The importance of being playful

There are dangerous consequences of labelling play as unprofessional, say professors Mark Dodgson and David Gann.

by Mark Dodgson and David Gann
Last Updated: 03 Oct 2018
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As children, we all learn through play. It is the way we test and stretch our abilities, it teaches us to cooperate with others, and it is how we learn about competition and rules. Being able to play is also a crucial element of professional work.

We once learned of a senior engineer in IBM who insisted on turning up to meetings as a rabbit. Many might question her professionalism. While it might be diverting to liven up your meetings by attending as a greyhound or a bee (or whatever best represents your objectives), it could get out of hand (too many snails?).

The fact is the engineer was being entirely professional. Her meetings were held in a virtual world, and were part of a major initiative in IBM to understand the nature and potential of new technology.

She was playing by exploring new futures, an essential way of dealing with the pervasive uncertainties confronting all employees and organisations. Our studies show play has serious intent, and delivers the outcomes many organisations strive for, increasing creativity, innovation and learning. It is fun, but it isn’t frivolous.

Simply put, play underlies the experiments we need to find a path in a turbulent world, and underpins the adaptation that everyone needs to move along that path. At the same time it is an opportunity for people to express themselves and their ideas while also being enjoyable and fulfilling.

When we started examining the virtues of play we thought we’d test it out with two of the hardest-headed corporate leaders we knew. Expecting pushback, what we actually got was a welcoming of the ideas, based on the realisation that play had been central in the initial success of their companies, but as they had grown they had forgotten how to do it. They believed their organisations were becoming stale and unimaginative, and therefore open to disruption. They wanted to invigorate their companies’ creativity and judicious tolerance of risk, and attract and retain talented people welcoming of innovation and change.

Everyone is playful in some way, and we can all learn to become more playful. Our research shows how professionals and the organisations in which they work benefit from playfulness. Play enhances the ability to adapt and change in the face of a changing work environment, and can be encouraged and supported.

In our book The Playful Entrepreneur: How to Adapt and Thrive in an Uncertain World, we find four key behaviours underlie play. Fortitude is the resilience, tenacity and patience to see things through when the going gets tough. Ambition provides a strong focus on achievement and a desire to meet the expectations that one has for oneself. It also features a concern to contribute to the community and give back to society in various ways. Craft is the ability to meld solutions to problems, often in the face of contradictory evidence. It is how skill, expertise and intuition is merged with expectation and intent. Grace is the ability to build empathy and loyalty amongst those around you and the display of generosity and warmth.

In the 4th century BC, Plato wrote that life should be lived as play. It is certainly highly rewarding, and life would be very boring without it. We believe more play needs to be brought into work. Leaders need to encourage it, giving employees permission to get excited about new ideas, being more tolerant of failure (provided lessons are learned), and fighting the obstacles that restrict it. Workplaces need to be more playful, providing spaces for playing as well as thinking and doing. They need to simulate conversations and the creative abrasion that occurs when people from different backgrounds play together.

Because play provides the freedom to explore and realise imaginative new futures, and is satisfying and fun, it is an essential component in the future of professional work. In today’s volatile environment, it is important to explore and share lessons on how people and organisations can play more.

Mark Dodgson is professor of Innovation Studies at the University of Queensland Business School. Professor David Gann is Vice-President (Innovation) at Imperial College London, and chair of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Their book The Playful Entrepreneur: How to Adapt and Thrive in an Uncertain World, is published by Yale University Press, 2018.

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