At its best, my ITK work is playful work. Silly work. Chaotic work. If ITK was a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, my personal alignment would definitely be Chaotic Playful. And yes, I know that’s not a real alignment. That’s why I picked it.

There’s a reason I take this approach and encourage my fellow ITK facilitators to do the same. There is a thoughtful and deliberate strategy beneath the mirth and mess I try to introduce in ITK sessions.

See, we spend a lot of time working with engineers and technologists. We are regularly called on to help serious-minded military leaders and government executives. As a rule, people in these groups tend to value structure, planning, order, discipline, predictability… crap like that. When these folks come to ITK, it’s generally because they are facing some big gnarly challenge that is resistant to being solved by status quo thinking. Their standard approach just isn’t cutting it. We aim to move participants out of their usual modes in order to help them explore new ideas and launch creative experiments. A strategy of playful chaos is a means to unlock creativity.

And of course, several of us have been in those same roles. We hold engineering degrees and have worn military uniforms. We’ve run up against the limitations of formal, official, tightly structured problem-solving methods. We know that playful approaches, however helpful and productive, don’t always come naturally to folks who grew up in those environments and who default to a more buttoned-up posture. We know we need to be nudged and encouraged to experiment and to lean in to the unknown. We all need to be shown how to do this, and we all need to be reassured that it’s ok to play, particularly when the problems are serious. And so we bring playful invitations and empathetic reassurances as strategic gifts to our ITK sessions.

It takes effort to bring a sense of fun and playfulness to this ITK thing. Or maybe “effort” is the wrong word. Maybe “intentionality” is what I’m looking for, or maybe “deliberate-ness.” But those terms feel a bit formal in the context of Chaotic Playfulness. Maybe it’s better to say it takes music and art and humor and imagination to bring a sense of playfulness into a room full of engineers. It also takes a touch of courage, and the good news is that playfulness emboldens. It’s easier to be brave when you’re also being playful.

So yes, an ITK session can get a little chaotic. Participants may occasionally feel off-balance, surprised by what happens next, or even briefly confused about the direction we’re heading. Those feelings are an important part of the innovation experience, and help to unlock people’s innate creativity. We find that bringing an explicitly playful approach helps people feel safe and supported as we do this challenging work together.

In closing, let’s take a moment to appreciate that last word: together. Our experience over the past few years has taught us that playfulness not only unlocks creativity and courage, it also builds community. Playfulness brings people together, which makes it an essential part of a successful ITK engagement.

(photo credit Bethany Ward)