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.

Making The Business Case for Playspace

The most common challenge I hear from organizational stakeholders is that they need to be able to make the business case for the so-called soft strategies before they can get buy-in from their colleagues. The idea that strategies that engage the whole person are soft, while those that target operational aspects of organizational life are worthwhile, overlooks the very core of organizational success—the living, breathing people who must fulfill its mission each day. Without engagement, without playspace for innovating, learning, and changing, the best that organizations can hope for is compliance. Unfortunately compliance is not enough to ensure organizational success. People do not challenge each other’s ideas, explore alternative scenarios, or persevere through complex issues and obstacles out of compliance; they do so out of commitment (Senge, Roberts, Boss, Smith, & Kleiner, 1994).

Commitment is fostered by engagement, and engagement is fostered in playspace. A study conducted by Patrick Kulesa (2006), global research director at Towers Perrin, of 664,000 employees from around the world showed a significant difference in the business success of companies in which workers were highly engaged and those with low engagement scores. Their research showed a 52 percent gap in operating income between high- and low-engagement companies, a 13 percent growth in net income for high-engagement companies versus a 3.8 percent decline in low-engagement companies, and a 27.8 percent growth in earnings per share for high-engagement companies versus an 11.2 percent decline for low-engagement companies. There is a direct link between spaces that inspire high engagement and profitability.

From: Meyer, Pamela. From Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing Through Dynamic Engagement (Jossey-Bass, 2010)

–References–
Kulesa, P. (2006). Engaged employees help boost the bottom line [Electronic Version]. HR.com, 2. Retrieved April 15, 2009 from http://tinyurl.com/qyw45x.

Senge, P. M., Roberts, C., Boss, R. B., Smith, B. J., & Kleiner, A. (1994). The fifth discipline field book: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.

What if you don’t have leadership buy-in to create playspace?

In these first few weeks since From Workplace to Playspace has been out I have had the pleasure of sharing some of its key concepts with a wide range of audiences, including creativity and innovation experts, MBA and training and development graduate students, managers and employees, and HR professionals. One of the most consistent questions I have received so far is “What if you don’t have leadership buy in to create playspace in your organization?”

My response to this comes in two, seemingly contradictory, parts:

1) We all can make choices and behave in ways that influence the quality of our conversations, collaborations and overall experience of engagement at work.

2) Significant organizational change requires the support and buy-in from leaders and key stakeholders.

The first part of the response is at the core of From Workplace to Playspace: we must all take responsibility for the quality of our own work experience and address the dimensions and dynamics that are within our span of influence. Because playspace is created in the present moment in the midst of conversations, collaborations, co-creations, learning and change we each can take responsibility for our own mindset and behavior in each specific context. For example, if I show up to a meeting with a mindset that this is a waste of my time, and no one ever has any fresh ideas or perspectives to share and I behave in ways that don’t encourage new thinking, I will very likely have exactly this experience. However, if I choose to shift my mindset to one in which I believe there is room for the play of new ideas and for people to play new roles and I take responsibility to share and provoke such new perspectives and capacities, there is a good chance I will have a different, more engaged experience. This is the essence of my playspace mantra: Give Permission & Take Responsibility. Anyone in the organization, at any level can put this into practice within their span of influence and create more playspace in the present moment.

The second part of my response to this question is also true. When large-scale, organization-wide change at the level of systems, process and culture are necessary, buy-in from organizational leaders and key stakeholders is essential. The people who have the biggest influence on whether or not a change initiative is successful, or a new mindset takes hold are employees’ immediate supervisors, managers and key-stakeholders. When people at all levels of the organization see their leaders changing their behavior and mindset, and willing to acknowledge that they themselves may at times have been one of the blocks to organizational innovating, learning and changing, then others are likely to change their mindset and behavior as well. In this way, organizational leaders also serve as permission-givers and responsibility-takers.

For more examples of how people at all levels of organizations are doing just this, read From Workplace to Playspace and return to playspace.biz in the coming weeks when we start posting brief videos of playspace success stories.

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?

What if your work was fun?

This 2 minute video is a great example of what a difference a little fun makes in our desire to do things, even things we know we “should” do (like exercise) and things we intend to do (like learn a new skill).

Inserting a little fun helps create playspace which entices us to engage in activities we might otherwise avoid/put off, and it energizes us and leaves us more open to new ideas, perspectives, and generally more connected to our fellow humans.

What if we spent a little more time thinking about ways to make key aspects of organizational life more fun?

Ah . . . the (New Year’s) space!

One of the things I love about the start of the new year is that it seems to open up so many possibilities for new beginnings. In the last few days I have had several conversations with friends and colleagues about what they are looking forward to in this shiny new decade, and what changes they are making. It doesn’t matter if the changes are health and fitness-related, family, personal development, or professional—they all seem possible with this new expanse of space.

For me, much of my optimism about the new year and the positive changes ahead is grounded in some of the best experiences of the past year. I have seen heightened engagement and innovation in my clients, huge strides made by my adult students, and exciting new frontiers in my own personal and professional life. All of these fuel my sense of what is possible in the new year, and are guiding me.

When I see people working at their best, it is with a sense of purpose as they are engaged in something they care about and that they know is making a difference. They are also doing so, in authentic communities where they feel support and encouragement and are also stretched and challenged. These themes are guiding me as I think about what I want to create in the new year and what conditions I need to create to ensure my success.

There also seems to be something to transparency and accountability. If you think so, too, you might want to check out this cool new web site, that helps you be accountable to yourself for the changes you want to make by putting cash on the line to keep you on track: http://www.stickk.com.