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Serious Play – How the Best Companies Simulate to Innovate April 1, 2012

Posted by matthewsander in Creative leadership, Creativity, Design Thinking, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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Models are efficient tools of collaboration. So says Michael Schrage. His book, “Serious Play,” is about building many models, prototypes, simulations – and using these tools for all the learning, sharing, and forecasting they can provide.


“Serious Play” tackles the goals and pitfalls of modeling. It focuses on the diverse roles of modeling, and on the interplay between simulation, communication, and innovation. The book encourages rapid prototypes and simulations as tools to facilitate collaboration between groups. This is where “play” fits in. Collaboration, ideation, enhancement, and the simple fun of trying new things each have a role in the process “Serious Play” advocates.

Through anecdotes and case studies, Schrage explains modeling, simulating, and prototyping, and emphasizes how the three tools of “Serious Play” can promote collaboration between engineering, manufacturing, design and management. Numerous styles are mentioned, including: spreadsheets, 2D and 3D electronic drawings, sculpted models, printed prototypes, and manufactured prototypes. Costs and benefits are associated with each.

According to Schrage, creating value is the essence of the prototype. With each cycle of prototyping comes the opportunity to improve the quality of the product. More than just quality, however, rapid prototyping can allow a variety of different focuses. Improvements, cost reductions, and product enhancements can all be explored through iterations of the prototyping process.

Image of the rapid prototyping process encouraged by Schrage

"Think of the extra cycles as currency: each additional cycle can ‘purchase’ a product improvement, cost reduction, or a speedup.” (Schrage, P. 98)

While collaboration and value creation are each big picture goals of prototyping, many pitfalls also exist. These pitfalls can hinder the value of a prototype. “Serious Play” suggests avoiding models that have no inherent purpose, that fail to benefit a particular party, that are too elaborate to effectively use, and that fail to facilitate a discussion between different product teams. The book also argues that the value of each model should be considered and evaluated by realistic business metrics.


Schrage’s style is almost exclusively anecdotal. "Serious Play" is full of insightStories of product designers, modelers, and innovators blend together as the book progresses, and behind each story lies a hidden gem of insight. Each insight is as valuable as the last; creatively achieved, and relevant to the real world. Schrage argues effectively for the value prototypes bring to communication and collaboration, and for the value that cheap modeling has brought to the economics of business.

It isn't clear how every insight fits into the thesis of each chapterThe book’s value is in its insights. But while very insightful, it struggles with organization. At times the book loses itself in its anecdotes, and fails to thematically tie its insights together into coherent themes. Selected blurbs are blocked out of the page, and are as likely to agree with a poignant point as they are to summarize an anecdote, repeat a commentary, or make their own point. The problem with this is that, although the points are insightful in themselves, it becomes difficult for the reader to quickly grasp where each point fits into the bigger picture.

The book is a model built for communicating opportunities in modelingThe book seems determined to offer ideas for a multitude of scenarios, model types, and businesses, and in so doing loses some focus. However, the variety of business practices, prototyping styles, and methodologies help provide a examples, or if you will, a “model” for a large section of reader needs. The variety allows the savvy reader to re-read particular sections that may apply specifically to their business strategy, and to pick up general practice techniques as they go along. This should be beneficial to the sect of readers who are currently exploring prototyping within their business model, and for those of us interested in ideology that guides when, where and how we should prototype.

Fortunately for those of us “time-pressed” innovators, Schrage recognizes that “Serious Play” is not easy for everyone to quickly read and apply. He recommends that some of us instead read “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Innovators,” or “The One Minute Modeler.” For the generalist, looking for tools to apply, I agree. However, to give us some quick tips, Schrage concludes his book with a “User Guide,” where he outlines specific steps that even the time-pressed can take to seriously play.



1. jhpittman - April 3, 2012

Matt – I agree that Michael produced more of a manifesto (with lots of anecdotes) rather than a prescription for how to prototype. He wrote this a while ago before there was general understanding of the value of prototyping. He also wrote more for a business audience than a design audience. There are lots of things now written about how to prototype.

