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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”.




Playful work environment enhances creativity

I’ve been busy writing a chapter for an academic Handbook of creativity… it isn’t that much fun to write because it has to “meet academic standards” but it will hopefully be god for my academic career…. anyway here is the introduction:

When we are at work we ought to be at work. When we are at play we ought to be at play. There is no use trying to mix the two. The sole object ought to be to get the work done and to get paid for it. When the work is done, then the play can come, but not before.  – Henry Ford

According to the above quote from Henry Ford’s memoir My Life and Work from 1922, play was certainly not acceptable behavior in his factories. The Puritan work ethic, embraced by industrialists, has been blamed as the strongest and longest lasting anti-play movement. Sutton-Smith (1997) recounts that play was more prevalent during the pre-industrial Middle Ages where time for playful festivals was a substantial part of life. He argues that play became the enemy of organized factory work during the industrial revolution. Could it be that as we move further away from the industrial era that play is welcomed back into the workplace?

Play may be making a comeback, becoming less unwelcome in the workplace. Newspapers recently reported that office workers in cities around the world were engaged in Post-it wars. In these “wars” offices competed to create the best and most advanced artwork made of colorful Post-it notes on their windows. The mosaics of Post-it notes depicted anything from video game figures to monsters, and the silly pictures served no apparent purpose other than to have fun. The creation of the ‘artwork’ and the ensuing ‘wars’ are an excellent example of play in the workplace. Management of some of the warring organizations viewed taking time out from work for childish arts and crafts as a waste of time; the use of office paper supplies in such a way as wasteful, and ultimately saw the playful behavior as a productivity loss. Other organizations encouraged these wars and saw value in the playful behavior and thought that it was beneficial for employee creativity.

I think it is obvious that the organizations that encourage the frivolous play also enjoy a much healthier and more creative climate than the nay-sayers.

