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Organizations NEED a Technology of Foolishness

March (1976) argued that organizations need a “technology of foolishness’’ to counteract the prevailing standard mode of operation that involves an over-reliance on what he called “the technology of rationality.” While appreciating the undeniable benefits of organizational rationality, March identified its limitations and argued that organizations in certain situations need to supplement this rationality with foolishness. A technology of foolishness allows organizations to suspend organizational objectives, exposing themselves to new experiences, and different perspectives which enables organizational members to experiment and discover. However, this sensible foolishness requires the explicit permission to behave less consistently and less goal oriented.

According to March (1976), the technology of rationality is based on the primacy of rationality, that the appropriateness of action is determined by to what extent the action relates to pre-determined organizational objectives. A technology of rationality presupposes purpose for action, that action is directed by preexisting goals. This rational approach maintains that organizational actions should be a result of a preexisting set organizational objectives, and should be derived from a solid understanding and consideration of expected outcomes and future consequences. Acting rationally, organizations do not take action based on intuition, revelation or emotion or with ambiguous goals and unknown outcomes. Rational action begins with clear goals based on existing preferences and values, and a preexisting understanding of the world. These assumed static goals guide data collection and insight, on which actions based on the expected results are then chosen.

In contrast, the technology of foolishness accepts that, rather than being predetermined, purpose can also be of a transitional nature and emerge from action. Sometimes actions need to precede purpose. The technology of foolishness encourages ambiguity and fluidity of action; as opposed to insisting on consistency and prediction. The technology of foolishness also allows organizations to relax the primacy of functional rationality, to temporarily suspend logic, reason, and intentionality, and promote an openness to new actions, objectives and understandings.

March (1976) argued that society heavily rewards consistent rationality. Influential members of society such as organizational leaders therefore have a powerful overlearning of rationality. This emphasis of rationality inhibits development. To overcome this position, organizations need to encourage experimentation and the experience of doing things for which there is no rational reason. Asking how organizations might escape the logic of reason, March proposed playfulness as a feasible alternative. Outlining play as a temporary, but deliberate relaxation of rules, it allows for exploration of behavior and knowledge that does not fit the standard rational mode of operation. Play relaxes the ordinarily strict insistence on purpose and predefined outcomes, and enables organizational members to act irrationally in order to explore alternatives. He argued that playfulness is an instrument of organizational intelligence which is grossly overlooked by organizational leaders.

In a later article building on the previous ideas, March (1991) explained that organizations need to balance exploitation with exploration (which includes organizational play):
Exploration includes things captured by terms such as search, variation, risk taking, experimentation, play, flexibility, discovery, innovation. Exploitation includes such things as refinement, choice, production, efficiency, selection, implementation, execution. Adaptive systems that engage in exploration to the exclusion of exploitation are likely to find that they suffer the costs of experimentation without gaining many of its benefits. They exhibit too many undeveloped new ideas and too little distinctive competence. Conversely, systems that engage in exploitation to the exclusion of exploration are likely to find themselves trapped in suboptimal stable equilibria. As a result, maintaining an appropriate balance between exploration and exploitation is a primary factor in system survival and prosperity. (March, 1991, p 71)

Many, especially large bureaucratic organizations lack the technology of foolishness (and its playfulness) and when it does exist they find it difficult to manage (Sarasvathy & Dew, 2005). The concepts of exploration and technologies of foolishness offer a useful theoretical framework to both understand the importance of organizational play and how it may be assimilated into organizational theory.

Play enhances creativity. A brief overview of the research.

Research in organizational psychology has established play as a powerful enhancer of creativity. Playfulness has been identified as an essential aspect of a creative organizational climate and an encourager of a creative and innovative work environment. (Ekvall, 1996; Starbuck & Webster, 1991; Deal & Key, 1998; Costea, Crump, & Holm, 2005; Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006; Statler, Roos, & Victor, 2009; Chang, 2011). Experimental research suggest that play triggers a shift towards a creative state of mind and directly benefits creative performance. The following are some examples of playful activities that have in peer-reviewed articles been reported to boost creativity:

• Playing silly meeting games. (West, Hoff & Carlsson, 2015)
• Temporarily imagining oneself as a child. (Zabelina & Robinson, 2010).
• Framing work tasks as playful (Glynn, 1994)
• Playing table-top role playing games. (Chung, 2012)
• Playing a physically active video games (Hutton & Sundar, 2010)
• Role play games (Karwowski & Soszynski, 2008)
• Lego blocks in the board room  (Statler, Roos, & Victor, 2009; Statler, Heracleous, & Jacobs, 2011).
• Improvisational theater games (West, 2015)
• Tinkering with art supplies and plastic building blocks (Schulz, Geithner, Woelfel, & Krzywinski, 2015; Nisula, Kallio, Oikarinen, & Kianto 2015).

