Let's play, seriously!

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.)

Some excerpts:

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.

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  1. “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

    “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” - Albert Einstein.

    1. As a part of the structure we set up, a senior manager attended every meeting as the sponsor/champion of the team. He participated in all the discussions (tho he didn't direct the meetings) and in the Pictionary games.

      Btw, I usually advise the senior manager to not play the facilitator role in meetings.

    1. Bosses bossing puts play squarely in the fake zone. "We're going to pretend to let loose and think outside the box, as long as everyone knows you'd still better toe the company line and say 'Yes' when the boss speaks."

      In some places, "brainstorming" means the senior member present expresses their opinion, then the next senior, and down to the peons. You can imagine all the free thinking and open disagreement that breeds.

      If you want line workers and cubicle dwellers to speak freely, upper management should take a trip to Poughkeepsie that day.

      Unless, of course, they have a long established reputation for a true open door open mind policy, and not just the lip service you'll see 99% of the time.

    2. In the client situations I’m involved in—where team members are encouraged to speak their mind, express dissenting views, etc.—a facilitator should be someone without rank, who wields no power except to elicit participation and move the meeting along. For controversial topics, you don’t want the senior gal/guy driving the discussion because in many of those cases, members are less likely to disagree with the leader. You want someone running the meeting who is good at getting others involved in the discussion. That allows the senior person to lay back and hear everyone else in the room (assuming that circumstances and time allow for this). Better for the participants, better for the senior manager.

      Also, meeting facilitator is one of the best leadership development tracks I know of, especially in large organizations. I sometimes encourage the most junior person on the team (assuming the person is organized and can play traffic cop effectively) to be the ongoing facilitator of that team. Women seem to flourish in this role more easily than men, though I’ve trained men to do this.

      Again, this assumes an environment in which conflict is allowed and encouraged. (I won't waste my time in any other environment.)

      I just noticed your response, Joel, as I was typing this up. I agree with the sentiment of course. Sometimes the senior manager is part of the team (as may be the case with an important cross-functional project, like the one above) and needs to be at the meetings, but s/he needs to know how NOT to suppress input from others.

      1. I'm curious how you teach those managers to avoid suppression. I don't waste time preaching to non-believers, but when someone really wants the process to work but all they know is The Old Way, do you teach THEM the skills, or teach the team, or how does that work?

        When you're working at a corporate level like this, most of my experience is with the worst of all worlds, so I'm fascinated by corporate minds who really want good process.

        1. Joel, it is interesting that you seem to allow that "cubicle dwellers" will rise to do great things when they are no longer suppressed by bosses, but 99% of "bosses" (an ugly term in my mind) are constrained to the traditional role as suppressors. What is it, do you propose, that turns otherwise potentially creative, playful, hard working and well intended people into tyrants just because they get into a role which you consider a "boss". Many of the "cubicle dwellers" on the team John is talking about went on to become "bosses" as a result of their success. Should they all be banished to Poughkeepsie?

        2. Joel: it involves a comprehensive approach, ideally—working with the entire company so everyone is operating with the same playbook. Depending on the company, you may have to educate senior leadership in the necessity of developing a bottom-up leadership culture, where front-liners participate in decision-making, where creativity is encouraged and practiced at all levels, where passion and personality are applauded, where independent thinking and dissent are promoted, and where play is an everyday activity. (Not so much an issue with small businesses and startups, but usually a challenge for larger organizations.)

          If it’s a large company you need to understand what the workforce is dealing with and for them to understand what you’re attempting to do, so you should start out by conducting interviews and small group sessions for mutual orientation. (A large workforce is often cynical about any new programs due to failed efforts in the past.)

          Assuming you earn their buy-in, the training can begin. For managers and especially front-line supervisors you may have to upset their hierarchical model of leadership and give them specific tools in coaching, communicating, persuading, mediating, etc. For employees on the floor, shop, or cubicles you give them a variety of leadership and communication tools. (Sometimes employees also need to learn very specific things, like how to understand spreadsheets, give slide presentations, run meetings, or have difficult conversations with peers or managers. A good internal HR/training staff can help with some of this.) Follow-up coaching of managers and employees (which most training firms neglect to do) is absolutely necessary.

          I’m leaving a lot out (I’d have to run a separate blog to cover it) but that’s the gist of it.

          1. That sounds like some of the most fun I could ever have, working with a group that really wanted all that change and just needed the guidance to make it work.

            I have some experience in other aspects of my life with overturning strongly entrenched (but wrong) thinking, and your description feels very familiar.

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