Reclaiming Play (at Work)

[Reprinted with permission from DePaul Workplace Learning blog]

If you are like most of us, you likely got the idea along the way that work and play are incompatible. Work is serious, focused and productive while play is silly, unfocused and unproductive. This belief was socialized into us from a very early age with parents and caregivers who shooed us away when we attempted to recruit a playmate with “Not now, honey, can’t you see I’m working?”

Pamela talks about putting more play into work in this recent First Business Interview

As it turns out individuals and organizations that chose not to believe that work and play must live in separate domains are thriving. Google, one of the most successful businesses of all time, lists on its website one of the “Top Ten Reasons to Work at Google”: ‘‘Work and play are not mutually exclusive: It is possible to code and pass the puck at the same time.’’

Google and many other organizations embrace two forms of play:

—   Diversionary

—   Engaging

Diversionary play is when we take a short break to play a game, stretch, participate in a contest. This type of play refreshes and energizes us, while building social bonds that are crucial to getting work done. Research also shows that when people return from diversionary play or short warm-up activities they are more creative and engaged (Conti, Amabile, & Pollack, 1995).

Engaging Play is when the work itself becomes a form of play. People are playing with new ideas, enthusiastically playing new roles, creating more play (flexibility) in the system and developing the capacity for improvised play. This form of play can come to life in a committee meeting, over coffee with a colleague or even working solo. The most important thing is that you are giving yourself permission to explore new ideas and perspectives and doing so from a place of intrinsic motivation.

Each of these forms of play reinforces the other. When we regularly take play breaks we return refreshed and energized to approach our work more playfully and creatively. When our work is a form of play, we are likely to enjoy diversionary activities with our colleagues and continue to build a culture of innovation, learning and change.

Conti, R., Amabile, T. M., & Pollack, S. (1995). The positive impact of creative activity: Effects of creative task engagement and motivational focus on college students’ learning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 1107-1116.

From Workplace to Playspace in High-Pressure Organizations

How do we create playspace in very serious, high-pressure, high-stakes environments? I have written about some notable examples of playspace in banking describing the high-engagement experience that Umpqua Bank co-creates each day in From Workplace to Playspace. But what about other high-stakes environments? What about in health care?

How do we make room for engagement, fresh ideas, and open communication when the stakes are literally life and death and there are never enough hours in the day?

Recently, an old friend from high school contacted me to let me know that he was in town for a medical conference. Before reaching out, my friend Dr. John Lanaghan, had poked around my website and without being asked, offered a beautiful answer to this question via email:

“I got to watch one of your recent interviews. Interesting. But I thought that wouldn’t work in a medical workplace–no time for play. Then I kept reflecting on it and realized (long story) how I noticed that it did. I had been at one office for 5 yrs and made an effort to enjoy my time with my co-workers by chatting, celebrating birthdays, kid activities, and playing when possible. Then 5 months ago I started splitting my time between two sites. Suddenly my old site was a bummer and the new location was a pleasure. After your video I realized that I had stopped doing the fun things with the old group, while the new job involved hospital rounds where there was lots of walking and talking and joking. Now I have made an effort to make it to lunch at the same time as my coworkers at the old place and some of the enjoyment of the job is returning.”

When we met for dinner the next night, John shared more about his work. He has spent much of his career in family medicine at the V.A. Medical Center in Iowa City, and had recently begun splitting his time providing palliative care, also in the V.A. system. He acknowledged the challenge of negotiating around large egos and the medical system itself. These were not insurmountable, however, as his own experience and efforts attest. John’s reflections show a deep and intuitive understanding of the ways we can create the space for the play of new ideas and connections in our everyday conversations and interactions. Playspace is not always (or even often) about our traditional conception of play—it is about the space that enables us to engage as whole human beings.

Thank you, John Lanaghan, M.D., for sharing your reflections and to all who co-create playspace doing extra-ordinary work in often challenging circumstances each day!

Three Ways Fools Foster Creativity

One of the most powerful influencers of the available space for new ideas and perspectives are the people who are willing to be “foolish” when everyone else around them is overly stressed, serious, or attached to their own ideas. It is particularly apt to celebrate these fools today, a day where we play practical jokes, take ourselves a little less seriously, and loosen our grip on our well-honed “brand identities.”

My father, pictured here, was the earliest “April Fool” in my life. In my formative years, he was an architect by day, as well as a master of silliness and innovation. There was no idea or adventure too outlandish to at least get air time, if not actual exploration and implementation—including designing a childhood fantasy room for me with no walls, hanging from the ceiling, and seriously considering building a small airplane in the garage (he was also a pilot) that he would fly to and from work using the pond behind our house as his landing strip.

As with most of our parental relationships, mine with my father, became more complicated than this early role he played for me. And, today, I choose to celebrate his foolishness and all of the playspace he gave me permission to explore in my own life and work. I invite you to celebrate the April Fools in your life, today, too, and acknowledge all of the ways they foster innovating, learning and changing around them:

April Fools Take Permission: They don’t wait around to find out what the rules are, or monitor their behavior for fear of what others might think or say. Permission-Taker’s foster creativity and learning by provoking our sensibilities, pushing the envelope and sometimes making us a bit uncomfortable. These permission-takers create more space for all of us to step out of our familiar ways of thinking, being and doing and risk a bit of foolishness ourselves.

April Fools Give Permission: By being the first, biggest and/or loudest to play around with new ideas, experiment with new identities, create more play in the system, and room for improvised play, April Fools give everyone else permission to do the same. The safety and encouragement they foster are essential for many people to risk the discomfort that comes with exploring the previously uncharted territory of innovating, learning and changing.

April Fools Help Us Lighten Up: I once heard a lab director report that he knew his scientists were on the brink of a new discovery when he heard laughter coming down the hallway. It is often in the midst of silliness when we can literally play around with new ideas and perspectives, and make break-through discoveries and insights.

Just as the fools and court jesters of the Middle Ages and beyond took permission to say things to royalty that others wouldn’t dare, when we ourselves risk foolishness, we can provoke fresh thinking and new perspectives, and help others loosen their grip on their cherished identities and routines. Long live the fool!

The Tryanny of the Task

The other day at the start of a meeting with my colleagues I noticed an interesting impulse. I knew we had a lot on the agenda and a relatively short time to move through it all. I had the impulse to abandon our few minute ritual of taking some Be. Here. Now. Time to get into our bodies, release distractions and become present to ourselves and the collaboration at hand. In my anxiousness to get to the task, I also considered dispensing with a brief creative warm-up, another ritual we have adopted to bring playspace to life in our collaborations.

Gratefully, when I gingerly proposed “diving in”, Brandy and Christian spoke up and brought me back to our shared commitment. It was humbling to see how I, facilitator and champion of all things playspace and creative collaboration, can also fall prey to the tyranny of the task. The draw to get on with business can so easily eclipse the very presence and life energy that allows us to show up to that business with our whole person, and in the spirit of collaboration and discovery.

One of the many delightful paradoxes and creative tensions in playspace is that when we embrace the process, the product is oh so much richer and our level of engagement and access to creativity so much deeper—as it was in our meeting the other day. We didn’t just check off our agenda items, but had new insights and ideas at each turn AND we did so within our agreed-upon time frame!

The good news is that when we have embedded and reinforced the values of playspace in the organization, even when we momentarily succumb to the siren song of the task, we will have colleagues