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.

Creating the Agile Organization: Learning to Play Within the Givens

Sitting in the audience during any long-form improvised theatrical performance the importance of memory becomes readily apparent. One of the best-known long-form improvisations, “The Harold,” was developed by Del Close (Halpern, Close, & Johnson, 1994) and is performed several nights a week at Chicago’s IO (formerly Improv Olympic). Based on a single suggestion from the audience the players begin to “jam” together as they explore the interesting dimensions and associations with the suggestion. This jam session may start with a motion, sound, phrase, exclamation or any number of responses. As the players accept and explore these discoveries soon the first scene and characters emerge, and the players not directly involved on-stage retreat to the sidelines as intent participant-observers to the unfolding action.

 

Collectively, the players must hold both the original “given” (the audience suggestion) and all of the discoveries that emerge from that given. Their challenge is to use this organizational memory to fuel their discoveries, improvised characters and action over the next forty-five or so minutes. If their relationship to this memory is overly procedural (tied to successful bits and characters from past performances), they will not be able to continue to unfold the action and mine the givens for increasingly surprising discoveries, but fall into recursive routines enacting the original assumptions and one-dimensional dynamics.
Organizations are similarly challenged as others (Moorman & Miner, 1998a; Vera & Crossan, 2004) have described, impeded in their ability to improvise when they are overly tied to routines and procedures. However, memory of past routines and approaches can be useful raw material for a novel response to the unexpected (Moorman & Miner, 1998b).
Memory of the “givens” in improvisation, the original inspiration, the organizational vision, the boundaries of available resources, and ready access to various dimensions of knowledge (representational, reflective, and relational), as well as past organizational routines and effective responses are all dependent on a present moment lived experience that includes a relationship to the past and (in the case of vision and goals) the imagined future. This capacity is highly valued on the improv stage. Recently I brought a group of students to a performance at Chicago’s IO. During the post-show discussion a student asked the improvisers, “What quality or competence do you think makes someone a great improviser?” One of the seasoned players responded, “A high point of reference. By that I mean, someone who is well read, is up on current events and popular culture and can draw on any of it at just the right moment. That makes for a very rich improvisation.”
For improvisers both in the theater an organizational settings memory itself does not impede successful improvisation, but the individual’s  relationship to memory and the context (and culture) within which the improvisation is occurring. In other words, memory of the “way we’ve always done things” can be either a limiting routine, or (with “Yes, and…”) a springboard to a novel response.
Balancing Creativity and Constraint
When you think about the givens that you must play within in your organization or work, what systems, process and strategies do you use to help you maintain a lively relationship to them?
Halpern, C., Close, D., & Johnson, K. H. (1994). Truth in comedy: The manual of improvisation. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether.
Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998a). Organizational improvisation and organizational memory. Academy of Management Review, 23(4), 698-723.
Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998b). The convergence of planning and execution: Improvisation in new product development. Journal of Marketing, 62(3), 1—20.
Vera, D. M., & Crossan, M. (2004). Theatrical Improvisation: Lessons for organizations. Organizational Studies, 25(5), 727-749.

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!

Five Ways to Make Space for People to Play with New Ideas and Perspectives

As often as I balk at prescriptive approaches to creating playspace, I am asked for examples of how others are doing it in their organizations. Below is a short list of innovative approaches from a wide range of organizations. Some are from “From Workplace to Playspace,” others I have heard from workshop participants and readers around the country. I hope that you will be inspired and “get permission” from them to experiment with approaches that fit for your organization.

1) Warm-up Your Day. Umpqua Bank, a thriving regional community bank, featured in the book, begins every day across its more than 175 locations with something CEO, Ray Davis calls a “Motivational Moment.” Every single employee gathers in the lobby at each location to join in a group activity to boost their energy and enthusiasm for the day. Anyone can lead the session, and the only guidelines are that it cannot be political or religious in nature. This means that Umpqua associates start their day singing, dancing, improvising, playing games such as Marshmallow Dodge Ball and generally building the camaraderie, good will and focus that has landed them on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list the last four years in a row.

