ideas generation.

Last but not least, I like the idea of learning from reworking not only the most creative prototypes but also the most creative interactions. The “serious play” behind the creation of a failure prototype may add more value than that from a successfully developed prototype.

There are some suggestions I would make to the book. First, the book reinforces the idea that continuous iterations enhance benefits that outweigh costs but it lacks recommendations about when to stop iterating. As an engineering design manager, I have been exposes to the “Christmas tree” problem in which features are added to a prototype as ornaments are added to a Christmas tree. Moreover, during simulations, analysts may easily fall into “analysis paralysis” in which the simulation process ends up filling the simulation time available. It would have been very valuable if the book would have included a more in depth analysis of these issues and recommendations on how to determine the point of diminish returns, both in terms of product features and simulation.

Another issue that could have been treated differently is the analysis of the tradeoff between prototype’s complexity and its approximation to reality. This is a critical issue since the ideal prototype complexity level is neither clear nor easy to determine. When I started reading this book, I expected to get a better understanding of how to address this issue but the book did not provide a clear view.

Also, the book could have included recommendations about how to integrate prototyping to companies that do not have a “prototype driven nature”. Certain industries that could (and should) rely on deeper prototyping see this process more as a cost rather than a benefit.

Finally, I found some minor issues about the book’s structure. For instance, I found  the book a little bit repetitive with arguments coming up again and again.  Also, I would not have spent a whole chapter in how spreadsheets have change prototyping practice or at least I would have include other examples such as CAD modeling which indeed has revolutioned areas of design, manufacturing and engineering.

All in all, I feel Serious Play it is a great book and encourage people to read it, especially to those interested in managing innovation initiatives successfully. Personally, I would try to use the main takeaways of this book on my upcoming professional career.




1. Carlos Lievano - April 1, 2011

Great review for the book. I agree that prototyping is a great tool to encourage innovation and support design decisions. However, I believe that it is short from being as widely practices as it should, as you mention when you say that “certain industries that could (and should) rely on deeper prototyping see this process more as a cost rather than a benefit.” I am sure that even service industries, which often overlook the benefits of prototyping (although some service companies have successfully implemented prototyping practices), could benefit from it. Moreover, in service industries, prototyping may take an approach that resembles play even more, with extra role-playing and improv thrown into the mix.

2. Jon Pittman - April 5, 2011

Joaquin – nice job on the review. Very thorough and I like the fact that you articulated pros and cons. I think the key message in the book is that prototypes are thinking tools – while people often think of them as presentation tools.

The art of the prototype is one that is difficult to master in some corporate cultures – but you often find people who are very good at it.

As design techniques get applied more broadly, we will see a new variety of prototyping techniques, As Carlos notes in the post above.

You might also look at Bill Buxton’s comments to Kari’s report on Sketching User Interfaces. Bill has some strong views on this topic.

3. michael schrage - April 12, 2011

thanks for this review and the invitation to comment on it….i’m both pleased and relieved that the role and value of ‘serious play’ are understood both in the context of prototyping and organizational influence…’play’ is a difficult behavior for many organizational cultures to grasp because its ‘brand’ seems inconsistent with the process and rigor many firms (and leaders) try to bring to innovation….

what’s more, WAY too many organizations STILL authentically believe that prototypes, models and simulations are the OUTCOMES of innovation processes rather than their media & platforms…
to me, this is analogous to organizations that still believe ‘quality’ should be ‘inspected’ in rather than ‘designed’ in…we think these are obvious distinctions but, in harsh reality, they require POV shifts that many leaders find almost insurmountably challenging…

let me quickly deal with a few of the (legitimate) critiques of/recommendations for the book…

i observed in the book – and still believe today – that you stop iterating when the value of what you learn from the iteration is less than the cost of doing the iteration….i.e., if your iterations are still creating (in your organizational mind and the mind of your client) knowledge and insight that creates economic value, then the benefits outweight the costs…if not, not…stop

if i had to do the book again, the one HUGE structural/editorial/rhetorical shift i’d make is focusing on incentives as a way to get people to alter/change their approach to wringing value from serious play…i stupidly underemphasized the compensation/incentive side of cultural change…what can i say? i’m older and wiser now….

and, fwiw – i LOVE my spreadsheet chapter and wouldn’t take it out 🙂

in two or three years, you’ll agree with me

my thanks again for your comment

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