Tag Archives: play at work

How play can lead to IT innovation

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.

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.


What promotes play at work?

Here are some more yet-to-be-published points from my first study of play in the workplace, and more specifically how play is used to promote creativity in the workplace. Many organizational leaders would like to have a more playful work environment, but cannot think of any other way of doing so than to introduce “casual Friday” or other similarly lame ideas. Oh, and a ping pong table in the company cafeteria isn’t going to do much good either. It is not that these ideas are inherently bad, it is mostly that these ideas of play are the leaders ideas of play. And since one of the defining criteria of play is that it is completely voluntary, then forcing employees to do the boss’s idea of play is not ever going to result in anything other than resistance. So, what is a organizational leader to do if he or she wants to make an effort to boost their organization’s playfulness?

Well, it is actually quite simple. Be playful yourself, frequently demonstrate your playfulness, and give employees explicit and implicit permission to play. This is probably the single most effective way to increase playfulness amongst your employees. It is not about telling people to play in a certain way, but rather about encouraging people to bring out their own playfulness in all its various forms.

In my interviews of organizational consultants who use play in their work, all of them stressed the importance of leaders giving ‘the permission to play,’ as well as leaders setting the example. The permission can be both instructions and direct encouragement of play at work. Last week I happened to spot a colorful sign for employees posted in the kitchen at a cafe at the Copenhagen Airport. Amongst the other points like “give good customer service”, “clean hands” was “have a playful attitude, it makes work more fun.” Another way to give the permission to play, is let the physical context signal that this is a creative and playful workplace. It could be some unusual furniture, funny looking lamps, weird decorations, purposely uncomfortable conference room, childish candy… etc etc. Anything that signals, we take our work seriously, but not ourselves too seriously.

What about the less playful, chronically serious employees who never smile and think work is a severely sober place? There is no way to lure out the playfulness of a non-playful individual, it will never work. Ever. They just don’t have it in them. However a work environment that promotes play by implicit and explicit permission along with organizational leaders setting the example by demonstrating their own playfulness will allow the more playful individual’s playfulness to bloom!

From Ridiculous to Brilliant: Why We Play at Work

During one of my semi-regular sessions of searching for new input on play at work or play for creativity I found this talk:

‘The American workplace might be better off if it borrowed some concepts from a typical kindergarten classroom, including bins with toys, and unstructured time with friends. Two partners from IDEO, a global power in design and branding, discuss the importance of play in their creative process, and offer techniques that other organizations could profit from.’

Link to MIT lecture on play for creativity


A little sneak peak at some preliminary results

I am in the middle of analyzing the data (interviews) of my first study on play as a facilitator of creativity. I have interviewed 16 creativity trainers/consultants as well as a few consultants who actually call themselves ‘play trainers’ and openly call what they do play. The more serious creativity consultants call what they do play when speaking with me, but try to call it anything but play when speaking to their clients.

Some random points:
• Play must be well introduced for it to work in a workplace setting. People need to play carefully (careful not to seem silly, careful not to be judged by others, careful to follow the rules) to begin with before they can be encouraged to play more wholeheartedly.
• If the boss doesn’t play – no one else will either. All of my interview subjects mentioned this.
• Play usually involves some sort of physical activity; some movement.
• Play helps open the mind, and creates an open atmosphere where rules can be broken, un-thought ideas can be thought and shared.
• Play needs to be time and space specified, like a game it starts and ends.
• Play is a great way to build social relationships in the workplace. This is also a point almost all of my interviewees mentioned.
• A certain level of psychological safety is required, people need to feel like they will not be judged or negatively evaluated in order to play. However, Dev Patnaik at Jump Associates in California made an interesting point that play is also a great way to establish and build psychological safety.
• All of the Swedish consultants mentioned that how play helps lower prestige in the workplace and how this is critical for creativity and innovation.

I could go on with several more points, but this is what I have gathered so far… I will keep you posted.

My pitch for TEDxÖresund (Copenhagen)

TEDxÖresund May 6th, 2011. Copenhagen, Denmark.
‘The Pitch’

Samuel West, clinical psychologist, creativity researcher Lund University. Most recent book: Konsten att vara kåt på jobbet – en bok om arbetsglädje. (How to be horny at work, horny in swedish also means happy).

I would like to talk about:

Keypoint: We need to bring back play into the workplace!

Banished from school and workplace alike, we have lost our ability to play and have turned to a culture obsessed with effective work. Historically, work and play were more intermingled, yet a century after the Industrial Revolution we have increasingly lost touch with what makes us uniquely human – our ability to continue playing even as adults.

I argue that play is not only fun, it is absolutely necessary for innovation whether it be in business, education, culture or for social change. Play is where creativity and innovation grows. Play fosters social relationships and cooperation, it exercises our ‘creative muscles’ and as a side-effect it also makes work more fun. By allowing us to temporarily suspend reason and reality it frees our mind and allows us to experiment with novel ideas and behaviors that would normally not be permitted. As a state of mind rather than a certain activity, play is an approach to our work and to explore unknown possibilities. Play is a shortcut to hybrid thinking.

Modern business culture vividly celebrates the notions of creativity and innovation (I challenge you to find an organization that doesn’t!) yet it appears a difficult puzzle for most organizations especially large established ones to practice. Although play is the single best way to facilitate organizational creativity it is often blatantly outsourced to external consultants at offsite company events. For an organization or society to value innovation it must value and encourage play more than twice a year. Playing twice a year to aid innovation is like going to the gym twice a year to gain muscle.

Some examples I would love to present:
Region Skåne’s never-ending problem with getting enough people to donate blood. We engaged the Helsingborg community (80 high school students and 80 representatives from business) in a workshop using play to generate new approaches to make donating blood more attractive. The results were amazing!

How nurses at a hospital intensive care unit play the game of “Pimp up my patient”, how they playfully give their very sick patients care above and beyond what they are required to do.

Other examples come from how workplace play can break the often rigid hierarchy in Danish organizations and thus creates a better climate for creativity.