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!
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.
Last week the Psychology Department at Lund University suffered a massive creativity attack. Late in the evening after everyone had left bright orange stickers (the static kind without glue) we placed on the doors of researchers throughout the department. The stickers read in Swedish “Creativity in progress…” No one knew that I was the late night sticker sticking agent. The response was interesting:
Now, a week later many researchers still have their stickers but a surprising number have removed the stickers from their doors. Do these researchers not feel that creativity is essential to science? Or perhaps they are afraid that the super seriousness of their research is threatened by creativity reminders? One researcher had crossed out the work creativity and instead written “methodological analytic work in progress…” Humm. According to Lund University, researchers are suppose to be creative and strive for innovative research – it is the whole point of research. Being scientifically correct is not enough. Researchers have to activly strive for more creativity in order to do innovative research. The sticker-attack has lead to many interesting discussions here at the department. For example about the research trend that the vast majority of research is getting more and more uniform; everyone is doing the same stuff. How exciting is that? To secure their funding researchers are less and less likely to stray from the mainstream and end up doing correct but boring research.
The creativity stickers are in Swedish, but if you would like one contact Samuel West.