Research has suggested a number of theoretical mechanisms by which play increases creativity. Playing stimulates mental flexibility by expanding perspectives and practicing the use of imagination. Imagining new information, situations and relationships that are not true in the real world is possible in the imaginary world created by play. (Brown, 2009; Russ, 2011). The frivolousness of play, and the excuse to be spontaneous and silly allows individuals to temporarily let go of prestige and correctness which are obstacles to creativity. (West, 2013). Play allows us to temporarily suspend organizational objectives, encouraging experimentation and exploration. A playful climate also fosters risk-taking mistake-making (Dodgson, Gann & Salter, 2005; West, 2015)

Neuropsychologists have found that play develops novelty and behavioral flexibility in both animals and humans (Bateson & Martin, 2013). Arguing that play is a source of behavioral variety, researchers within organizational psychology have suggested that play promotes creativity by giving employees a legitimate excuse to behave in new ways (March, 1991).

A playful work climate encourages employees to be open for the unexpected by generating a surplus of possibilities and allowing them to operate with indeterminate expectations (Roos, Victor & Statler, 2004). Play also exercises non-judgement and openness to others. In the safe boundaries of play, habitual beliefs can be questioned which facilitates a shift of perspectives (Barry & Meisiek, 2010). Research has also shown the introducing play in workplace meetings enhances the  the experienced creative climate in organizational meetings (West, 2014).

Although not yet well-researched, one interesting theory suggests that the element of playful surprise in workplace meetings may partially explain the how play benefits organizational creativity  (Filipowicz, 2006). Also on an different note, unconventional leader behavior (such as standing on furniture, hanging ideas on clotheslines) has been shown to lead to increased creativity among subordinates (Jaussi, & Dionne, 2003).

Forskning om improvisationsteater (improv) och kreativitet i arbetslivet


” Improvisationsteater är kanske det mest effektiva sättet för att få snurr på idéerna och samarbetet i ett arbetslag eller ett chefsteam. Det visar en ny studie som inom kort publiceras vid Lunds universitet. Enligt resultaten ökar nämligen kreativiteten i gruppen med nästan en tredjedel, när medarbetarna spelar improvisationsteater tillsammans.

– Improvisationsteater går ut på att testa gränser och att våga slänga ur sig obearbetade idéer… ”


Kvalitetsmagasin, Svenska Möten, IKEA och NCC

samuel_west_kvalitetsmagasinBranschtidningen KvalitetsMagasinet uppmärksammade nyligen min forskning om kreativitet och innovation. Och tidningen Svenska Möten skrev också om forskningen kring det ultimata konferensrummet.  NCC Property Management och IKEAs personaltidning Readme (som ges ut på 20 språk!!) skriver båda om min forskning och vikten av lekfullhet på jobbet. KUL!!!!

Inte varit så aktiv att underhålla bloggen den senaste tiden. Mest på grund av att jag håller på avsluta min avhandling, och undervisar på Institutionens för psykologi kursen i Kreativitet. samt har startat företaget SUPERLAB tillsammans med en industri designer och en IT-utvecklare. Och alla föreläsningar och workshops…  Men jag ska skärpa mig!

A great quote about how creativity happens

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
– Steve Jobs

Lek på jobbet

I likhet med tidigare studier på barn och hur lek främjar deras kreativa prestationer har forskare undersökt hur lek påverkar vuxnas kreativitet. Ett exempel på detta är ett experiment som visade hur ett energiskt dataspel där spelare tävlar i dans förbättrade kreativiteten hos unga vuxna. Ytterliggare studier har visat att olika rollspels- och improvisationslekar leder till ökad kreativiteten hos medarbetare.

