A board of directors I worked with had struggled for years to re-envision their sinking mandate, vision and values. They were losing customers, partners, and investors, but perhaps most critically, they were losing hope. In the words of their executive director, their organization was becoming “irrelevant.” This mutual feeling was eroding their trust and confidence in each other. Several attempts at traditional strategic planning coughed up the same old stuff – outdated ideas that stifled the energy and commitment needed to transform their stagnating organization. After many conversations to explore ways to re-ignite the performance of the group, a conclusion was reached: we needed to break historical patterns and engage in serious play.

According to MIT researcher and author Michael Schrage (2000), serious play is not an oxymoron, but the essence of innovation. It is the generation of new knowledge through exploration and experimentation that challenges and breaks the existing rules of the game. Children and animals play for pure enjoyment and through their experience they learn and develop. Designers in creative industries have embraced the concept of serious play as a process technology for product and social innovation. Yet for many organizations where the key focus is on cost, productivity and profit, play is often seen as trivial, frivolous and risky behaviour.

So why does serious play matter in organizations? We need new approaches for adapting, innovating and re-envisioning the future in an increasingly complex and volatile global environment. I would argue that play, creativity and learning are highly integrated, and are the ingredients for vision and innovation. Logic, planning, and analysis from the existing knowledge paradigm can only go so far when the future is shifting and emerging. While the temptation and tendency is to work harder to meet increasing workplace demands for productivity, play offers a way to observe the future from different and shared perspectives. Play is also in relationship – with people or elements in the environment – harnessing knowledge and trust in the larger system.

for many organizations where the key focus is on cost, productivity and profit, play is often seen as trivial, frivolous and risky behaviour

To disrupt the thinking and behaviors holding the group back, we co-designed a day of action learning that engaged the board, the leadership team and representative employees. Through pre-surveys the voices of customers, partners, and investors were included. In teams we projected ten years into the future, creating storyboards showcasing the organization’s powerful success story – shared with the media upon winning international industry awards for innovation and transformative impact. In this process the teams imagined an organization with greater significance in the world. Among the team presentations core ideas emerged that acted as catalysts for dialogue and the development of shared purpose. This generated excitement and “skin in the game” to move forward. In the weeks ahead, a new vision and set of values was designed, and a revitalized strategic plan that generated new partnerships and programs.

It is important to note that this process was not all positive. There were diverse points of view, and some players were asked to leave or left on their own volition when the desired future and commitment were no longer a fit. Many bumps emerged on the road from intention to implementation. This is the challenging nature of change, and the future will be the test of whether this vision is sustainable.

Three themes stand out regarding the value of serious play in organizations:

Theme 1: Play Releases Creative Action

Play brings out our natural passions and strengths, and engages our senses, feelings and thoughts as an integrated package of experience. The freedom to play can unlock our creative capacity, wake people up from predisposed habits, and generate new perspectives and possibilities.

Creativity theorist David Bohm (1998) describes humans as naturally creative beings, and many researchers have found that there are underlying personality traits and skills that enable greater levels of creativity and can be developed. These include: curiosity, passion, flexibility, physical energy, sensing, pattern recognition, non-linear thinking, synthesizing, imagination and discipline. In his book, Creativity: the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (1997), found that creativity connects people to their passion as a source of strength, attracts others and builds relationships, and contributes to growth.

Play can also create conflict if we become aware of information that is different from our current reality. In play we can also experience discomfort taking risk and stretching beyond our current competence. Therefore, change leaders need to create conditions for people to experiment and make mistakes without fear of judgment or punishment.

Theme 2: When we Play We Perform a Head Taller

Play is a way to explore, construct and express both who we are and who we could be. In this sense play, performance and practice are instrumental for learning and development and a means to performing at the next level. When we imagine ourselves in a role we aspire to or having achieved a goal, we are embodying and performing from that perspective. We are essentially living into a new way of being. This perspective comes through research in human development theory, elite athletics, the performing arts, and design methodology. To apply this concept, CEO and performance coach Cathy Salit shares helpful examples and tools in her book, “Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work.”

The group I was working with was performing in new ways together during the activities, that broke historic hierarchical patterns. Power differences and dynamics gave way to a process where everyone contributed. With more voices, perspectives, and experience at the table, the quality of the ideas increased, and a shared purpose emerged. Participants naturally self-selected and took accountability for the areas that resonated for them and moved conversations into action.

Theme 3: Play as Prototyping Complex Solutions

Engaging in creative activity can help give form and meaning to new ideas that may be too complex to conceive logically. The process of play enables something new to take form that participants can then reflect on and interact with. Views from complexity and organizational systems theories suggest that in organizations, players need the freedom to experiment with variables and to self-organize to adapt, learn and perform in relation to their environment.

Psychological research demonstrates that the mind cannot perceive or conceive without form. In this regard, prototypes or artifacts can act as a bridge to give meaning to experience. Consider the importance of sense making in changing conditions that is critical for companies to re-invent themselves. History is littered with casualties of companies that were caught sleepwalking and lacked the capacity to envision the next form of their lifecycle.

The study of form is also a hallmark of design philosophy and principles. In the design process, participants ask themselves:

·         What do we know?

·         What do we care about?

·         What do we commit to?

Design is the act of creating the form of an object, but it is also about people. Design thinking involves a dynamic development cycle of empathy for a particular audience’s needs, definition of intention, expansion of ideas, creating a prototype, testing, adapting and implementing a solution.

Therefore, both the “playful” act of creating a prototype and the prototype itself can be powerful in supporting teams in performing better together, feeling more engaged and committed, and producing value to the organization.

Closing Thoughts: Playing it Forward

There is an aspirational quality to play that can raise us to our better performance and contribution. Play can cause us to stop and wonder, and brings us into the present moment with ourselves and others. When we are invited to play, we relax, suspend our analysis and self-judgment and stretch ourselves into more challenging places.

Play ignites the spirit and frees us to express our better selves.  And this way of leading, learning and performing together can unlock our genius.


About the Author:
Dr. Valerie Nishi is an Associate of The Refinery and principal of Tidewater Leadership.

May 22, 2018 • in Opinion
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