2. michael schrage - April 4, 2012

hi – at jon’s invitation, i’m taking the liberty of responding to the thrust of the critique here…frankly, i think the reviewer missed two very important points my book was trying to make on both an economic and epistemological level…

…my book essentially made three arguments:

first, prototypes were more valuable as a medium for collaboration and interaction between people rather than an instantiation of requirements or validation of proof of concept..

second, prototypes/models were media for the elicitation of knowledge between designers and with potential users/customers….again, my argument was anti-requirements and and anti- the misbegotten but widespread belief that prototypes were the best medium for externalizing and then testing ideas

third, the economics of prototyping were changing because the dominant media for prototyping/modeling were changing and ‘iteration’ was becoming a marginal – rather than a variable cost…

not incidentally, this new economics of iteration changed the economics of collaborating around prototyping…thus creating a virtuous cycle that promised to make rapid prototyping/digital modeling a more important platform for collaborative and agile innovation….

yes, it is true i have many anecdotes illustrating these themes (as opposed to say, survey data that i know would be obviated or obsolesced by the onrush of digital media platforms…

i fully agree that the passage of time and the overwhelming presence not just of design tools but social media have made many aspects of the book feel more anachronistic & impressionistic rather than more structured or empirical….but i would still argue (comfortably) that by representing models/prototypes as ‘shared spaces’ and marketplaces for design value exchange and creation, ‘serious play’ had both a structure and narrative arc that did more than bring a ‘string of pearl’ set of anecdotes to a book….

my disappointment in the review is that i feel the reviewer gives particular short-shrift to the phenomenon of ’emergence’ – that is, how collaborators can ‘play their way’ into both serendipitous and semi-structured insights and discovery by treating their models and prototypes as ‘iterative media’ rather that design/engineering tools…

this strikes me as both unsubtle and un-nuanced and, respectfully, this kind of ‘behavioral economic’ thinking would serve more designers well not only when they design and manage a project but when they facilitate collaboration and design efforts with experts and users in other domains…my thanks

matthewsander - April 5, 2012

Dear Mr. Schrage —

My apologies for not being attentive enough to ’emergence’ as you describe it. I agree with you that “Serious Play” makes each of those three arguments, illustratively, and astutely.

To add a personal anecdote:

As an engineer currently in the alpha prototyping stage of a laparoscopic surgical device, “Serious Play” has changed my thinking about prototyping and inspired me to use my prototypes more collaboratively. My group uses CAD tools and plastic printing to develop our prototypes, and we have started to share our initial prototypes with laparoscopic surgeons, something I may not have done before reading “Serious Play.”

You are correct that this review may not have given enough page space to the collaborative opportunities noted by “Serious Play” and to the changing economic incentives in modeling.

Nevertheless, I do stand behind my thesis that the book “argues effectively for the value prototypes bring to communication and collaboration, and for the value that cheap modeling has brought to the economics of business,” but “struggles with organization.” Perhaps your comment “that the passage of time and the overwhelming presence not just of design tools but social media have made … aspects of the book feel … impressionistic…” is a more nuanced way of putting this.

For the record, I did very much enjoy and appreciate the work.


Matthew Sander

m - April 8, 2012

thanks for your response; i appreciate both the original review and your willingness to engage on these issues…obviously, reviewers bring their own expertise and experiences to their reviews and this understandably leads them to elevate some insights (and criticisms) over others….

….for reasons i shan’t bore you with, i can’t tell you how thrilled i am that you’re showing your ‘roughs’ to the laproscopic surgeons for/with whom you design…,my free advice: videotape those sessions 🙂

my thanks again

3. doviknissim - April 7, 2012

Jon, Michael, Matt, Hi

Thank you for an interesting discussion, I found it very interesting.

The idea that a prototype or the prototyping process can be used as collaborative tools rather than just a validation tool is an interesting concept in my mind – one that is not yet fully mastered even by the most innovative companies.

I’d love to learn more about this.

Can any of you refer me to where I can find more information/ best practices for using prototypes as collaborative tools

I’m looking for the more practical angel … How can actually do this effectively?

Mr. Schrage, in that sense, I don’t find your book anachronistic at all…I actually think this topic is still to a certain extent …unmapped..
Everyone agrees they need to prototype for validation … not many see that as an opportunity to collaborate and significantly improve the result.

[Jon, I assume that Mr. Schrage doesn’t read this blog regularly, I’d appreciate his direction here]


4. michael schrage - April 8, 2012

thanks for your note….while no books immediately come to mind, i urge Urge URGE you to look at the CHI – computer human interface – literature and cscw – computer supported cooperative work…

there is EXCELLENT work going on in this area in the digital community…bill buxton’s book on design is quite good and, for something ,pre provocative, check out bruce sterling’s ‘shaping things’ from mit press…it is a trip…while it doesn’t expressly address your collaborative concerns, it presents a framework for think about – and through – design intention..


5. doviknissim - April 8, 2012

Thank you, Michael,
I will lookup Bill Buxton’s and Bruce Sterling’s books … I am intrigued.
Again Thank you for the recommendation. I appreciate it.

6. jhpittman - April 14, 2012

I just read Shaping Things – it is a bit dense but very provocative. It is about the future of things, making, and design. I highly recommend it but it will take a bit of effort to fully grasp its meaning.

Thanks to Michael for the recommendation.

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