Permission to Play

The following is a summary of my most recent study. The author is innovation consultant Claudia Suraga who is better presented here:


Few people familiar with corporate innovation are unaware of Google’s 20% rule. It states that one fifth of the time of the work week can and, in fact, should, be devoted to the development of new ideas. These should be aligned with what one believes would be of value for Google Inc, and has rendered the company not only a reputation of being one of the best at innovation; it has also set free the mind of the company’s coworkers. At a closer glance, this might seem a little peculiar. Is that all it takes? Some free time to do whatever you deem Google-fit, and then innovation will show its creative face?

Now there might be (and most probably is) a lot more to it in terms of culture and a history of innovations; perhaps a strategy, a feeling originating from the founders, a common corporate mindset, and all that other very important stuff that would make business and creativity researchers spend decades trying to capture the essence of what makes Google tick. But if we drop all that for a sec, and only focus on those famous 20%; that narrow scope alone gives us a clue of what innovation is all about.

“This is also where Google’s “20% time” comes in — if you want innovation, it’s critical that people are able to work on ideas that are unapproved and generally thought to be stupid. The real value of “20%” is not the time, but rather the “license” it gives to work on things that “aren’t important”. ”

Paul Buchheit, creator and lead developer of gmail
The creator of gmail clearly and distinctively catches the very soul of the 20% – it’s about freedom, and the license, or permission. Now how about that? Strange it seems, to be given freedom, as if this was something taken from us as we enter into our professional roles. If this is the case, who is taking it?

The blunt and somewhat annoying answer is: we are. Concentrating on getting things done, it seems, has left us efficient and executive, but limited our capacity for innovation. With the 20%, we are given back something that originally belongs to us. Used properly, this is the thing that is of most value to the corporations we join: our free spirit, our independent thinking, and the capacity to create. The permission of the 20% reminds us of this; it reinstates the full space needed for us to unfold our potential, and gives us the humble opportunity to be ourselves, our full selves.

Samuel West, creativity researcher at the psychology department at Lund University in Sweden, has included this phenomenon in his latest article on the relevance and importance of play at work, studying play as facilitator of workplace creativity. Permission to play, in his work, is one of four encouragers for creativity in the workplace; the other three being Setting an Example, Structure and Matching (the latter referring to tuning in adequately to the group to set an appropriate level for the play). An interesting observation, penetrating the core of the Google reference, is the one he makes about Structure, in which he quotes one of the interview respondents of the study as follows:

The structure of the game allows the participants to feel safe in that they know what to do and what to expect, however once they have gotten started, they start to ignore the rules and create new ones.

As our more creative ideas silently linger on the side of to do-lists of daily operations, like the forgotten children of priority, they never really get the chance to show their true selves. A permission to create, to innovate, to play, is their cue; a chance to rise to their potential, show us what they’ve got. Usually, this neglected side of us doesn’t get much room to play; no time, and no space. It gets lost and forgotten, which is why permission is a form of revival button. As we push it, something happens. Mildly at first, we try out this new territory, once so familiar to our younger selves, now a stranger. But as we get reacquainted, and the structure that West has brilliantly grasped the quintessence of, starts its supporting; we regain confidence. And at one magic point, we transcend into a state where structure changes from support function, to milestone function. It is no longer used to hold us up, it is used to let us go farther, to let go of the rules and to break, remodel and ignore them.

This process, as West is quick to point out, can be triggered only if the level of play is matched with the character of the participants. Responsiveness to guidance from management or a consultant, the preferred rationality in the play, and the level of “crazy”, should be carefully considered and monitored. A well- prepared session can elevate the group to wonderful levels as quickly as an ill-prepared can seriously backfire and significantly delay the positive effects. The ‘cure’ for this, or at least the accelerator to get things started, is the modeling of senior management of wanted behavior, setting an example, signaling that play is OK.

Hard core number crunchers may raise their eyebrows in sheer confusion of what this play thing has to do with business. How about business value and the effect on bottom line results? Legitimate questions, especially when we are dealing with multibillion dollar conglomerates whose sole existence depend on the crude market forces of demand and supply. Play? What for? This is serious stuff that we are dealing with, there’s no room for play here. Right?

