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.

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: www.claudiasuraga.se


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.

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.