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!

Follow the Energy

One of the consistent themes I have seen in everything from improvised scenes on stage to creative collaboration sessions and entire organizations is that when people follow the energy of what is most compelling and engaging they are more successful. Appreciative Inquiry is based on the principle that in every human system something works, and if we tap into the energy of what is working we will likely tap into what people care about and their generative capacity to create positive futures. Just as plants grow toward the sunlight so, too, do human systems grow toward their generative core. This does not mean that we ignore obvious problems, or put on rose colored glasses that only reveal the positive. It means that we use the generative energy of what drives us to co-create new and better possibilities.

In an improvised scene generativity is fostered by the practice of saying, “Yes, and . . .” or accepting a fellow players idea (or “offer”) and building on it with something that heightens and explores what is most interesting. In creative collaboration, it plays out similarly when people come together to generate new possibilities by building on each idea, rather than finding every flow, and in organizational systems it means following the people, processes and products that are generating most interest and attention, as well as revenue. In our personal and professional lives, it also means not laboring over relationships and projects that simply are not coming to life, or life-giving. I regularly have opportunities to relearn this lesson, and each time I have discovered that when I move on from a situation that is no longer generative, it frees up additional energy and resources for even more fruitful possibilities.

For more on the relationship between improvisation and appreciate inquiry, see my article at http://www.meyercreativity.com/articles/.

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.

Imaginative Variations: Transforming Fear into Playspace

This past fall (2009) DePaul’s Center to Advance Education for Adults invited Margaret Wheatley to give the opening keynote and lead an afternoon workshop at a conference we titled “Thriving in Transition.” I hadn’t realized the experience would include a chance to co-create a transformative playspace.

Map of Margaret Wheatley’s Thriving in Transition Keynote, by Brandy Agerbeck

During the afternoon workshop we were invited to form small groups where we first told one version of our story, and then (after reconvening with new people) told a completely different version of our story. My favorite story was when, in response to the question “how do you respond to aggression?,” a very conservative-looking woman from the Chicago Archdiocese explained that she immediately began rapping when faced with aggression. In great detail she told us how she defused even the most violent aggressors by incorporating their criticisms and threats into her rap songs, and even occasionally broke into the latest street dance moves.

We delighted ourselves and each other with this lived experience of telling playful imaginative variations of our stories. Tales of fear and insecurity transformed into courageous acts; experiences of anger and frustration became filled with compassion and hope; and stories of victimization became doorways to empowered new beginnings.

Ever since that experience and the energy created in it, I have slowed down a bit and—if not in the actual moment of my story-telling, soon after—imagined other versions of the story. Perhaps the person cutting me off in traffic was not consumed in their own self-centeredness, but rushing to the aid of a sick child; perhaps the angry outburst at the board meeting was not an attack, as much as an expression of fear of the uncertain future. Each imaginative variation of the story gives us the power to reposition ourselves, make different choices and have different responses.

This practice seems particularly resonant with playspace which invites us to play new roles and create more play in the system.

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

What was the best thing about . . . ?

Today is the day after Thanksgiving. Despite the blare of television commercials and media reports from area shopping malls, we are choosing a quiet day of puttering around the house with vague plans for an afternoon movie. I am enjoying this calm and thinking about our dinner last night with friends.

At some point in our feast, between our non-traditional Thanksgiving Ceasar salad and Rita’s amazing stuffing, my partner asked “so what was the best thing about this year for everyone?” As we went around the table, each sharing a bit of gratitude and anticipation for the year ahead, I was reminded of the power of simple appreciation. The things we named—weathering a relationship rough patch and feeling hopeful; happy for abundant client work and interesting projects; excitement about creative energy in a new collaboration, and simply being able to create the space to share a decadent meal in the midst of it all—became a bit brighter in the claiming.

It is so simple, and perhaps a bit new-agey, yet has played out again and again in my experience: what we focus on becomes our reality. As we drove home, completely satiated and a bit over-indulged, I felt the opportunities and generative core each of us tapped guiding us. How nice that we take at least one day a year to slow down enough to notice this. And even nicer that we can choose to do it whenever we feel our vision of possibilities flagging.