BBD CEO Summit – Matt Brown

Matt Brown is President and Co-Founder big BOING. His introduction, by Judith Thompson, played up that he attracted their attention when he said that play you are immersed in as a child  drives the creativity you have as an adult. Apparently that rolled through to the way he had set up his company.

Trained as a lawyer, he realised he anted to create things, but wasn’t a creator but even more so wasn’t a lawyer. He did like playing though, and so started a toy company 20 years ago – a successful one it seems.

Creative Capacity (or confidence)

He distills what we learn into information, skills and processes. Information is increasingly available on demand. He is interested in processes, which are used to create skills.

He sees a continuum of processes, ranging from the simple to the more complex and meaningful. Explore, discover, classify, remember, predict, plan, organise, try, experiment, demonstrate, imagine and create. Create is what innovative means can I use to express my new ideas. Imagine is what new ideas can I think of, while demonstrating is explaining what he has learned.

Curiosity allows us to stumble upon surprising and strategic insights – we need to be curious, then use imagination before we can create.

‘The smartest person in the room is the most strategically creative” – not the person that knows the most. (That resonates nicely with this strategy consultant, but I’d also argue that the room needs to be very smart and well informed before the strategically creative people get a look-in, and that the room dynamics drives the creative smartness, not the person.)

Purposeful play

There are three ways in which we learn – play, experience and instruction. Play and experience in particular have overlap, but these are represented as a Venn diagram. (I originally learned how to drive computers from play). He uses the example of Tyrannosaurus Rex – learning by rote, learning by visiting a museum and learning by playing.

Apparently we have 9 different play patterns, including dress up. He shows a product his company has released- dinosaur feet and head that make the appropriate sounds. (Stomp stomp stomp. That sounds awesome.)


The nine types of play are defined separately, but can be integrated into our lives and businesses.  They can, and are often, be combined.

Pretend play – roleplaying and directing real and fantasy scenarios. We do this in business when we rehearse presentations or pitches before the real thing.

Game Play – all games from sports to strategy with set or spontaneous rules. There are infinite or finite games, with rules changing to ensure the longevity of infinite games. These are great for developing thinking.

Sensory Play – seeking and having experiences purely for sensory development. Swings, roller coasters and so forth. This apparently helps people declutter their mind and get to intuition. People can do this through running, meditation and so forth.

Gross Motor Play – involving large body movements that build fitness. Benefits cognitive and social capabilities.

Manipulative Play – producing fine motor actions or in combination with gross motor play. This includes building, magic.

Construction Play. Assembling pieces to create patterns, structures symbolic representations.

Music Play. Exploring learning and expressing oneself through music, song and dance. This can be solo but is often done in teams, and requires a high degree of teamwork.

Book Play  exploring books and reading to writing expositions.

Art Play – using materials like paint, pencils and clay to express ideas, feelings and narratives.


Missing for me is social playing, playing in teams. It doesn’t fit the taxonomy, but all of these can be done in groups. Indeed Matt sees social playing as an important indicator for ability to perform collaborative work.

The hand programs the brain. (As the brain forms the neurons are connected in certain ways – wiring – and this is driven first by physical engagement with the world.) Matt qutes a scientist – “Play designs the architecture of the brain.”

Matt groups the types of processes, and says that playing is important for discovery and creation.

  • Play to be curious: Explore, discover
  • Instruction: classify, remember, predict, plan, organise,
  • Play to create: Try, experiment, demonstrate, imagine and create.

Play (in business say) is intrinsically motivating rather than obligatory. Making work more playful will drive people much more effectively than mandates, and a company purpose and mission that reflects this is important. Play is active, creative, change oriented and has a positive approach to failure. “The opposite of play is depression, not work” – Stuart Brown.

(All this explains why I only blog when I feel like it – I don’t want it to feel like work and so the writing is driven by passion.)

Better Business

The first example was not to say no (a key to good improv), but to go with the flow. He used play speak – such as “Yes, and” rather than “no, but”, to help a team turn around from being stuck and generate new product ideas.

Make Fun – Klutz is a company inside his Boing, and aspires to be a premium toy brand. However they were driving sales through sales – by price. They moved away from that, and embraced the ‘make people laugh’ personality of the brand. They launched a program with no plan where each person inside the company had to pick one thing to make the company more fun. At the entrance there is a ‘take your own affirmation’ set-up, which delivers things like “you are beautiful” to anyone who enters. (This is a neat twist from the standard everyone should improve the business – and a lot more likely to succeed.)

Try to say yes – no matter what the idea. This pushed authority levels down (bosses approved things).

Change perspective. They invented a fort making system, but felt it wasn’t right. They only figured it out when they played with it as kids – getting inside the fort. The play experience after it was made was critical. The resulting Superfort was a great success. At Klutz the design team used to present to the sales team who would reject or accept the ideas, an unpleasant process. They transformed the quarterly pitch meeting and asked the sales people instead to try to make the ideas better. All of the ideas got better, the design team could absorb the implicit criticisms more readily and the sales team feel like a genuine part of the process, and the relationships got better.


Published by Lance Wiggs