Not so fast. A dear friend of mine, professor Alf Rehn, means it’s all relative. He claims that the matters of fun, seriousness and business can be viewed differently depending on how we attach meaning to it. He writes:

At the very core of social being lies the fantastic human capacity to imbue almost anything with meaning, no matter how insignificant the thing in itself may seem. People have killed and died over things such as stamp collections, cartoons, the number of Michelin stars that a restaurant holds, and so on. Seriousness, in this way, is not something essential pre-existing in the world, but rather something we fill the world with. However, much of business studies seems to think that concepts such as utility and need are given, and that frivolity is something that it does not need to bother itself with.

The existence of play, as West explores in his article, in concurrence with Rehn’s statements, is not that common in organizations, and when it happens, it is seldom easy to define; it is more of a feeling, seemingly a state of mind or an approach. How are we to grasp it fully? And how – if possible at all – could this be linked to explicit results? Should it even?

West explains the functions of play with three concepts: openness, intrinsic motivation and building collaborative relationships. As concepts are described in full text paragraphs, I cannot help but to play with them, establishing some dimensions. In my own approach, based on West’s findings, dimensions with a spectrum ranging from individual effects on one end, and group effects, respectively, appear. The schematic sketch below shows the model of my mind.

Figure 1. A plausible explanation of West’s functions of play

Although these dimensions are not explicitly stated in West’s analysis of the collected data, they can be found somewhat implicitly. My choice of putting them up like this is with the purpose to shed some light on both the individual and the group. West’s research draws no specific lines between the two, although this could render an interesting discussion. Visible under the surface in West’s article are features in a continuum rather than in two different boxes. As the text presenting the results unfolds, West firmly guides us through a landscape where group and individual play interacts and interferes with one another, but his writings would benefit from some additional clarification of individual and group perspectives. It is the psychological safety gained by each individual that builds up to the courage to break hierarchal barriers in a larger group. It is the mental flexibility that expands in each participant to the point where non-judgment is fully exercised, through the allowance to make mistakes. This equilibrium intertwining both the individual and the group is what makes play work; it is the feeling and the mindset I wrote about earlier, broken down into pieces and examined thoroughly and extensively. This interplay is important, and under a magnifying glass, it would add another dimension to West’s otherwise excellent piece.

Looping back to that imagined demanding number cruncher, this exploration might render a deeper understanding for play as a qualitative phenomenon, and we might sense that there is something of value here, but for a quant junkie, that just won’t do for satisfaction. And in this case, unfortunately, probably nothing will. Just the mere effort of trying to attach results to play activities could disrupt the actual potential of generating those results in the first place. West refers to this as one of the major controversial elements in his report – making play serious. As some of his empirical sources state, results oriented efforts can both stimulate play and make participants engage more when they understand the link to the business. In other instances, the opposite is true, where players will refrain from playing if the connection to results is stressed too much. Knowing the difference is the tricky part.

In the vicinity of business and results lies competition, another controversial element of West’s. Opposing views on whether to add competitive elements split groups into two, but with slightly different views on the type of competition that could be beneficial. A striving towards a purpose is seen as motivating, but a right/wrong approach to the same to a lesser extent so. Both this controversial element of competition and making play serious is interesting, because it emphasizes the contextual dependencies of what works and what doesn’t work. As it is easier to adhere to the one way pointing encouragers, the controversial elements must be calibrated even more carefully to get the most out of play activities.

Before taking a concluding look at West’s proposed model, a short insight into the discouragers of play is in place. West mentions three discouragers explicitly: a fun-phobic culture, non- voluntary play and stress. The non-voluntary part harmonizes well with the freedom previously dealt with, associated with the permission to play aspect: built into the concept of permission to play, is also the permission not to play. This reduces stress associated with the specific activity of play, and opens up an exit for those who wish not to engage in play of any kind. Just knowing that there is such an exit, or emergency break, seems to make participants more keen to get involved – there’s always a way out, which makes it nice to stay in. The final discourager – a fun-phobic culture – relates to strict and sober organizational cultures, with difficulties to identify with any part of the induced play. Such organizations seem to rely on seriousness in a dominating way; hence penetration of play is hard.

Through the classification of encouragers and discouragers derived from his interviews, West is able to produce a novel approach to play interventions in the workplace. The proposed model sketches out the beginning of a possibly powerful map of how play can be used, and how to navigate through its different dimensions to get the most out of it. In its current form, the proposed model opens the door to a plethora of research opportunities, as well as more practical approaches suitable for consultants and other practitioners.