Reflections on the Co-creative Process: Giving, Getting & Taking Permission

Reprinted From SNL Writing News: Writing information for DePaul University’s School for New Learning faculty and staff

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

SNL faculty member & author, Pamela Meyer, discusses her latest book Permission: A Guide to Generating More Ideas, Being More of Yourself and Having More Fun at Work

1. What inspired you to write this book?

I discovered the power of permission during my research on adults’ experiences learning to improvise, and which I wrote about in my last book, From Workplace to Playspace (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Improvisation initially feels very risky for most people and when someone (or several people) help co-create a safe, dynamic space for risk-taking, the chances that real learning and transformation will happen greatly increase. When people feel they have permission via someone else taking a risk and not being ridiculed (or even receiving positive feedback), a wonderful shift starts to happen: people start generating more ideas, being more of themselves and having more fun (which is why we made this the subtitle of the book). This concept extends to all areas of adult life, especially at work, where we often gauge our behavior based on the social cues around us. We may hear people talking about the importance of risk-taking, playing around with ideas and being authentic, but unless people actually see the behavior in action, they may not feel they have actual permission to do so.

The concept of permission and the role of the permission-giver resonated a lot with readers and workshop participants as I traveled the country talking about the book, as well as with, graphic facilitator, Brandy Agerbeck (with whom I have collaborated often over the years). Brandy is very interested in giving people permission to draw and to explore their capacity for visual thinking and communication. After an initial informal conversation to play around with the idea of the book, we decided to meet to brainstorm a long list of permissions we sometimes need to remind ourselves to give, take and get. These include permission to be silly, use our whole bodies, question, take a break and many more.

2. Permission was a collaborative effort with graphic facilitator Brandy Agerbeck. Can you tell us a little bit about the co-creation process?

After brainstorming our initial list of about 35 permissions, Brandy and I met a few times to discuss the dimensions of each permission and help each other think as playfully and expansively as possible about each of them. This served as inspiration for me to begin writing and Brandy to begin playing with various images that reflected and/or evoked each permission. While we each worked to our strengths (me, writing and Brandy, creating the images), we chose to call ourselves co-creators, rather than the more traditional titles of author and illustrator. We felt that separate titles didn’t fully honor how we worked together, which was very collaborative and co-creative. We soon discovered that Amazon does not have the option to list yourself as a “Co-creator”, so you will see us both listed as authors, which doesn’t accurately reflect our collaboration either. We are clearly breaking new ground here.

3. What was your process for writing, revising, and editing this book? For example, did you work with an outline, did you experience writer’s block, did you have outside reviewers, how long did it take, how many drafts, any major changes to organization/structure of the ideas/sections?

In terms of our individual processes, I call myself a “turtle” when it comes to writing. I like to write very first thing in the morning, at least five days a week, though often I only write for 30-45 minutes. I gave myself a quota over the summer of drafting three permissions a week. Every Friday I would send the week’s writing to Brandy, who would read the permissions, make notes to provide feedback, and begin working on the images. If I am a turtle, Brandy is more of a rabbit in her work process. She likes to work in bursts, so would often wait until she has 10 or 12 images to start working on and then hole up in her studio to work on her drafts. We would then meet in person go through our drafts, each giving the other feedback and continuing our brainstorming, which would send us back to work on the next iteration individually. Along the way we shared sections with trusted readers for feedback, and also decided to cut a few of the permissions that either seemed a bit redundant, or just didn’t excite us as much as the others.

I can’t say I experienced writer’s block per se, because of my discipline to write every morning. Just like exercising when we don’t feel like it, or going to work when we might rather be doing something else—writing is a discipline. I would sometimes move on to work on another section of the book, if nothing was coming to me thinking about the section in front of me, and I always wrote something each day. We continued this iterative process through to the end of the summer and by early September agreed that we had a solid draft of the book. At this stage we moved into production mode.

