I just finished reading a new book about my research subject. I was so excited when I found this book. A whole book written by serious researchers dedicated to play and creativity! The introduction promises that the book will shed light on how play promotes creativity in organizations. Sounds great. That is precisely my area of research.
The introduction is informative, and is perhaps the best part of the book. The book’s first half covers animal research, this is unsurprising because the authors are biologists. Although the animal research might be interesting for biologists if fails to link those findings to anything that might interest those of use who want to apply play in organizations. The authors keep mentioning that later chapters will get to the organizational aspects of play.
The second half of the book is disappointing. Anecdotal evidence and stories about Einstein are not enough. The authors do not seem to have bothered searching for any of the recent studies on human play and creativity or on organizational playfulness. This is surprising since they did such a good job on reporting everything about animal play. I could not find any references to studies done on adult playfulness, and play at work. Such a shame. The short chapters on drugs, humor and dreaming are unfortunately not that interesting either.
I know that I sound very negative, and I may have expected too much from the so promising title and description of the book. I would still however recommend the book to anyone interested in animal play, but if you want to learn about how play facilitates organizational creativity and innovation you will have to look elsewhere.
CIO magazine interviewed Stuart Brown for the article How Play at Work Can Lead to IT Innovation. Here are the first two points: What is play, compared to brainstorming or innovating?
Play is directed by the player and you’re not anxious or grinding toward some outcome. There’s improvisation potential and it takes you out of time and gives pleasure. It might feel purposeless. Getting into that state opens up a lot of avenues for innovation and creativity, but incorporating play in the workplace is not always easy. It often seems antithetical to productivity and responsibility. Why should we play at the office?
There’s a sense of exploration, a search for novelty, an engagement. From these outcomes, you see increased mastery and skill, increased perseverance and lots of good byproducts–preparation for the unexpected and flexibility and adaptability when something unforeseen heads your way.
During my semi-regular sloppy search for interesting articles on play at work I found three recent news articles about play. Could this be the beginning of the play revolution?
The Globe and Mail (Canada): a short article that describes how we as adults feel the need to justify everything we do in terms of them being instrumental or beneficial in some way “… our days are spent in utilitarian tasks, dominated by instrumental thinking – doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for something else. [Whereas] in its pure form, play has no external purpose or reward. We play just to play.”
CNN’s article Goofing off on company time? Go for it is about how innovation driven companies want to get their oftern young talents to play more, but that it is ends up being a question of getting senior management to be the first to lean into play. ” It up to management to change that perception [that it is wrong to play at work.] One manager says “It has been a problem for many employees because they may feel that the idea ‘play’ is just given lip service by management. Knowing it’s required is the only way this works. And the only way this happens is for senior staff to lead by example. Top down. If you have a ping-pong table, but don’t play, your … employees will not play.”
I just read a great article and want to share! This post consists of exerts from an interview with Ross Smith, (Microsoft Corporation) in recent article in The American Journal or Play
How can games build trust and inspire innovation?
The ability to innovate is a key component of successful companies; innovation requires experimentation and risk taking; and creating a cul- ture of risk taking is difficult. It is insufficient to encourage or command employees to take risks. Organizational culture must support employees who experiment. Many organizations claim they want employees to take risks, but performance-evaluation systems reward only success—or even worse—penalize and punish employees who experiment, fail, and learn. Risk taking and other behaviors that support innovation—freedom to fail, willingness to collaborate, and experimentation—all require significant organizational trust.
So game play is key to building trust, and trust is key to inspiring innovation?
Yes. In his classic work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Johan Huizinga calls play “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensively and utterly” (p. 38). Using productivity games and play in the workplace is a successful technique to build organizational trust and, by extension, create a culture of innovation. Game play can provide structure and rules to support experimentation, risk taking, and failure. It’s hard to fail at work, but it’s culturally acceptable to lose the game. In Man, Play, and Games, Roger Caillois says that “play is essentially a separate occupation, carefully isolated from the rest of life, and generally is engaged within precise limits of time and place. There is a place for play: as needs dictate, the space for hopscotch, the board for checkers or chess, the sta- dium, the racetrack, the list, the ring, the stage, the arena, etc. Nothing that takes place outside this ideal frontier is relevant” (p. 6).
The “place for play”—or magic circle as some people call it—for members of an organization is a place to learn trust-building behaviors. Experimenting with new ways of working is acceptable within a game—in a place for play. If things don’t go well, the game is, as Huizinga suggests, outside ordinary life and not serious. Games offer a framework to support risk taking and experimentation, and in a game, someone can learn new skills by trying them out on their own. If they fail, well . . . OK, they lost the game, but there was no long-term impact, no risk to their careers. They just played a game. If I’m a computer programmer, I probably won’t ask my manager for permission to take a class in marketing, even if that’s my passion. I might spend hours in my spare time making marketing videos and showing them to no one, or posting them anonymously on YouTube. However, if you put together a game for the best ad campaign submission, I might be the top contributor.
Can you give us other instances where games are better than other means for using employee skills?
