Be a Hurdler: Do More with Less!

Brendan Boyle, IDEO, IDEO Play Lab


Brendan Boyle, Partner at IDEO and Founder of the IDEO Play Lab, looks at the roles designers inhabit… And why the toy industry needs Hurdlers!

Recall your childhood – the fun and joy we had doing role-play! You could be a firefighter, doctor, gymnast, tennis star or dozens of other roles. The toy industry even has a dedicated category called ‘Role-Play’ with all sorts of big hits – one of my favourites is Hulk Hands. So fun!

Whether you’re a CEO, an SVP, or a new designer, those are all roles you play. We’ve all heard the question: “What’s your role at the company?” If you’re a parent, you know how to quickly switch out of your office role when a shout from your child comes through into your parent role.

Imagine you’re in a meeting where you’re so excited to share your new concept, strategy or brand idea. Your presentation’s going great, there’s lots of encouragement, heads are nodding and the wind is in your sails! That is, until someone says… “Let me play Devil’s advocate!” Argh! Why is that the most well-known role that almost anyone can play? It may have its uses – that I don’t doubt – but might I suggest we get used to playing alternative roles at work.

Best-selling author and fellow IDEO partner, Tom Kelley, who has been a creative inspiration for my entire career, talks about ten additional roles in his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation. The point of the book is to offer strategies around overcoming the Devil’s advocate and driving creativity throughout your organisation.

Several of the archetypes in Tom’s book resonate with me. Take the ‘Anthropologist’, for example. The Anthropologist is about getting out into the world and observing kids as a point of inspiration – and as a reminder of the importance of human-centred design.

Another role I love is the ‘Experimenter’. This role stresses the importance of experimenting with tinker models and rough prototypes, thereby getting to something new and unique. The Experimenter also knows the importance of thinking with their hands when they build, whether it’s a physical or digital product. The goal is always to make something tangible.

There’s one role that I feel is a strong trait of any entrepreneur, designer, inventor or leader in the toy industry: the ‘Hurdler’. This role requires doing more with less! That might be a great trait of innovation in our industry. One doesn’t always have to tackle a challenge head-on… Hurdlers go over, or might even find a way to sidestep.

The IDEO Play Lab is a team of inventors and solvers who are used to way more rejections than yeses, but we listen to the feedback and keep trying. When Cepia Toys had the huge hit Zhu Zhu Pets in 2009, I had a half-dozen toy executives call me to congratulate me on placing our item since I’d been pitching it for years. Except it wasn’t our item. We’d been pitching something extremely similar, but with no luck – and I’d never even heard of Cepia.

Instead of being disappointed, my IDEO colleague, toy inventor Adam Skaates, quickly joined me to pitch our version to Cepia – and we went to contract with them. We didn’t get the big win, but we found a way around that hurdle for a small victory.

Seldom do we invent something and sell it quickly. Pictionary Air, that we developed with Sound Machine, took eight years to license to Mattel. There were so many hurdles to get over on that award-winning toy!

My focus at Stanford and at IDEO is Design for Play. The opposite of play isn’t work… It’s boredom. Play is lifelong. Play makes us resilient – we’re ok with quick failures in order to learn and eventually have more successes. We’re in the wonderful toy industry, which I might suggest we reframe as the ‘Play Industry’.
Nurture the Hurdlers in your organisation. Cherish them. They will do more with less and they will use their entrepreneurial spirit to find a way over walls or turn them into doors.

As an aside, I ran hurdles in high school and one year in college. Good form, but not enough speed. However, lots of endurance and persistence!

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