4. What made you decide to forgo the traditional publishing route and use self-publishing?

There were two main reasons we chose to self-publish this book 1) Speed to publication and 2) Creative control. My first two books were represented by agents and published by major publishers. These were generally good experiences and certainly useful in building my credibility as an expert in the field of creativity and organizational change. At the same time, with traditional publishing, there are a lot of other stakeholders in the process from the agent, who wants to choose a publisher who offers the biggest advance (not always the best choice for any given book) to the marketing department, who may have the final say on your title and cover design (which might have little to do with the actual contents of the book) and list price. Brandy and I had a very clear vision of what this book would look and feel like, as well as our target audience. We did not want to get caught up in convincing others of the value of our vision, nor did we want to slow the process down. If we had gone with a traditional publisher, we would likely be looking at a publication date of up to a year later than when we were actually able to get the book out. We both wanted to have it out quickly to build on the momentum of the Workplace to Playspace readership and also to have it out in time for holiday gift-giving. By self-publishing via Amazon’s CreateSpace service, we were able to control all of the creative choices, the cover price and the timing.

5. What specific publishing services did you use from Amazon? Would you self-publish again? If so, would you purchase any additional services, or do without any of the services you used this time?

We were lucky to have between us many of the competencies necessary to take the book from conception through to publication. I had a lot of knowledge about the overall production and distribution process and Brandy had the skills and talent to do the full layout with images, design our cover and properly prepare the pdf document for uploading. We did pay for light editorial services to catch typos, unintended word repetition, etc.

We would both definitely consider self-publishing again. If I were not working with someone with a design background, I would consider using their design services, and would definitely use the editorial services. Both were more cost-effective than hiring these separately from outside vendors, and we were happy with the overall quality and efficiency of the process.

6. Do you have any words of advice or tips for aspirant writers?

Writing Advice: Think of writing as a discipline. Don’t wait for inspiration or until you get the perfect writing space, your house is clean, or you get one more credential. Pick a topic and write.

My two cents on publishing: Before you decide whether or not to self-publish or to explore traditional publishing, you need to be able to answer the question: what do I hope to accomplish with this book? If your primary goal is to get something out quickly to a target audience with whom you already have a relationship, self-publishing may be your best option. If you really want the additional credibility and visibility that comes with a mainstream publisher, and are willing to let go of some control and are patient about the time it takes, consider an established traditional publisher.

As you make your decision, pay attention to how the publishing and bookselling industry is changing. More people are shopping for and buying their books online, as opposed to in bookstores than ever before. Many also prefer e-books, which is why we were sure to have our book converted to Kindle. Book buyers are making decisions based on word-of-mouth marketing, price and convenience, more than the name of the publisher. If you have a great marketing plan, strong social media presence and a good reputation in your field, self-publishing may be for you.

What Enables Organizations to be Agile?

Agility is perhaps the most essential capacity for organizations today. A recent study by MIT showed that agile organizations grow revenue 37% faster and are 30% more profitable than non-agile companies (Glenn, 2009).

The two most salient factors influencing organizational agility, according to a comprehensive review of research done in the field (Bottani, 2010) are:

1.    Employees role and competency in the company

2.    Technology: Virtual enterprise tools and metrics and the adoption of information technology systems

What does this mean for your learning and development strategies?

Confidence and Competence Development.  Every organization must have an explicit strategy to help individuals, workgroups and entire divisions develop the capacity to effectively improvise in response to the unexpected and unplanned, as well as to spot and respond to emerging opportunities and trends. This involves more than improving communication and resource sharing, though these are also key. It means providing significant experiential learning opportunities for individuals and groups across sectors to develop their competence and confidence in thinking on their feet, acting in the moment and effectively drawing on all available resources—human, material, technological and intuitive.

Technology Infrastructure. Agility also demands that all organizational participants have the tools and resources to quickly access the organization’s knowledge network and relationships. A simple knowledge management system is no longer sufficient for agility; individuals need to be able to quickly access the people and capacity of the organization, not simply search decontextualized bits of data.

Research also shows that people need more than just awareness and access to their knowledge networks; they need relational connections and context to effectively use the network (Cross and Parker, 2004). Learning and development approaches that combine the development of social capital, along with awareness of and access to the wisdom and experience of the network are thriving. Creating a technology infrastructure that provides the stability and flexibility for responding to emerging opportunities, along with enhanced confidence and competence in improvisation is an unbeatable strategy for creating the agile organization.

What strategies are you using to enhance agility in your organization?

Bottani, E. (2010). Profile and enablers of agile companies: An empirical investigation. International Journal of Production Economics, 125, 251-261.

Cross, R., & Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. Cambridge: Harvard Business School.

Glenn, M. (2009). Organisational agility: How business can survive and thrive in turbulent times: Economist Intelligence Unit.

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.