En annan studie om hur en lekfull inställningen påverkar vår arbetsprestation undersökte hur presentationen av en arbetsuppgift påverkar hur den utförs. Presenterades en utmanande arbetsuppgift som “arbete” fokuserade försökspersonerna på att göra sakerna rätt, på kvantitet och var måna om att jämföra sig med andra i gruppen. Presenterades samma uppgift som “lek” blev deltagarna mer motiverade, fokuserade mer på kvalitet och gjorde mycket mer kreativa arbeten. Så själva inramningen av aktiviteten som lekfull eller som arbete påverkar inte bara kreativiteten, men också arbetskvaliteten och arbetsglädjen under tiden.

Att bara föreställa sig själv som barn verkar aktivera vår lekfullhet och öka kreativiten. I en mycket intressant studie bad forskare sina vuxna studiedeltagare att skriva en berättelse om vad de skulle hitta på om skolan/arbetet var inställd i dag. En grupp fick dock instruktioner att de skulle föreställa sig att de var sju år gammal. Efter skrivuppgiften fick de göra kreativitstester. De personer som hade föreställt sig som sjuåring under skrivuppgiften blev mer kreativa än de som skrev som vanligt. Forskarna tror att processen att tänka på sig själv som ett barn, även under en kortare tid främjar en lekfullt, utforskande och ett kreativt tankesätt.

När det gäller lärande som vuxen så finns det också stöd för att även här hjälper det om man har leksinnet kvar i vuxen ålder. Studier som har tittat närmare på lekfullhet hos vuxna har kommit fram till att en lekfull personlighet leder till bättre skolprestationer hos universitetsstudenter, samt det finns ett starkt samband mellan en lekfull personlighet och psykologisk hälsa och välbefinnande.

Lek och kreativitet
Ett område där lekfullhet verkligen kan tillföra något till arbetslivet är när den används för att främja kreativiteten hos medarbetarna. Genom lek skapas en miljö där nya beteenden kan utformas och testas utan att hotas av kritikens hinder. Du har säkert sett bilder eller reportage från något coolt företag där medarbetarna spelar basket eller pingis på arbetstid eller där kontoren ser ut som en lekplats. Syftet med att föra in leken är först och främst för att släppa loss medarbetarnas kreativitet, att få dem att experimentera och tänka i nya banor.

Idén om att lek främjar kreativitet är inte all ny. Sigmund Freud tyckte att källan till all kreativitet fanns i leken, och hans efterföljare Winnicott ansåg att leken äger rum i gränszonen mellan personens inre värld och den externa verkligheten och att leken därför var central för kreativiteten. I sin omfattande genomgång av forskningen om sambandet mellan lek på jobbet och kreativitet drar forskarna Mainemelis & Ronson 1 slutsatsen att det är i leken som kreativiteten föds.

Swedish companies need more playfulness at work – but are afraid

Recently I have been busy doing workshops and giving talks at conferences here in Sweden, mostly in Stockholm but also closer to home here in Malmö/Helsingborg. It seems as if every company in the country wants to know how they can boost employee creativity by encouraging a more playful work environment. I am thrilled that my research has gotten so much attention, and really enjoy doing the workshops and speaking gigs.

One thing I’ve noticed is that most companies say they value creativity and want to be different, but that they then don’t dare go full out. Typically, when I am contacted by an event organizer or whoever is in charge of booking speakers for the conference or personnel meeting they are initially happy to have found an exciting new subject (play at work) and they really want to hire me to do “something different.” Then, after discussing my suggestions with their bosses they get cold feet and ask me to do something lagom different. Lagom is Swedish for ‘just enough.’ They want a workshop that is different, fun, interesting etc but still traditional. Don’t get too creative…

How crazy can it be?
To avoid misunderstandings I’ve started to ask organizational clients  “How different/crazy do you want it to be on a scale from 1 – 10. 1= normal lecture with powerpoints with a few  discuss-this-with-your-neigbor type activities thrown in. This is of course excruciatingly boring. 10 = it is so far out there that you will refuse to pay my invoice. A surprising number of companies think about it and then reply that a 6 is probably best. Swedish lagom-ness again. Every now and then someone actually requests a 9! Another idea I have is to start charging customers on a sliding scale, those who want regular boring lectures or workshops will be charged double and those who dare into the unknown (crucial for genuine creativity!) will be charged nothing at all. And since I am almost a Swede by now, those who want lagom will of course get charged “just enough”.