Yes, there are two workplace scenarios where games are, in my opinion, better than other techniques. The first is in areas where employees can develop or expand skills that help with regular work. The second is in areas such as organizational citizenship where new skills might help the team but are not part of the regular job. By adding games and game elements, we can make both types of training more attractive and more rewarding, thereby encouraging and attracting effort.
Are there other ways in which games solve problems better or more effi- ciently than traditional management methods?
Games are excellent at attracting volunteer effort—encouraging organi- zational-citizenship behaviors (OCBs). OCBs are best thought of as going above and beyond the call of duty—things individuals can do to help the organization be a better place. A simple example is cleaning the coffee pot before people leave for the day. It’s a task that helps the organization— makes a better workplace—but requires some effort from someone. From a game-theory perspective, there’s a condition known as the volunteer’s dilemma—where any single individual can offer personal time to solve a problem or anyone can take a free ride. Everyone benefits from anyone’s willingness to volunteer, so using game mechanics to invite participation solves the issue and improves the quality of life in the organization while— most importantly—making everyone feel good about it. Games and game mechanics motivate players to make an effort towards a goal, and the orga- nization benefits.
As I mentioned earlier, we have learned that games are also incredibly successful at encouraging risk taking. The rules of the game are different from the rules of the organization. The stakes in a game are much lower than those in the workplace. Games are by definition voluntary, so whether players decide to take risks in the game or not doesn’t matter in the context of work. People are less fearful of losing (or not winning) a game than they are of failing at work.
What impact do games have at work—for example, do they create greater uniformity, or do they expand creativity?
I believe they expand creativity. Just as play helps kids pretend, experiment, and learn skills they will use later in life, games in the workplace help build a culture that is ripe for creativity and innovation. Again, I think it comes down to risk taking and a freedom to fail, which games and play facilitate. In 1996 about six years after he published his famous book on flow, Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book on creativity. In it, he talks about the influence of environment on creative capacities and how many cultures—from the Chinese sages to the Hindu Brahmins to the Christian monks—sought out places of natural beauty in which to create. He goes on to talk about the influence of the macroenvironment—the broader context in which people work—ancient Athens, the Arab cities of the tenth century, Florence in the Renaissance, Venice in the fifteenth century, and so on. Obviously, we don’t operate at that level, but I’d like to believe that the spirit of freedom, fun, and whimsy surrounding our application of productivity games contributes to a creative atmosphere.
You said earlier that low-trust work environments discourage risk taking and innovation. Are there similar costs in a play-deprived environment?
The costs of a play-deprived environment are challenging to identify. We have data on cost savings resulting from introducing games and play into some of our business processes, but I don’t know if we could assume our experience would transfer to all environments. There are certain areas where games work well, and so depriving those areas of play and games could result in missed savings. An area that’s easy to quantify is employee morale and retention. On teams that encourage play and games, people generally enjoy their work more. Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow—a state where people move so deeply into their task that nothing else seems to matter—is more likely when play is present. People do better work when they are happy, engaged, and motivated, and play and games can increase the likelihood that people enjoy their work.
So, then, you equate the play-averse workplace with the risk-averse work-place?
For two reasons, yes. First, since play is typically unstructured and optional, a workplace willing to entertain the idea of play is, by default, willing to take risks. Just being open to the introduction of play at work implies a tolerance for risk. Second, and most importantly, play can provide a loose structure for experimentation and risk taking, so an organization that is averse to play, games, or fun does not offer the flexibility of outcome or tolerance for imperfect results. An organization that is amenable to play is likely to be a high-trust organization willing to show tolerance for experimentation and for provisional and imperfect results and, therefore, have creative behavior and innovative breakthroughs.
Finally, what is your fondest hope for the future use of play and games in the workplace? How would you like to see play and work grow to more closely resemble each other?
I believe productivity games will be viewed as a business process—a twenty-first-century business management strategy—and applied widely across a variety of industries. We’ve already seen more companies start to pilot the use of game mechanics as part of their work, and with the success of social games, it’s only natural that games and play will perme- ate the workplace over the next few years. There are distinct areas where games work tremendously well in the modern organization, and there’s an opportunity for everyone to start experimenting. The future world of work will be a better place by incorporating play and games as part of the daily experience.
Jag har just börjat läsa boken Homo Ludens av den Holländske historiken J. Huizinga som publicerades 1944. Det är roligt att läsa något så gammalt som fortfarande känns acktuellt. Texten är mycket kompakt och ibland svårläst vilket är långt ifrån de luftiga lättläsa managementböckerna eller alla böcker jag har läst om kreativitet. Jag känner mig oerhört intellektull och akademisk med boken i handen… Jag kommer säkert att skriva mer ifrån boken när jag tagit mig igenom den. Till att börja kommer nu hans definition av lek:
Lek är frivillig, det är frihet.
Lek är inte på riktigt eller verkligt.
Lek skiljer sig från det riktiga livet både i tidomfång och rum.
Lek skapar ordning, är ordning. Lek kräver regler.