The Positive Principle: Building Your Capacity for Improvisation and Appreciative Inquiry

The Positive Principle(D. L. Cooperrider, Sorensen, Whitney, & Yaeger, 2000: 20) is a central and guiding principle of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), as well as its theoretical foundation [NOTE: For fuller introduction, download Organizational Improvisation & Appreciative Inquiry:] Not based in deficit thinking, rabid searches for “problems” or organizational challenges, AI looks for “that which gives life to the organization.” For legions of executives and MBA graduates this is indeed a radical, even heretical concept. Many business people build their credibility and careers on their ability to identify and solve problems. Even I, as I was starting my consulting practice, was counseled to identify “the problem to which I was the answer.”

My experience bears out this ingrained “problem focus.” Working with clients and students using the AI process, I have noticed how often they are tempted to shift into “problem-solving” mode, or to ask deficit-focused questions once the appreciative inquiry is underway. Here, additional competence in the practice of principles of improvisation can help AI participants leverage the positive, forward movement of the inquiry toward its positive potential.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential (Cooperrider, Sorensen et al. 2000: 5).

Improvisation, like AI, is founded on a positive principle—the principle of Say, “Yes, and . . .” (Meyer, 2000: 63). Improvisers must accept (or say, “yes”) to anything they discover on stage, receive from another player or the audience. They cannot stop at acceptance, however, they must move the action forward by adding their own discoveries (saying, “and . . .”). This positive orientation is the foundation for improvisation success, as it is for all creative collaborations in business and life.

The conceptual framework of AI is most often translated into practice as the 4-D process (D. Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000; Hammond, 1998; Watkins & Mohr, 2001). AI, not only supports positive organizational change, but helps individuals build some of the skills necessary for successful improvisation in the workplace. The practice of AI also contributes to organizational memory via storytelling and while giving individuals opportunities to cultivate their improvisation competencies and foster a culture where improvisation is more likely to be successful. Additionally, the inquiry process is grounded in the lived experiences of organizational participants. To discover the positive core of these experiences, AI participants must listen closely and without judgment—essential competencies for improvisation.

At the center of the “4-D Process” of AI is inquiry into personal positive experiences related to the topic. Concert pianist and consultant, Michael Jones writes Creativity involves living in the question—Improvising involves a living inquiry into what is. When our conditioned knowledge and theories no longer serve us, we need to inquire more deeply into things as they are. This creates a space for more subtle insights to emerge (1997: 60).

An inquiry of quality and depth, grounded in individual experience also promotes organizational learning as framed by Crossan, Lane and White (1996) as including intuition, as well as interpreting, integrating and institutionalizing new discoveries. Individual learning, within this framework, includes changes in cognition and/or behavior. Integrated learning represents a change in both cognition and behavior. An inquiry that invites participants to share their experiences and make (sometimes new) meaning of them, then, may enhance this integration process while building individual experience, comfort and capacity to “live in the question” and improvise.

Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (2000). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. In D. L. S. Cooperrider, Jr., Peter F.; Whitney, Diana; Yaeger, Therese (Ed.), Appreciative inquiry (pp. 3-27). Champaigne, IL: Stipes. Cooperrider, D. L., Sorensen, J., Peter F., Whitney, D., & Yaeger, T. (Eds.). (2000). Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change. Champaign, IL: Stipes. Crossan, M., Lane, H. W., & White, R. E. (1996). Organizational learning: Toward a unifying framework.Unpublished manuscript, London, Ontario. Hammond, S. A. (1998). The thin book of appreciative inquiry (2nd ed.). Plano, TX: Thin Book Publishing. Jones, M. (1997). Getting creativity back into corporate decision making. Journal for Quality & Participation, 20(1), 58-62. Meyer, P. (2000). Quantum Creativity: Nine principles to transform the way you work. Chicago: Contemporary Books. Watkins, J. M., & Mohr, B. J. (2001). Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

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!

Outing Other People’s Humanity

At this year’s Academy of Management conference in Montreal, artist and scholar, Nancy Adler shared that she sees her role as “outing other people’s humanity” while speaking at one of several events in her honor. As she reflected on a few colleagues who were closet musicians, visual artists, and/or participated in their community in other generative ways, she challenged us by asking us why we, in business and scholarship, haven’t begun to think about the beautiful?

Adler followed this with three more provocative questions about beauty and leadership.

1. Can we reclaim our ability to see the beauty that’s there?
2. Can we reclaim our ability to imagine what’s beautiful?
3. Can we reclaim our role as leaders and human beings to make the world a more beautiful place?