A few lines from the article I wrote on my latest study

The informants indicate that play is intentionally used in organizational contexts to increase creativity, and is thought to do so by fostering openness, intrinsic motivation and building collaborative relationships. The ambiguity of play made definitions difficult. The practitioners described play interventions that take many different forms, yet all share a fun-seeking behavioral approach, which is consistent with recent investigations on the nature of adult playfulness (Barnett, 2011).
Functions of play. The informants in our study claim that play facilitates creativity by exercising an attitude of non-judgement amongst team members. Being non-evaluative during the initial stages of the creativity process, and showing support for the unrefined ideas of others has been shown to improve ideation in groups (Camacho & Paulus, 1995; Kohn, Paulus, & Choi, 2011). Organizational research has for more than two decades stressed the need for organizations interested in promoting creativity and innovation to actively promote experimentation and exploration (March, 1991), our results suggest that play facilitates these organizational behaviors. Since play is separated from the real world, risks can be taken with minimal consequences, reducing fear of failure. Exploration in organizational contexts requires that business or organizational objectives temporarily be relaxed, something that playful activities may exercise and promote. An organizational climate that encourages frivolous play is likely to be conductive to many of the contexts that foster creativity and innovation (Ekvall, 1996). By exercising mental flexibility, play may facilitate creativity-relevant cognitive processes such as divergent thinking, problem framing, and mental transformations (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006).
In the study, engaging and energizing effect of play was something that most of the practitioners mentioned as one of the key reasons for including play in their organizational work. As a behavioral approach to a task, a playful attitude increases positive affect, which has been shown by numerous studies to increase creativity (Davis, 2009). Play may also increase intrinsic motivation, which creativity research has found to be important (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). The engaging and energizing impact of play are in many ways analogous to the concept of flow, both play and flow share an autotelic nature, doing an activity for the sheer enjoyment of it (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Play enhances flow by superimposing challenge onto otherwise unchallenging work tasks.
Our results suggest that play facilitates creativity by increasing psychological safety in groups. Play may also be instrumental in establishing a spirit of collaboration in work groups across the organizational hierarchies. These findings are in line with the research that recognizes the importance of psychological safety for creative performance (Paulus, Dzindolet, & Kohn, 2012).
 Encouragers and discouragers. This study is the first to investigate how play interventions are encouraged or discouraged in the workplace. External consultants, and perhaps more importantly, senior management can, according to our informants, promote play by explicitly giving the permission to play, this is ideally done both with verbal instructions and by designing the workplace or training facilities to be physically playful. Many innovative organizations have fun offices or playful meeting rooms which contextually cue a playful environment. The permission to play can be enhanced when senior management also models playfulness by demonstrating their playfulness, in line with Bandura’s theory of social learning (1977).
Our model supports the earliest play scholars Huizinga (1955) and Caillois (1961) who outlined play as bound by structure and rules. Practitioners found that constraints or rules increase participation because individuals feel more secure within the boundaries of a game, or structure of an activity. As noted by some practitioners, neglecting the matching of play and prospective players can lead to failure, in this regard a key encourager of play is to make some effort to match the type of play to the character of the group when introducing play activities.
Competition and making play serious was controversial amongst practitioners. It is possible that in some situations, play involving strong elements of competition may act as a discourager, but when done in a fun and including manner, the engaging boost gained by competition may generally outweigh the eventual negative effects. The level of seriousness with which play is introduced was also controversial amongst practitioners. Purposely weakening the frivolousness of play to adapt it to result-oriented organizational contexts, may sometimes be necessary, but as some of the interviewed practitioners and researchers have warned, this may risk undermining the autotelic nature of play (Sörensen & Spoelstra, 2011). Although the idea of playing at work to enhance organizational creativity is an alluring promise to make, play utilized too instrumentally to meet organizational objectives may undermine the light-hearted core of play.
Practitioners found that high levels of stress in the workplace discouraged playfulness. Similarly, creativity researchers have found that stress and daunting deadlines dampens workplace creativity (Amabile, 1996). Play and creativity share the same enemy of stress. However, play may relieve stress; scholars of organizational psychology have argued that play may reduce stress as a temporary diversion from stressful work tasks (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006). When functioning as stress-reducer, play would likely have a positive effect on creative performance in the workplace.
One of the discouragers of play, mentioned by practitioners, was found to be an organizational culture of dreadful seriousness, where in addition to a lack of permission to play or any modeling of play, the organizational climate frowns upon demonstrations of playfulness. This climate is not only detrimental to play and creativity (Ekvall, 1996), but also misguided. As the grandfather scholar of play Huizinga concluded: “seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness”(1955 p. 45).

Slide for fun at work

Check out these awesome slides. I wish I had a slide from the top floor of the psychology building to the basement (where I work). This is a great example of play at work. I remember a while back that a photo of Google’s offices in Switzerland had a small (compared to the slides in this photo) slide, and this is the first time I’ve seen workplace slides for adults since that Google-slide.

This mega-slide is apparently from Singapore Airport. Any clients in Singapore who want me to do a creativity or play workshop or something similar? I am willing to negotiate the price. Contact me ASAP.

Playing at work: professionals’ conceptions of the functions of play on organizational creativity. 

I finally submitted my first article to a cool peer-reviewed journal. Excitedly waiting the reviewers response…

Playing at work: professionals’ conceptions of the
functions of play on organizational creativity. 

Samuel West, Eva Hoff, Ingegerd Carlsson
Department of Psychology, Lund University

The notions of creativity consultants on how play promotes workplace creativity was investigated. Play is often used by creativity trainers to promote creative performance. Seventeen experienced professionals were interviewed. The informants considered play to facilitate group creativity by increasing the openness, intrinsic motivation and collaboration. Play was discouraged by a stressful, fun-phobic organization and when play was non-voluntary. Play was encouraged by permission to play, that leaders demonstrated playfulness, a certain degree of structure and that the activity was matched to the group. The use of competition and seriousness in play was controversial. A tentative model of play for organizational creativity was developed.

Key words: play, playfulness, innovation, organizational creativity, creativity training