What does the name “PlaySpace” mean to you? An artist may envision a studio filled with paints, a kiln or a block of stone and a few chisels. A child may imagine a giant pit filled with foam blocks and marshmallows. I envision a place where entrepreneurs assemble imaginary building blocks to create startups. To me, a “PlaySpace” is a beautiful thing. It’s the workbench, where a masterpiece is transformed from a naturally rough gem of an idea into a rough-cut business. It’s a place where entrepreneurs go to find their flow – that state of mind when one is completely immersed in a feeling of energized focus. It’s a drugless Adderall. Runners run, brewers brew and founders find. My PlaySpace is where a select few founders go to act like children while discovering their next great startup.
The marshmallow challenge (watch the Ted Talk), shows that kindergarteners can achieve more in less time than executives, MBAs or programmers. The marshmallow challenge asks teams to construct the tallest structure possible out of 20 pieces of spaghetti, 1 yard of tape and string, and 1 marshmallow that must be on top. Why is it that kindergarteners are best? The answer is that, kindergarteners
- have fun, (fun)
- change tactics quickly, (adaptability)
- disregard hierarchy among peers, (appropriate ego)
- don’t hesitate to jump in (initiative)
Kindergarteners jump into projects more bravely than the most daring executive team. In our PlaySpace, we encourage our entrepreneurs to behave as bravely as kindergarteners. We ask our entrepreneurs to clumsily try something bizarre – to construct a model startup in a day.
Finding Your Footing:
Simplistically, all we do for a PlaySpace is put awesome people in a room together with an awesome problem/solution and see what happens. At a slightly higher level, we remove some kinds of stressors and add others. We try to filter out certain types of trust issues (see my last blog on Jumpstarting Play Through Trust). Then we add mentors and challenges. In sprints, we ask our entrepreneurs to stand up models for various aspects of the startup. At the end of the day, we ask our entrepreneurs to present a startup built from the problem, solution, stats and experts we give them. The problem, solution, stats and experts might as well be spaghetti, tape, string and a marshmallow. The team that makes many clumsy tries will have tons of fun and can actually stand up a feasible startup in one day.
We’ve run only a few PlaySpace days, but so far we’ve had more successes than we expected. We consider a success to be a PlaySpace where the assembled team and Boulder BITS unanimously jump at the opportunity to continue working together on the project. We anticipated a twenty percent success rate with our experimental PlaySpaces – that’s four failed PlaySpaces for every one success. Remember, these are talented entrepreneurs with plenty of other great opportunities. So, getting a team to gel one in five attempts sounded like great odds. So far, we’ve had twice as many successes as failures – a stat that shocked me. We’re excited to collect more data and see what happens over the course of our portfolio. If we achieve even one success in three, we will beat our expectations and have an extremely profitable business model.
Why PlaySpaces Work?
We have a hypothesis as to why our PlaySpaces have exceeded our expectations so far. In my last blog I discussed that screening entrepreneurs for trust, allows them to play well with each other. While I think this is probably true, I also think that the name itself has something to do with our success. People who view entrepreneurial endeavors as “play” are more likely to jump into a “PlaySpace”. They are more likely to behave like kindergarteners when clumsily building a startup than your standard C-suite executive. We inadvertently filtered for those with a predisposition to fun, adaptability, appropriate ego and initiative.
Another hypothesis for or preliminary success is that we picked our teams with cognitive diversity in mind. The precept is that awesome team members challenge each other on behavior, judgment, process and value to the betterment of the team. So, we don’t look for a set of identical clones. Instead we bring on three team members with distinct talents and strong perspectives (see our prior post about the Three-Headed Monster: vision, technology and revenue). The three heads of our teams usually differ in behavior, judgment and process. We’ve had a roughly even diversity in gender so far, which may have also helped. While we haven’t found a good method for increasing other forms of diversity yet, we pledge to keep working hard to improve our teams’ diversity. While it is a moral good, diversity may well be Boulder BITS’ ticket to success.
If you’ve read “The Creator’s Code”, you know that the US Air Force uses OODA (observe, orient, decide and act) to train pilots better than any other nation. Awesome entrepreneurs act like fighter pilots – they see a target, they figure out how to get there, they decide to jump on the opportunity, and they jump. They repeat the process in rapid succession, thereby outmaneuvering any opponent. It may have nothing to do with the PlaySpace. It may have everything to do with the entrepreneurs themselves. It’s too early to tell.
After re-reading this blog I am cursing myself. Despite some fearful instincts, I’m adhering to one of my core values – Trust and Transparency. Here is why I’m cursing myself; by blogging about the PlaySpace, I may have interfered with the experiment. I’ve told my entrepreneurs that they should behave like kindergarteners and fighter pilots. I’ve told them to treat startups like marshmallows and spaghetti. I’ve explained the cognitive bias towards participating in a PlaySpace if you are more playful. This may result in a change of behavior, either during the PlaySpace or in the filtering process before the PlaySpace.
While my instincts tell me to light this blog on fire, I’m sticking to my core values – Trust and Transparency. I’m trusting my entrepreneurs to be even more awesome knowing their own cognitive biases. I can’t wait to see what happens to the success rates of the PlaySpace. Only time will tell. I’ll update you in a few months when we have a bit more data…
- 4 Most effective ways that teams work together: Transparent communication, Break down silos, Open minded people, and a solid foundational strategy (Glenn Lopis via Forbes)
- “You can’t just give someone a creativity injection. You have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them.” -Ken Robinson
- Trust is confidence born of two dimensions: character and competence. Character includes your integrity, motive, and intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, skills, results, and track record. Both dimensions are vital. –Stephen Cowey
Author: Jesse Lawrence
Founder and CEO of @Boulder_Bits also a Sci-fi lover, game theory strategist, and idea generator