Serious Play: A book review by Bob Morris

Serious PlaySerious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate
Michael Schrage
Harvard Business Review Press (1999)

Note: I read and reviewed this book when it was first published (1999) and recently re-read it before reading Michael Schrage’s latest, The Innovator’s Hypothesis: How Cheap Experiments Are Worth More Than Good Ideas (2014). Several of his core insights are introduced in the earlier book and developed in much greater depth in The Innovator’s Hypothesis. Here’s a head’s up to those about to read one or both books: Schrage assigns very specific — and correct — meaning to words such as “play” and “experiment”; also to statements such as “Innovative prototypes generate innovative teams. Not vice versa” and “Ideas are the enemy…They’ll make you sick.” His ideas are not for hamster brains and lazy bones.

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Who Moved Our Prototype?

There is more significance to the title than one may initially assume. Some “play” can be taken much too seriously as when overzealous parents scream at their children as they begin to compete in organized sports; other “play” is not treated seriously enough as when a corporation discourages (perhaps even punishes) innovative thinking unless it has an immediate and favorable impact on the bottom line. Many executives, thus abused, may then vent their frustrations by behaving boorishly at a Little League game.

In the Foreword, Tom Peters quotes Schrage’s assertion that “Innovative prototypes generate innovative teams. Not vice versa.” Peters then observes that, in Serious Play, the “big idea” is that “the prototyping process becomes the scaffolding” for an enterprise’s approach to innovation. As Schrage explains, “I have always enjoyed rehearsals more than performances.” I suggest that you keep that statement clearly in mind as you proceed through the book. It reveals much about Schrage’s perspective on the correlations between prototypes and innovation.

Here is how the book is organized: Part I: Getting Real, Part II: Model Behavior, and Part III: S(t)imulating Innovation. Schrage then provides a User’s Guide and Bibliography. Throughout the book, he shares a wealth of real-world experience which explains what innovation is, and, what it can help to accomplish, not only with the design of a new product or service but also with the formulation of new and better ways for people to work together. The key is simulation; moreover, “not just playing with representations of ideas” (lots of ideas, the more the better) but “playing with the various versions of representations of ideas.”

Near the end of the final chapter, Schrage poses a number of critically important questions, suggesting that the “best hope for answering these questions, or coping with their implications, is to build or grow models and play with them seriously.” The world’s best companies simulate to innovate. For example: American Airlines, Boeing, DaimlerChrysler, General Electric, IBM, IDEO, Walt Disney, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, and Royal Dutch Shell. Schrage believes that the creative tensions between innovators who design and innovators who evolve “will likely result in breakthroughs in products, services, and their yet-to-be-anticipated hybrids.” So, why not prototype how to prototype? Why not play simulation games which reveal new and better ways to simulate?

Tom Peters describes Serious Play as “simply the best book on innovation I’ve ever read.” I agree. Perhaps you will, also.

[Addendum in 2014: That was my opinion of the book 15 years ago. I still consider Serious Play to be among the most valuable books on innovation published thus far.]

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