Monday, February 1, 2016

Become Better at Make Believe: Choose the stick over the light saber

Image by Fraylen under Creative Commons License
“Make Believe” is perhaps one of the oldest childhood games in history.  It’s a very simple game.  Basically, the child pretends to be something that she isn’t.  Using just the tools around her (rocks, scissors, cardboard, doughnuts, etc.), she builds a fantasy world around her character (fashion photographer, astronaut, fireman, dancer, etc.)  But can one really be BETTER at make believe than someone else?  Of course.  For instance, Calvin and Hobbes (though theoretically mostly Calvin) are awesome at this game.  And like with everything else, getting better takes practice.  

There is a specific part of “Make Believe” that is especially relevant to innovative thinking: the creation of props.  Take two children, Gabriel and Gabe, who both love Star Wars because they happen to be male, under the age of 50, and are currently alive.  Gabriel’s parents bought him a fancy $200 Darth Vader Lightsaber.  Gabe’s parents clearly don’t love him because they only gave him their unconditional love.  So for their epic battle, Gabe picks up a fallen tree limb while Gabriel swings his light up lightsaber complete with sound effects.  Someone here is at a disadvantage.

But it’s not Gabe.  After sparring for a while, Gabe flips his stick down and uses it like a cane.  “I am the Emperor. “  Then he shoots lightning out of his hands.  Gabriel is stuck being Vader.  He wants to be Luke, but his lightsaber is the wrong color.  “I don’t want to play anymore,” he says, throwing his $200 toy to the ground.  Gabe throws one leg over his increasingly versatile stick.  “Oh, now I’m Harry Potter. Let’s play quidditch.”  Gabriel doesn’t know how to join in.  Gabe doesn’t give up.  He holds the stick in front of him in both hands and starts tap dancing.  Again, Gabriel doesn’t know what to do.  Then Gabe puts one end to his eye and says “Ahoy, matey.  I see land.”  Silence.  Finally, Gabe hands one end of the stick to Gabriel.  “We’re on a Viking warship.  Let’s row together.”

“Make Believe” is a game of innovation, and it’s something you can practice.  When you look at objects, try not to see just what it is supposed to be.  Try to imagine what it could be.  This is easier with plainer objects (sticks vs. lightsabers).  But even with a very specific object, you can break it down to its fundamental attributes which allows you to imagine other uses for it.  For instance, a lightsaber toy is a weapon.  But fundamentally, it is a straight object.  What else can you do with straight objects?  Use it as a cane.  Use it as a bridge.  Use it to dig.  A bed’s purpose is for sleeping.  But what is it really?  It is a structure that elevates things off the floor.  That also makes it an island in a sea of lava, a car, a coat rack, and a jungle gym.  It is also soft.  That makes it a wrestling mat and a trampoline.  Practice changing your perspective.

Now let’s look at how you can apply this to problems in the adult world.  One innovation technique is to look at the fundamental tools you have and ask “What else can I do with this?”  This has resulted in some of the most famous corporate pivots in history.  Corning used to make bottles.  But fundamentally, they were good with glass.  Glass is something that transmits light well.  So they became innovators in optical fibers.  Flickr started out as an online role playing game.  Their sharing platform also allowed for easy sharing of photos, and that is what took off.

So next time you see some kids playing “Make Believe”, go join in.  You don’t need fancy toys, in fact the simpler, the better.  Practice seeing the fundamental nature of things and ask “What else can this be used for.”