Design thinking in a hybrid world

The biggest surprise during covid was that online design thinking journeys have proved far more successful than in person workshops ever were.

As innovation facilitator, my job is to harness and activate the collective intelligence of a team of people so they can create better ideas than their competitors and grow their brands.  I’m the author of The Workshop Book, and my agency leads innovation projects for global teams at Unilever, Diageo, GSK and Essity.

Pre COVID, we were all used to doing most stages of important innovation journeys in person, which meant that they were attended by the senior extroverts who were based in the right location or could afford to travel to meet for intensive in-person experiences.

When we moved all our innovation journeys fully online by necessity, we were both shocked and surprised to see how much more commercially successful the experience, engagement, and outputs were. The main reason for this positive shift was the change in our use of people’s time and attention.

Instead of the intensive 4-8 hour in-person workshop sessions where the most extroverted, confident people were heard, online meant we split the journey into smaller, tighter engagements across a week or two. This not only allowed a far more diverse group to join from other locations, it meant that people had downtime and reflection time between sessions, both of which helped introverts and neuro-diverse thinkers to participate in ways they weren’t able to before. I saw our workshops became far more diverse, global, democratic and, despite what many feared with the addition of tech platforms, far more human-centred.

However, as we come back to a past-pandemic hybrid world, where some teams will now be in-person and some will join online, our greatest challenge is to remember what we learned, rather than going backwards to the bad old days of an in-person team getting all the airtime and someone joining remotely from a spluttering conference call phone on a desk, completely forgotten about. New hybrid working models bring a fresh challenge to design thinking, particularly if you are considering some team members joining working sessions in-person and others joining remotely, because it creates an imbalance of power that needs to be addressed rather than ignored.

The reason fully remote, online design thinking journeys work so well is that every team member has equal access to information and an equally powerful voice to help to guide and shape the outcomes at each stage.  To put it simply, when we are all square boxes on Zoom (with cameras on and in full participation mode), we are all equal and included, especially when we are given time between sessions to refine our thinking and contribute ideas.  Particularly when user empathy, constructive challenges, rule-breaking ideation and prototyping are crucial, online brings better engagement for each of those stages.

Play is the highest form of research: Einstein

‘Life is a serious business. But new research shows that the way to get the most out of it is to be more playful. So get out there and have some fun!’

Play and a playful attitude are not just enjoyable, they are essential ingredients for best business planning and personal development. We understand this at Paraffin and directly implement this into our workshop design.

Let’s define our terms. In English, play is the opposite of work. But the act itself is more complex. As psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown puts it: ‘The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.’ He believes that play, of any kind (there are seven different types, from ‘object play’ to ‘narrative play and storytelling’), is essential to brain development. ‘Nothing,’ he says, ‘lights up the brain like play.’

We know this instinctively when it comes to bringing up children. But research shows that adults need to play, and be playful, too. Prioritising it might seem frivolous when we live in a planet-sized tangle of problems and injustices. However, these problems need creative solutions. What if play could help us find them? What if play was one of them? Dr Brown is just one scientist who suggests it is. Einstein was another. In his words: ‘Play is the highest form of research.’

Play isn’t slothful, it’s useful. It is recreation with the emphasis on the last three syllables. Play is indispensable to human progress and good for individuals. A culture that encourages it will enjoy cumulative benefits. Denmark – officially the happiest country on earth – is an example. Flexible work and free childcare are the norm, which means more free time. In addition, there is greater gender equality and a work-to-live culture that includes the expectation that people should pursue private interests.

But play isn’t only a human luxury. We know that goats play, dogs play, monkeys play and humans play. You don’t have to be taught it and there is an evolutionary reason for that. By abandoning play, we’re abandoning an important part of ourselves.

Certain kinds of play are more geared toward learning, discovery and curiosity such as cooking, or composing a song- you might throw some ingredients in a pan simply because it is fun to do so, the focus is on play rather than the finished product so nurture your creation as it cooks rather than waiting for an expectation of a finished product. You might be plucking at random strings on a guitar and discover musical patterns you hadn’t noticed before that once organically experienced become forever part of your skill set. There is no need to sit and learn it – you have found it through play.

On the other hand, when you’re building a block tower, or putting together a motor, that kind of imaginative development has a learning goal, and we’re moving toward it through our exploration.

We devise creative tasks in workshop so delegates can enjoy group play in problem solving, dialogue and deliberation. An experimental approach in the workplace, to tasks as well as the structure of the working day, can boost productivity and profits. ‘Smart’ not ‘hard’ is the new way to work.

We encourage you to use play in workshops. Some examples could be:

  • Sculpture competition.  Ask different teams to physically create an ideal world, for example their dream office, the perfect planet, or the perfect job.  Give each team a different set of materials to use like playdoh, kinex, pipe cleaners or arts and crafts materials. Through play, participants will express their imagination, use analogies and find new perspectives to think from.  Laughter releases endorphins and help the brain to think faster and more creatively.
  • Play a game or compete in a quiz. Present each team with a basket of products and boards with different amounts on and challenge them to match the price with the product. Create a true or false quiz with some trick questions that help your participants bust some myths about their consumer.  Gentle (or even fierce!) competition is great to get people engaged, energetic and paying attention, and a time limit or score adds excitement.
  • Drawing outside of the lines. In pairs ask people to draw portraits of each other but you can’t take your pen off the page and you only have 30 seconds to do it! NEW RULE You can only draw your partners face using geometrical shapes NEW RULE You have 10 seconds to draw your partner only using horizontal lines. This encourages creativity without judgement- you can then ask people to take these drawings and turn them into product shapes or packaging ideas.
  • Consequences-  Fold a piece of paper over and pass it around the team members. Each line has an instruction, when unfolded and read out at the end it will make a new story. The instructions make the story make grammatical sense. You can adapt this game to fit the objectives of a workshop.

Once upon a time ——- met ——-

He said ———-

She said————

And the consequence was————-

Nonsense may come out of the game, but the outcomes are a productive conversation starter, or a set of new perspectives from which to view the problem.  Games and play keep energy up throughout the workshop, constantly navigating participants back to the topics, to team dynamics and objectives.

For more information please find the full articles here:

For more on the benefits of play, also see Brigid Schulte’s book:

Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time.