If we truly take up Adler’s challenge and surrender to living these particular questions, I believe we cannot help but out our own and each others’ humanity. For as we reclaim our ability to see, imagine and create the beautiful, the artificial barriers that separate our playful self from our serious work self will fall away, as will barriers separating our goal-oriented self, from our process self; our indoor self from our outdoor self, our artist self from our management self, and all of our other dualistic selves.

As a gay person, I have long held the position that to “out someone” is a violation that could potentially put the outed person in serious harm’s way—emotionally, socially, and even physically—depending on the context. In this case, outing should, except in cases of extreme hypocrisy (a vocally anti-gay public figure) be the sole business of the individual.

Adler has gotten me thinking, though. Just as more people take the risk of coming out about their sexual orientation makes the climate safer and more accepting for all (research shows that people who have a close acquaintance or family member who is gay are far more likely to be accepting), should we not be encouraging others to come out around other aspects of their humanity? Will this not make it safer and more acceptable to be human—to bring our whole selves to work, and into all aspects of our lives?

What, then, is our role as leaders, facilitators, and participants in co-creating the space in which it is safe enough to come out?

What beauty might we discover and co-create together when we reclaim this responsibility?

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.

Do We Make a Difference?

When I am struggling in the in-between spaces of my work, between client projects, speaking engagements and in the necessarily self-propelled spaces of my fragmented life as a writer, speaker, educator and consultant, I seem to return to the same question as many: “Do I make a difference?”

In this most recent round of reflection, the memory of my mother’s oncology nurse, Phyllis floated up. Phyllis had worked on the unit for nine years during which time she had shepherded countless families through their journey with cancer—some to happy endings, many through the painful final days. Phyllis also had a deeply personal relationship to cancer, having lost her own husband to the disease only a year before.

In the months my mom was in and out of the oncology unit at Baptist East Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, Phyllis became a touchstone. She seemed to be the one on duty when we received both promising news, and major setbacks. Through it all, she was present, compassionate, and encouraging. She treated me and my brother, and our partners, with kindness and as people with whole lives, which until only recently had nothing to do with cancer, hospitals, surgeons and doctors.

For four months I remained fiercely hopeful for my mother’s recovery. In the fifth month, in a tearful consult with her oncologist and surgeon it was clear that there was no more to be done, nothing more to do but be present and lovingly care-full to my mom during her final days. I spent most of those days quietly sitting by her bedside, listening to the click click click of the machines, watching the drip drip drip of the IV and starring at my mothers face, hands and feet studying every freckle and vein—trying to memorize her so I would never forget even a strand of hair in her all-too-soon absence.

On one of these days, as I sat starring, studying and listening in the dim room Phyllis walked into the room to change my mother’s IV bag. I looked up and was struck by her consistent grace. For a moment, I set my grief aside and asked her how she did it. How did she, with all she had seen, day in and day out, the pain, the loss, the loss of her own husband, and the too few and far between miracles—how did she do it? How did she show up, day after day and still maintain her presence and good cheer?

Phyllis responded to me with a simple wisdom, that I call up to this day–in times of frustration, and in the completely non-life-threatening in-between spaces of my life. She stopped, in mid-hanging of the IV bag and said, “You know, honey, I think all of us here would tell you the same thing. And we don’t even have to talk about it—we all know that we can’t control this disease, or necessarily impact the final outcome, but each and every one of us on the floor knows that we make a difference.” And with that, she finished hanging the IV bag and slipped out.

A few days later, an hour before Mother’s Day, my mom slipped away. With me, my partner, my brother and his wife all by her side. And while this was not the outcome any of us hoped, prayed, and pleaded for—while her death sent us tumbling into our grief—to this day, each and every one of us knows that we, too, made a difference. We made a difference to my mom and each other by our presence, love and care. We couldn’t save her from the disease, and we still made a difference.

This is the lesson I learn and re-learn in the spaces in-between, when I can be prone to morbid self-reflection: that there are very few things we have ultimate control over: whether clients follow through on our guidance, or their commitments, whether people buy (and, then actually read) our books, whether the new leadership builds on the progress of their predecessors, or a thousand other uncontrollable twists and turns of the human and natural systems in which we work. AND, each of us, if we show up with presence, integrity, and care, living and working at the top of our capacity, can rest assured that, just as Phyllis does, each day we, too, make a difference.

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.