2) Warm-up Your Meeting. Research shows that people are more creative if they engage in some sort of light-hearted creative activity before they take on a new challenge (Conti, Amabile, & Pollack, 1995). Anything from 60 seconds of Be. Here. Now. time (see demonstration video) to engaging in a brainstorm about how to solve some seemingly impossible challenge (e.g. How can we eliminate world hunger? How can we become a totally paperless office? How can we use migrating birds to deliver our communications?), the more outlandish, silly and/or impossible the challenge, the better.

3) Argue a Different Point of View. Skilled debate teams regularly switch sides to become more adept at their craft. You can build your team’s critical thinking skills in a similar way. If you see a passionate debate come to a deadlock, ask the key proponents from each side to argue for another option. Ask others to list the pros and cons as they emerge. This is also an effective strategy if everyone seems to be getting cozy with one point of view. Step back and ask people to argue for the opposite view, or for a point of view that is not represented in the room (e.g. Play the role of the front-line worker, customer, student, child, non-English-speaking immigrant, senior citizen). What new possibilities emerge when you consider the other side? Are there ways to take these concerns into consideration?

4) Play. There are endless lists of games and contests that can bring more play (as in flexibility) in the system, levity, build relationships and open up more space for possibilities. Some of my favorites include Google’s “Pimp My Cubicle” Contest, and various guessing contests, such as those inviting employees to match baby pictures, hobbies, or pet photos with their owners. These have significant value in getting people to connect outside of their formal roles and responsibilities, which goes a long way in building relationships and social capital—that enhance collaboration and resource sharing.

5) Say, “Yes, and . . .” Anyone who has taken a basic improv class (or attended one of my playspace sessions) knows that “Yes, and . . .” is the secret to successful collaboration and idea generation. It is also key to making space for more possibilities. It simply means that we replace the word “but” with the word “and” and look for every opportunity to build on our colleagues’ ideas. Saying “yes” does not mean we are going to implement every idea, simply that we are willing to explore its possibilities. Most innovative solutions began as crazy impractical ideas that benefited from some generous “yes, and-ing.” Take it for a test drive and let me know how it worked for you!

This list is just a start. Please post your ideas for making more space for the play of new ideas and perspectives in the comment section below!

— 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.

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!

Purposeful Play

One of the common misconception about play is that it is necessarily purposeless, and therefore can’t possibly have any place in business. Harvard scholar and jazz pianist (and mentor) Frank Barrett calls improvised play a form of “disciplined imagination” reminding us that play can also be wildly productive and innovative.

What does purposeful play require?

Naming the Purpose: Whether the purpose is to play a game, energize a team, or create space to generate new product ideas, naming the purpose of the play is essential for engaging and aligning the passion and energy of all collaborators.

Making Space for the Play of New Ideas: This means valuing the space and its necessity for ideas to play within it enough to: Not check email, answer the phone, and engage in distractions, as well as fostering the relational, generative, safe, timeful and provocative dynamics necessary for engaged creative collaboration.

The Discipline of Playing Time: Star athletes and breakout artists mature their talent by dedicating hours and hours of playing time—not now and then, but routinely, with dedication and commitment that values both the process and product of their play.

Curiosity: Approaching the playing space with an attitude of inquiry, rather than a singular focus on perfection. Playspace is space for experimentation and exploration. People who play with purpose are always looking for a better, more interesting, and innovative way.

Persistence and Perseverance: People who are fully engaged are much more likely to persevere through the inevitable twists and turns of innovating, learning and changing. Returning to the essential core that sparked your passion for playing in the first place can regenerate the motivation and commitment to forge ahead and engage the discipline that allows the imagination to flow again.

Purposeful play transcends the work-play dualism that leads many to dismiss play as inappropriate for serious endeavors. What could be more serious for business than a commitment to making space for innovating, learning and changing?

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