From time to time I get incredulous reactions from colleagues and clients to my thesis that business teams have a lot to learn—regarding creativity, passion, independent thinking, and more—from the great rock & roll bands.
Some might say that this trivializes the significant challenges that businesses face. After all, business teams do important work, while musical groups...play.
What business teams frequently lack is a sense of play, or more precisely serious play (which happens to be the title of Michael Shrage’s wonderful classic, written in 2000, on innovation and prototyping). Playful activity—fooling around, trying stuff out, screwing things up—is required for innovative work. Yet in business we also want to be serious (intentional, focused) about it, because there’s always something at stake.
“Our brains are hardwired for play," says entrepreneur Steve Keil. "Evolution has selected over millions and billions of years for play, in animals and humans.” In his TED talk “A Manifesto For Play,” Keil makes an eloquent case for the biological necessity—and business practicality—of play. His talk is directed at his native Bulgarian culture, but the message is universal. (If you can't watch it all, pick it up at the 7:25 mark.)
Rats that play more have bigger brains…Kittens deprived of play are unable to interact socially…Bears that play more survive longer…The more you play the bigger the brain size…Who do you think with the biggest brains are the biggest players? Humans...We play musical instruments, we dance, we kiss, we sing, we just goof around.
Ok, bigger brains. What else?
[Play has] been shown to stimulate nerve growth in the amygdala—an area [in our brain] that controls emotions...We develop more emotional maturity if we play more. We develop better decision-making ability if we play more. These are facts…cold hard science.
Ok, better decision-making. What else?
Play improves our work. For example, it stimulates creativity, it increases our openness to change, it improves our ability to learn, it provides a sense of purpose and mastery...Play doesn’t mean frivolous. The professional athlete that loves skiing, he’s serious about it, but he loves it, he’s having fun, he’s in the groove, he’s in flow...Play increases productivity.
Ok, increased productivity. But how do you apply this to day-to-day organizational life?
A dozen years ago I was coaching a project team composed of key IT and business leaders who had to bring their company into compliance with a recent Act of Congress. Serious stuff, with a lot riding on the outcome.
At their twice-a-month six-hour meetings, the team dove into issues fraught with controversy. Members were outspoken in their disagreements and never shrank from a good argument. Yet the team had decided from the start that this project—unlike most dreary compliance projects—was going to be FUN, including the long meetings!
They did an assortment of crazy things to make the meetings playful—including bringing zany toys, eating fun food, or wearing wild hats (sombreros on one occasion). But the most outrageous feature of the meetings was a five-minute “fun interruption” at the top of every hour. No matter how serious or tempestuous the discussion was at that point, the timekeeper reminded everyone it was game time, and team members would immediately stop what they were doing and gather into two teams to play a short game of “Pictionary.” (Hard to believe this team was working on a high-stakes project, the failure of which would have severe consequences for the entire enterprise!) At the end of the five-minute interlude, members would promptly resume their debate, but with noticeably less strain in their voices.
These diversionary breaks over the course of the meeting (and other playful activities over the life of the project) dissipated excess heat from their disagreements—and frequently stimulated new ideas. (It reminded me of bands I’d known who would do crazy things to keep rehearsals or recording sessions from getting too serious.) Ironically, such wacky behavior, which might be considered unprofessional in many corporate settings, enabled this team to operate more professionally—and productively.
Many of the team members, who moved onto other jobs in the company when this project was finished, considered it the most valuable learning opportunity of their professional career at that point.
When work becomes play, business rocks. (I think Lao Tzu said that. If not, he meant to.)
Another team lesson from rock.
Here's one band that takes play seriously.